We put so much value into artists’ ability to communicate with words that it becomes easy to overlook the power of gesture when it comes to impactful rap music. How we choose to communicate with our hands separates the poor salesmen from the employees of the month, the brilliant storytellers from the timid public speakers, and the most iconic rappers onscreen from the uncomfortably stiff and awkward (I’m looking at you, Fat Joe).
Visual communication won’t assuredly ruin an MC's career, but an artist who takes the time to develop that skill—or naturally possesses it—can amplify the uneven parts of their verses and enliven their most bland narratives with just their hands. Gesturing can feel tertiary to a good song and an interesting MC, but it is often either the secret sauce to a great rap music video or the unseasoned blemish that ultimately distracts us in a bad music video.
The spectrum of visually gifted rappers differs in how hand gesturing affects their music, though. The worst culprits are often remembered not for singular moments, but for careers spotted with awkward arm swings, fingers that seem to be working independently of the central nervous system, or just nothing memorable at all.
Inversely, the best visual rappers mostly have their signature moments: gestures ingrained in our minds when we think of their most iconic videos. Those gestures either shaped or enhanced our viewing experience, or they felt distinguishable from anything before or after it.
So, without further ado, the best and worst visual orators of all-time…
Worst: Token (Pointing While Rapping)
If you aren’t familiar with Token, a virally prominent rapper out of Massachusetts, then chances are you will be soon enough. Token’s style can be best described as... abrasive. His lyrics and flow usually feel like they’re trying to break the sound barrier in a Honda Civic, and his manic energy in front of the camera is as unrelenting as it is self-serious. On top of it all, Token possesses one of the most grating hand gestures no one is talking about: he points while he raps.
Token’s pointing isn’t into the void or even at the camera, the way most rappers who adopt the same technique often practice. Instead, his gesture involves pointing while he raps as though he’s helping you to follow the words in his verses more clearly. Think of it like his finger is the bouncing ball guiding you through the lyrics, helping your simple mind sound out all the overwritten rhyme schemes and Affliction-sponsored material he apparently assumes you’re too stupid to get.
It’s infuriating not just because it looks pretentious to point at your own words so that we pay attention to their brilliance, but it’s also wildly distracting to see an MC who looks like a five-year-old that won’t stop pressing buttons in the car. As much of a case as you can make for Token being one in a long line of predominately white MCs who have a penchant for this movement, he is the undisputed worst.
Best: Craig Mack (Martial Arts Hands)
Among the many reasons to smile ear-to-ear whenever Craig Mack is played, may he rest in peace, is Mack’s undeniably hypnotic hand waving in his most iconic videos. Massive open hands, fingers and wrists completely rigid, and alternating arm jabs towards the lens, Mack’s style could best be described as a skilled martial arts fighter preparing to break a wooden block in half.
What’s beautiful to watch about Mack’s gesturing is how his hands and arms seem to float perfectly in and out of the frame, only surfacing again at the precise peak of each of his bars. Watching the “Flava In Ya Ear (Remix)” video again, it’s his constant, circular chopping that looks so buttery and intimidating simultaneously; it feels like watching Dr. Strange use his sorcery, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if space and time were bowing to Mack’s will in his finest moments.
Worst: KRS-One (Never Closes His Hands)
For a legendary MC who, it feels like, has 65 or so albums to his name, most of which feel like they were made to sound like a lecture about why you’re a shitty rap fan who doesn’t know anything, it’s strange that KRS-One never developed another gesture besides rapping with his hands open all the time.
I’m not talking about a normal amount of open-handed rapping that seems a little more frequent than other hand movements. I’m saying I’m worried KRS-One may not have been able to shut his hands. Press play on a video like “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know” or “Step Into a World (Rapture’s Delight)” and you'll quickly notice KRS’ humongous hands and fingers are sprawled out and faced down at all times.
Some might describe this gesture as rapping with oven mitts on. Others might say KRS-One looks he’s constantly trying to quiet someone down who’s speaking too loudly. Someone like myself might even venture his hands look like what you do to spread the sheets out when you’re making a bed. Either way, almost three decades worth of rapping with such an odd hand gesture is bad for both KRS-One’s video memorability as well as his blood flow.
Best: Birdman (Hand Rub)
Birdman’s hands were only made to do two things: to rub together ever so smoothly, and to count ridiculous amounts of money. Surprisingly, you could make the case that several other Birdman gestures are even better than the hand rub. His bird call and clap in “What Happened to That Boy” remain mesmerizing to this day. His money-counting finger gestures are just as infectious to those of us who are broke.
It is that hand rubbing, however, that exudes something even more powerful.
Almost as if Birdman’s hands were their own gravitational force, eternally pulling towards one another, never before has someone who looks like they’re trying to get the lotion out from between their fingers looked so rich and powerful. The Birdman hand rub is iconic because it is quite possibly more important to the Cash Money Records brand than any bar he has ever rapped. The rub projects confidence and poise, and for someone who has historically proven to be a shady businessman, the rub is just sly enough to invest your entire savings in.
Worst: Jaden Smith (Breakdance Rapping)
There are a lot of things that make me angry about Jaden Smith. Not just as a rapper, but as a visual artist, too. Most of that is present in his breakout hit, “Icon.” I know what you’re thinking, and no it’s not his obnoxiously bleached hair, his St. Elmo’s Fire denim jacket draped over a fisherman’s vest or the fact that he just seems like a scrapped character from The Fifth Element comes to life. More than anything, it is Jaden’s breakdancing while rapping that numbs the mind.
It’s one thing to breakdance, and it is an entirely different thing to only do the same breakdance move. Throughout “Icon,” Smith’s reluctance to anything but laterally moonwalk, while doing this weird pointing motion that looks like a really snobby queen picking out her wardrobe, is infuriating. There is talent seething below the surface of “Icon,” as well as a lot Jaden Smith’s music to date. The breakdancing, however, makes Smith feel gimmicky to the point where you begin wishing more that he’d trip over himself than wondering what lyrics are coming next.
Best: Lil B (Cooking Dance)
In the annals of hip-hop, the BasedGod’s reign as the weirdo, anarchist superstar, who seemingly lived inside one long music video, will fill up more pages than one might expect. To narrow down Lil B’s visual influence into a singular motion feels short-sighted, but his subtle yet iconic cooking dance, like the greats on this list, is more than just what we see.
The cooking dance is the manifestation of everything Lil B beamed down from the heavens to be. It is infectious and aesthetically stunning, perfectly choreographed in the strangest of ways (so much so, that there is a 10-minute video by Lil B explaining how it works), and so intricate that Lil B even gave levels of “chef, head chef, top chef, and master chef” based solely on the swagger and influence of the person replicating it. Not only do we find iterations of it everywhere from James Harden buckets to Ezekiel Elliott first downs, but the chef stir is a black hole of stylistic achievement, engulfing us all and converting us into BasedGod followers for life.
Worst: Mystikal (Nonsensical Arm Movements)
In the movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, there is a short scene in which Ricky Bobby must do an interview, but has no idea what to do with his hands. Slowly, as the interview begins, Ricky’s hands start to drift into the camera frame and awkwardness ensues as he freezes up. I bring this up because, for every Mystikal music video I watch, this is the first thing that always comes to mind.
Mystikal’s peak was a strange point in hip-hop. With undeniable classics like “Danger (Been So Long)” and “Shake It Fast,” Mystikal’s entrancingly jerky cadence and raspy voice always felt uniquely pulp. It only makes sense then that Mystikal’s visual presence is just as weird. Although he never once came across as someone afraid of the screen, Mystikal’s “I’m stuck in a cobweb and can’t get out” body jerking and awkwardly timed pantomiming looks like someone unsure of what to do with their hands. It’s never a good thing when one’s best visual moments are in “Bouncin' Back (Bumpin’ Me Against the Wall),” a video in which Mystikal’s arms are literally in a straightjacket; a tactic he really should’ve continued to employ.
Best: Busta Rhymes (Peephole Hands)
Somewhere around the point in Busta Rhymes’ “Gimme Some More” video where he impersonates a police officer, pulls off his sunglasses, and proceeds to rap with sunglasses in hand, we begin to lose ourselves in it all. Busta’s iconic peephole lens, used in his most famous videos, was visually stunning on its own. Yet, paired with his hand gestures, Busta created an entirely new level of immersiveness to his onscreen insanity.
On “Gimme Some More,” it’s the quick-draw fingers snapping in and out of the frame at light speed, each hand fighting for space and your attention in the confined lens, while Busta’s body moves normally. On “Woo Hah!! Got You All In Check,” it’s the chaotic arm flailing hitting a different pose at every syncopation. Even the biggest set pieces of Hype Williams’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” come in second compared to the way Busta leads you through each of his bumpy bars with hand signals darting in and out at the viewer.
No one has ever made smaller space on camera feel as limitless as Busta Rhymes, and no one but Busta could make such a visually imposing presence feel so silky smooth as he could with just a few simple motions.
Worst: Kendrick Lamar (Twitchy Hands)
Kendrick is currently the greatest living rapper. He is an artistic genius, a master lyricist, and one of the most interesting artists that hip-hop has ever had. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the fact that Kendrick rarely does anything cool with his hands onscreen.
What makes Kendrick the worst at hand gestures is that he doesn’t just have ticks in his music videos, but in any video of him rapping, period. His twitchy hands show up in every radio freestyle he gives, constantly bent and bouncing with each word; a forgivable offense if they weren’t in just the right spot on camera to even make his BET cypher slightly annoying.
In Pusha-T’s “Nosetalgia” video, Kendrick’s show-stealing verse is overshadowed by the fact that he can’t seem to figure out if he wants his left hand in his pocket or not. In the “DNA.” video, he’s out-gestured by Don Cheadle (not a rapper) because he won’t stop doing an open-handed movement that looks like he’s checking to see if the stove is hot. Even on “King Kunta,” Kendrick’s dancing is average at best and almost makes you wish he would let everyone else around him step in front of him.
Maybe it feels like I’m grasping at straws. Maybe Kendrick’s one visual flaw is small enough to overlook. You’re probably right. Yet, for an MC so calculated and confident in every other aspect of his music, it’s both strange and undoubtedly funny that when Kendrick resorts to hand gesturing, confidence is the last thing he emotes.
Best: Missy Elliott (Everything)
The word “everything” might feel like a cop-out, but in Missy Elliott’s case, it’s far from it. As arguably the best visual performer in hip-hop history, no one has ever appeared more complete as an artist than Missy, who somehow managed to always turn already iconic songs into transcendent visual art.
Whether it was the absurd anti-gravity breakdancing on “Work It,” the incessant shimmying of “Get Your Freak On,” or the Thriller dance in the sand on “Lose Control,” Missy made her entire body a singular, ever-changing hand gesture. Even the background dancers in her video felt like an extension of herself; a hive mind functioning based off every funky and erratic motion Missy attempted.
Every movement added to her mythology as a larger-than-life figure who amplified the influence of her music not just by how she made it sound, but how she made it move as well. Every Missy Elliott video was completely through the looking glass of hip-hop in a world of its own, and Missy controlled every molecule of it, like a conductor, as if her world would literally stop if she told it to.
Correction: An earlier edition of this article confused the interview scene from the film Talladega Nights with the film's commercial scene. This version has been corrected.