Our Entire Staff Picks Their Current Top 5 Based on Bars

"Ignore every ignorant soul trying to tell you that hip-hop lyricism is a thing of the past."
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When making and arguing lists, one of the easiest cop-outs comes by way of arguing semantics. Trying to synthesize and work through the abstracts of status, influence, bars, and musicality in real-time, while most of the artists we argue over haven't even released their best albums to date, is as fun as it is moot. 

To simplify the process, we had our very own Yoh break down the five biggest artists in hip-hop, today—Drake, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Travis Scott, and Post Malone—based strictly on status, influence, and impact.

But what about the bars? Well, ubiquitous voice of the internet, I'm so glad you've asked. 

Along with a score of Twitter users, veteran rapper Styles P recently brought up the importance of sorting our top five conversations into categories for the sake of accuracy and good fun—top five "status" and top five "bars." Since we've already delivered our top five based on status, now our entire staff (except for Z, who was apparently too busy) presents their top five best rappers, rapping right now, based strictly on bars, bars, bars. Enjoy.

Andy James

  • Phonte
  • Earl Sweatshirt 
  • Pusha-T 
  • Ka
  • Mick Jenkins

When talking about bars, it only makes sense to quote bars. So I’m gonna let my top five speak for themselves…

I am Hugh Masekela meets Masta Killa / Your OG’s OG, just aks the n*gga / Audioslave with a mastermind / Any wall of sound Tigallo vandalize / Dog, I am no tap dancer, tiptoein’ audio lap dancer / Sounding like rap cancer metastasized” (Phonte, “So Help Me God”)

Keep the circle close, let them n*ggas front in the cul-de-sacs / Friendly with the chosen, the rest is getting the poker hand / Face-drinking smoker, it help me duck when emotion jab / Fame is the culprit who give me drugs without owing cash” (Earl Sweatshirt, “Inside”)

To all of my young n*ggas, I am your Ghost and your Rae / This is my Purple Tape, save up for rainy dayz” (Pusha-T, “The Games We Play”)

“They comme ci, comme ça / Want a world of superlatives? Come see Ka / Stay hopeful and broke through on my umpteenth try / — to warn, you being watched by the unseen eye” (Ka, “The Punishment of Sisyphus”)

“Break bread with me / Better yet, bake bread with me / We be so worried ‘bout how much we need the dough / We tend to forget the little things we need to know / Like how to knead the dough / If done properly it won’t spread so thin when your people show” (Mick Jenkins, “Fucked Up Outro”)

Hershal Pandya

  • Phonte 
  • Earl Sweatshirt 
  • Elzhi
  • Black Thought
  • Kendrick Lamar

At the risk of offending the anonymous people who write lyrics in the comment sections of instrumentals on YouTube, it's important to note that bars don't exist in a vacuum. There are no shortage of great lyricists in hip-hop, but even the cleverest among them can occasionally lose sight of this, imbuing their songs with lyrics that are too densely packed, uniformly focused, or esoteric in nature to qualify for consideration. By contrast, the emcees on this list seem to possess an innate understanding of how to maximize the effectiveness of their bars by diversifying their delivery, varying their subject matter, and ensuring their digestibility, allowing them to stand out from the pack. On paper, these five emcees are not particularly similar, but they all rank extremely high on my informal index of "number of times I involuntarily scrunch my face per verse," which is the metric I weighted most heavily when crafting my list. 

Yoh

milo Interview, 2018
  • Kendrick Lamar 
  • Earl Sweatshirt 
  • Noname 
  • Black Thought 
  • Milo

Rap, especially in the context of lyricism, is literary. The artists who receive the prestige of "best" in my eyes are writers I believe would impress both Big L and Ernest Hemingway, The Notorious B.I.G. and James Baldwin. To have bars is to be more than clever punchlines and creative metaphors; to use lyrics as a way of creating layered experiences that reimagines all the ways rap can be captivating. These are five artists who, on a consistent basis, have been a reminder of the many ways words, thoughts, and stories can be articulated through rap and be artful as the Mona Lisa.

Matt Wilhite

  • Kendrick Lamar
  • Black Thought
  • Noname
  • Conway The Machine
  • J.I.D

The bars conversation, for me, has always hinged on an almost indescribable energy that only certain emcees possess. Whether it’s Kendrick and J.I.D’s multi-layered lyricism, Noname’s ability to turn rhyme schemes into something resembling free jazz, or Conway and Black Thought’s approach that makes every single bar feel like they just slapped you with a gold brick, the purpose of “BARS” has always been to create a sense of unpredictability of where the verse is headed without ever having you doubt for a second that you won’t be a Funk Flex meme, yelling in astonishment, by the end. While this list might look different, other than Kendrick, if aspects like sales and influence were intertwined, each of these emcees elevates any previous notions we had that either bars were dead, or that a rapper melting your fucking face off with words was no longer important. 

Dylan "CineMasai" Green

  • Earl Sweatshirt
  • 2 Chainz
  • Pusha-T
  • Phonte
  • Noname

We live in a time where #BARS come in many different packages. Can your words break down complicated thoughts into concise turns of phrase? (Earl Sweatshirt) Are your lyrics so overwhelmingly clever that they hardly register as the dad jokes they clearly are? (2 Chainz) Has your wit and ear for wordplay become so sharp over the past decade that it has a certain Canadian rapper shaking in his pants or jumping to jack your entire aesthetic? (Pusha T/Phonte) Do you float so effortlessly between pure rapping and poetic set-dressing that most can’t tell the difference? (Noname) If you’ve checked one or more of these boxes, chances are your fans are telling me how much more I should appreciate you right now.

Kenan Draughorne

  • Kendrick Lamar
  • J.I.D
  • Saba
  • Rapsody
  • Black Thought

Ignore every ignorant soul trying to tell you that hip-hop lyricism is a thing of the past. In 2018, we’re blessed with rising artists packing passion, creativity, and thought into every bar. Take J.I.D, with his frenetic delivery and tongue-twisting metaphors, or look to Saba for heartfelt storytelling throughout his stellar album CARE FOR ME. Rapsody is a perfect example of a veteran who still spits like a rookie, with enough quotables on Laila’s Wisdom to fill a high school yearbook with clever one-liners for every graduating senior. Black Thought’s devastating, viral freestyle for Flex qualifies him as top five even before addressing his Streams of Thought Vol. 1 EP, and if I really have to waste valuable space explaining why Kendrick Lamar ranks among the cream of the crop, I’m not how you ended up on DJBooth in the first place. 

Donna-Claire Chesman

  • Black Thought
  • Noname
  • Kendrick Lamar
  • Pusha-T
  • billy woods

I'm not entirely sure who runs these meetings where we decide various features of music have gone to die, but allow the First Lady to crash the party and say lyricism never went anywhere. This isn't even one of those instances where you have to dig to find gems; they're quite literally everywhere. From the best writer New York has seen in a long time (billy woods) to a legendary wordsmith cementing his legacy before our eyes (Kendrick Lamar) to someone whose pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism (Noname, duh), to one of the best living writers, period (Black Thought) to Mr. Me Too (Pusha-T), having a favorite lyricist is difficult if you're only allowed to pick one. Luckily, we've been afforded five slots. How kind of DJBooth, wouldn't you say?

Brendan Varan

  • Roc Marciano
  • Pusha-T
  • 2 Chainz
  • Black Thought
  • Phonte

Ah, bars. One of hip-hop’s greatest gifts, and yet an eternal curse as unavoidable snark kindling from “real” fans fawning over its unrivaled importance over other such rap requirements as charisma, melody, cadence, and—you know—making good songs. These days, my favorite bars come from such a varied spectrum it’s hard to pinpoint just five names better than the field, so I’ll cheat, list five up top, and run through some favorites: Roc Marciano and Pusha-T’s luxury street art; Black Thought, Phonte, and Elzhi’s wisened, complex screeds; Conway and Mach-Hommy’s uncompromising back-alley raps; 2 Chainz and SahBabii’s colorful and endlessly rewind-worthy wordplay; Kendrick’s machine-gun verbal diarrhea and Noname’s poetic grace and Earl’s grimy, nocturnal wit.

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