Welcome to the King of New York, a borough-by-borough breakdown of every rapper who’s worn the crown. Before we dive in, let's lay some ground rules.
Rule No. 2: Three New York rap hotbeds did not make the cut: 1) Staten Island (passing the crown between Wu-Tang members is not entertaining), 2) Long Island (while Strong Island produced four kings in the ‘80s—Rakim, Public Enemy’s Chuck D, EPMD’s Eric Sermon, and De La Soul—the throne has been vacant for nearly 30 years), and 3) Yonkers (DMX, The Lox, and nobody else).
Rule No. 3: The “King of the Bronx/Queens/Brooklyn/Harlem” crown is given to the rapper who owned their respective borough that year based on a combination of three factors: Musical quality; impact on borough, city, and culture; commercial success.
Rule No. 4: A defending king only loses their crown if they a) stop producing quality work, or b) get blown out of the water by another MC; so, just like in boxing, the crown can change hands—multiple times, at any given point—in the same year.
Rule No. 5: For the majority of New York MCs, their borough is clear cut—Biggie is from Brooklyn and Nas is from Queens—but several aren’t so cut and dry. To keep things buttoned up, let’s agree on the following: Prodigy and LL Cool J rep Queens (despite spending much of their childhoods in Long Island); Busta Rhymes and Biz Markie rep Long Island (despite being born in Brooklyn and Harlem, respectively).
With all of that being said, let's jump in.
When analyzing the history of New York rap and its lineage of kings, it’s only fair to begin in the borough where hip-hop was born: The Boogie Down Bronx.
It all started at 1250 Sedgwick Avenue, a South Bronx housing project where the genre’s foundations were laid in the 1970s by three DJs who, together, are recognized as the godfathers of hip-hop: Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, and DJ Kool Herc.
Since then, the northernmost borough of New York City has produced countless legendary rappers, from Melle Mel and KRS-One to Cardi B and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie. But only a handful of Bronx-bred MCs has seized the throne.
Melle Mel, 1982-86
Coronation: Rapping five revolutionary verses on Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s 1982 classic “The Message”
Biggest Challengers: Grandmaster Caz (1982, 1983, 1984), Slick Rick (1985)
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: King of New York (‘82)
When you’re the lead vocalist on the first prominent hip-hop song to provide a lyrical social commentary—a record which would eventually be considered the most important NYC rap song of all time, if not the greatest song in hip-hop history—you become the king of your neighborhood by default. And in 1982, Melle Mel cemented his status as not only the first King of the Bronx but also the Best Rapper Alive on the strength of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s groundbreaking classic “The Message.”
At the time, Melle Mel was only 21 years old, but “The Message” serves as both his arrival and his peak. The Furious Five continued to put out important records during the early-to-mid-’80s, including a pair of streetwise classics in “New York New York” and “White Lines,” but the group, as well as Melle Mel, never matched the greatness of their landmark song. By the midpoint of the decade, two superstar acts had exploded in Queens (Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J), yet Melle Mel was still unrivaled in the Bronx—until 1986.
Coronation: His 1986 hometown anthem “South Bronx”
Biggest Challengers: Slick Rick, Kool Keith
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings King of New York: (‘86)
By the mid-’80s, hip-hop’s center of gravity had shifted from The Bronx to Queens, as the latter boasted the genre’s two biggest commercial stars, Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J. With Queens feeling itself, Queensbridge rapper MC Shan took aim at the Bronx with his diss track “The Bridge,” asserting that his native borough played a vital role in the birth of hip-hop, which in turn kickstarted the first rap beef, The Bridge Wars.
Unbeknownst to MC Shan, his bold claim struck a chord with the next King of the Bronx, KRS-One. Then a 21-year-old living at a homeless shelter, KRS defended his neighborhood by releasing a return diss, “South Bronx,” before delivering the knockout blow on 1987’s “The Bridge Is Over.” The back-to-back diss tracks helped KRS seize the throne, and in turn, re-solidified the Bronx as the Mecca of hip-hop.
Slick Rick, 1988-89
Coronation: The release of his monumental 1988 debut, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick
Biggest Challengers: KRS-One, Kool Keith
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: King of New York (‘88)
Despite having a British accent and spending his childhood in London before moving to the Bronx when he was 11 years old, Slick Rick grabbed the crown from hometown hero KRS-One on the strength his debut album, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick. Released on November 1, 1988, the groundbreaking LP introduced the art of narrative into hip-hop. Slick Rick displayed his mastery as a lyricist while spinning tales with a charismatic and entertaining flair.
Boasting a variety of quintessential story raps—from cautionary tales like “Children’s Story” and “The Moment I Feared” to the whimsical “Mona Lisa”—TGAOSR made Slick Rick hip-hop’s first great storyteller. Perhaps most impressive, though, was his versatility, which Rick displayed by oscillating between stone-cold shit talking (e.g. “The Ruler’s Back,” “Lick My Balls”), hardcore gutter humor (“Indian Girl,” “Treat Her Like a Prostitute”), and message raps (“Hey Young World, “Teenage Love”).
The hardest rapper that ever donned an eye patch, there is simply no denying that, in 1988, no one on the planet could outrap Slick Rick. He was the undisputed King of the Bronx, as well as the best and hottest rapper alive.
Coronation: The release of Boogie Down Productions’ third straight classic LP, Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop
Biggest Challengers: Diamond D, Lord Finesse, Fat Joe
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: Top 5 (‘89 to ‘93)
Seven months after ascending the throne, Slick Rick’s reign came to an end in the summer of 1989 when KRS-One reclaimed the belt with the June release of Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip-Hop, Boogie Down Productions’ third straight classic album. Over the next decade, KRS remained the indisputable alpha-dog of the Bronx as the gap between him and his peers widened.
With his biggest threat, Slick Rick, wiped out by a prison sentence, KRS padded his stats by dropping five high-quality albums over the first eight years of the ‘90s: BDP’s final two offerings, Edutainment (1990), Sex and Violence (1992), along with his first three solo offerings, Return of the Boom Bap (1993), KRS-One (1995), and I Got Next (1997).
Then, right when Fat Joe arrived on the scene in 1995 with his supremely marketed sophomore LP, Jealous One’s Envy, KRS outshined his successor with a scene-stealing feature on the album’s opening track, “Bronx Tale.”
Big Pun, 1998-01
Coronation: His groundbreaking 1998 debut album Capital Punishment
Biggest Challengers: Fat Joe, Drag-On
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: Top 5 (‘98)
Fat Joe unknowingly planted the seeds for an imminent changing of the guard when he tapped Big Pun for his 1996 single “Firewater,” beginning a two-year stretch which saw Pun become the most hyped rapper on the planet.
Pun’s coronation didn’t happen until the spring of 1998, though, when the 26-year-old rising star staked his claim to the throne with the April release of his debut LP, Capital Punishment. One of the best debuts in rap history, the album was a smash both critically and commercially, and made Pun the first solo Latinx rapper to have an album certified platinum.
If there were doubters still not convinced that Pun was equally important to the South Bronx as his predecessor, KRS, the Latinx heavyweight spent the rest of the year laying waste to peers on posse cuts like “Banned From T.V.” and “John Blaze.”
Alas, at the turn of the century, just one month into the very decade he seemed poised to dominate, Big Pun’s reign came to an end. His heart gave out on February 7, 2000, and, just like that, the throne was up for grabs.
Fat Joe, 2001-09
Coronation: Scoring the biggest single of his career with 2001’s “What’s Luv?”
Biggest Challengers: Percee P, Remy Ma
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: Top 5 (‘01)
Fat Joe’s nine-year reign as King of the Bronx is frustrating for a variety of reasons: 1) At the time, he was already past his creative apex (which took place in the late-’90s); 2) All six solo albums he released between 2001 and 2009 were sub-par; 3) The best full-length project he dropped during the ‘00s was a compilation album (Terror Squad’s 2004 LP, True Story); 4) You can’t help but feel that both his coronation and subsequent reign were due to circumstance: the former largely due to Big Pun’s death, and the latter because of the BX’s lack of talent in the early aughts.
And yet, it’s obvious Fat Joe ruled the Bronx during the 2000s. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say he was one of the biggest mainstream rappers in New York that decade. But how was he able to remain a commercial force despite never crafting a critically-acclaimed or chart-topping album? Plain and simple: Singles.
Radio hits—with an A-list feature, of course—were Fat Joe’s bread and butter. And by 2006, he’d amassed an admirable collection of Hot 100 singles, including a No. 1 (“Lean Back” with Terror Squad) and No. 2 single (“What’s Luv?” feat. Ashanti & Ja Rule), along with three top 15 hits (“Get It Poppin” feat. Nelly, “Make It Rain” feat. Lil Wayne, “We Thuggin” feat. R. Kelly).
French Montana, 2009-16
Coronation: His 2009 mixtape run (Coke Wave, Mac Wit Da Cheese, The Laundry Man)
Biggest Challengers: Fat Joe, Remy Ma
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: Top 5 (‘12)
An ideal successor to Fat Joe, French came equipped with a style that appealed to both the streets and pop charts. And like his predecessor, French strategically aligned himself with a rising star—Max B—in order to earn respect from the underground, and at the same time generate buzz in the mainstream.
On the heels of this power move, French made a name for himself and his Coke Boys crew on the mixtape circuit with cult-classics like Coke Wave (2009), Mac Wit Da Cheese (2009), and Coke Boys (2010).
While mixtapes helped jumpstart French’s career, his 2011 signing with Bad Boy Records solidified his potential as a future pop rap icon. After feeding his core fan base with 14 mixtapes between 2009 and 2012, French further cemented his status as the indisputable King of the BX on the strength of an endless array of hit singles (e.g. “Pop That,” “Ain’t Worried Bout Nothin,” “Lockjaw,” “No Shopping”) and notable features (“Loyal,” “Stay Schemin’”).
A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, 2016-17
Coronation: Opening up for Drake at his Summer Sixteen Tour
Biggest Challengers: French Montana, Cardi B
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: Top 5 (‘17)
In August 2016, I attended Drake’s ‘Summer Sixteen’ tour at Madison Square Garden. If I remember correctly, Drake was scheduled to perform at 8 o’clock; two hours later, we were still waiting. Assuming he was due out any moment, I hurried to the concession stand for another beverage. While I waited in line, the crowd went completely nuts, letting out a collective roar that could only mean one thing: Drake had taken the stage.
The concourse emptied out as hundreds of fans fled back into the arena. When I stepped forward to place my order, the server—perhaps sensing my desperation to return to my seat in a timely manner—reassured me I wasn’t missing anything. “Don’t worry. He won’t take the stage until 10:30.” After reading the unconvinced expression on my face, she continued. “Trust me. I worked the first two shows. He’s been coming out after Boogie.”
I didn’t believe her; no underground rapper was capable of getting a New York City crowd that fired up at a Drake concert.
When I returned to my seat moments later, I had my first look at A Boogie wit da Hoodie, who had seemingly the entire arena singing along to his wildly catchy first single “My Shit.” That moment is all I needed to be convinced there was a new king in BX.
By that fall, a handful of tracks—”My Shit,” “Timeless,” “Jungle,” “Bando” —from his 2016 breakthrough mixtape, Artist, had become fixtures on New York radio; the following spring, his buzz transcended the concrete jungle to reach the mainstream with the release of “Drowning,” the first single from his forthcoming debut album, The Bigger Artist. At that moment, he was the most promising young rapper in NYC.
Cardi B, 2017-present
Coronation: No. 1 debut single, “Bodak Yellow,” which made her the first female rapper in 20 years to top the Billboard Hot 100
Biggest Challengers: A Boogie wit da Hoodie, French Montana
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: King of New York (‘17, ‘18)
Throughout hip-hop history, only a handful of rappers have gone from being hip-hop’s most buzzworthy rookie to one of the biggest pop stars in the music industry—all in the span of one year. The usual suspects: Snoop (‘93), DMX (‘98), 50 Cent (‘03), Drake (‘09). But arguably no rapper has experienced a quicker rise to superstardom than Cardi B.
On June 16, 2017, Cardi released her debut single “Bodak Yellow.” Three months and change later, the song hit No. 1 and made Cardi the first female rapper in 20 years to top the Billboard Hot 100. From street hit to chart-topper, from relatively unknown in the mainstream to biggest rapper alive, in just 12 weeks.
One of the best songs of the year, the success of “Bodak Yellow” anointed Cardi B the King of the Bronx. And ever since, she’s made those of us who were convinced that her reign would be brief look more foolish with each subsequent flex.
With the anti-Cardi camp talking about her going down as a one-hit-wonder, Cardi scored another three top 5 singles with high-profile features on Migos’ “Motorsport,” G-Eazy’s “No Limit,” and Bruno Mars’ “Finesse.” While most of hip-hop argued that she’d never match the success of her breakout hit, Cardi notched a second No. 1 (“I Like It”) to become the first solo female rapper to land two No. 1 singles on the Hot 100. And when countless hip-hop heads were convinced she went fully pop, Cardi crafted one of the best rap albums of 2018 with her debut, Invasion of Privacy.
Correction: In a previous version of this article, Fat Joe's Jealous One's Envy album was incorrectly referred to as his debut. His proper debut, Represent, was released in 1993.