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, culture, and commercial success.
Rule No. 4: A defending king only loses the 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 in the same year—multiple times, at any given point.
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.
While it’s not the redheaded stepchild of New York City rap (shout out to Staten Island, Long Island, Yonkers, and Mount Vernon), you could argue Queens is the most underappreciated hip-hop borough.
Ever since KRS-One claimed that “Manhattan keeps on making it / Brooklyn keeps on taking it / Bronx keeps creating it / and Queens keeps on faking it,” Queens has spent years trying to shake a deep-seated inferiority complex.
The largest borough—geographically—in NYC, Queens has birthed countless hip-hop legends from various neighborhoods, including Hollis (which birthed Run-D.M.C. and Ja Rule), St. Albans (home to A Tribe Called Quest and LL Cool J), Queensbridge (Nas, Mobb Deep), and Jamaica (50 Cent, Nicki Minaj). And yet, only a handful of Queens-bred MCs have seized the throne.
Without further ado, here’s who’s held the King of Queens Title Belt every year since 1983—the year that saw the rise of the borough’s first superstar hip-hop act.
Coronation: Run—D.M.C.’s game-changing 12-inch single “It’s Like That” / “Sucker MCs.”
Biggest Challengers: LL Cool J, MC Shan
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: King of New York (‘83, ‘84)
Long before he was dropping words of wisdom on a Blackberry while relaxing in bubble baths, Reverend Run was a man of many titles: The Godfather of Modern Rap; The Best Rapper Alive; The King of New York. Before he’d be known by any of those, though, he was merely Joseph “Run” Simmons, one-third of the Hollis-bred threesome Run-D.M.C.. And in 1983, they changed the game forever with the release of their 12-inch single “It’s Like That” / “Sucker MCs.”
It’s impossible to overstate the impact that “It’s Like That” / “Sucker MCs” had on hip-hop. Above all, it marked two shifts in the rap game: 1) The track introduced Queens as an emerging NYC rap hotbed; 2) It was a rebuttal to the party rap records that’d dominated the genre’s early years, both sonically (D.M.C. swapped out R&B loops for drum machines) and lyrically (as the group rapped about champagne and caviar).
Although “Sucker MCs” announced the arrival of hip-hop’s next great act, Run wouldn’t emerge as the leader of the group, and in turn cement his status as the King of Queens, until the release of D.M.C.’s self-titled 1984 debut, Run-D.M.C.. From there, Run would claim the New York throne and the Best Rapper Alive title on the strength of D.M.C.’s next two LPs, 1985’s King of Rock and 1986’s Raising Hell.
LL Cool J, 1986-89
Coronation: The release of his 1986 single “Rock the Bells”
Biggest Challengers: MC Shan, Marley Marl
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: Top 5 (‘87, ‘89)
Spare me your “LL Cool J was born and raised in Long Island” rant. Yes, it’s true, but as soon as he arrived in St. Albans as a teenager, the Q Borough shaped James Todd Smith into a brash, Kangol-wearing MC who could oscillate between b-boy flavor and stone-cold shit-talk. And while LL’s hardbody persona would crest with his iconic 1990 comeback album Mama Said Knock You Out, he’d been rapping “hard as hell” from the jump.
The ladies love for LL may have helped make his debut album, Radio, an instant success following its November 1985 release. But there’s no denying the 17-year-old rapper silenced all of the pretty boy talk on the LP’s standout cut “Rock the Bells.”
Over an earth-shattering Rick Rubin beat, LL kicked things off with one of the most iconic opening lines in hip-hop history (“LL Cool J is hard as hell / Battle anybody I don’t care who tell”). Just like that, the rap game crowned a new prince. It didn’t matter that Run-D.M.C. was just hitting their creative and commercial peak; by the time the calendar flipped from 1985 to 1986, the borough belonged to LL Cool J.
Kool G Rap, 1989-91
Coronation: His debut album with DJ Polo, 1989’s Road to the Riches
Biggest Challengers: LL Cool J, Marley Marl
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: Top 5 (‘89, ‘90)
By 1989, Queens was no longer the only borough that boasted multiple hip-hop superstars. The Bronx possessed a pair of alpha-dogs (KRS-One, Slick Rick); the hottest rapper on the planet, Big Daddy Kane, hailed from Brooklyn; and Long Island was home to the Best Rapper Alive (Rakim), and two of the biggest political rap voices in the game (Public Enemy’s Chuck D and EPMD’s Eric Sermon).
Meanwhile, members of Queens’ elite class were either past their prime (Run), washed up (MC Shan), or at a career crossroads (LL Cool J).
Enter: Kool G Rap. The latest in a long line of MCs to emerge from Marley Marl’s mighty Juice Crew (e.g. MC Shan, Roxanne Shante, Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane), Kool G Rap earned his stripes by laying waste to Marley Marl’s sample of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” on the 1988 classic posse cut “The Symphony.” But he wouldn’t ascend the Queens throne until 1989, with the March release of his debut album with DJ Polo, Road to Riches.
Thirty years on, Road to Riches, along with the duo’s follow-up, Wanted: Dead or Alive (1990), each hold up nicely, largely because of Kool G Rap, whose high-octane rhyme structure, hardcore lyrics, and captivating cadence sound way ahead of its time. So ahead of its time, in fact, that 13 years later, the greatest rapper of all-time (JAY-Z) would compare his flow to G Rap in an effort to big-up his own mic-skills: “Hearin me rap is like hearin’ G Rap in his prime.”
Coronation: A Tribe Called Quest’s monumental 1991 LP The Low End Theory
Biggest Challengers: Nas, Kool G Rap
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: King of New York (‘91)
When analyzing the lineage of Queens royalty, it’s worth noting that its first four kings all hailed from neighborhoods within the Southeastern section of the borough: Hollis (Run), St. Albans (LL Cool J, Q-Tip), and Corona (Kool G Rap). What’s fascinating, then, is that the area of Queens which produced combative kings like Run, LL, and G Rap, also gave birth to their serene successor: Q-Tip.
Sure, he wasn’t as confrontational nor brash as his predecessors, but there’s no denying that Q-Tip ruled the early-’90s. By then, the Native Tongues movement had exploded in recent years thanks to Jungle Brothers and De La Soul, and in 1991, A Tribe Called Quest made it the status quo, as ringleader Q-Tip snatched the Queens crown and staked his claim to the Best Rapper Alive title belt.
In hindsight, Q-Tip’s brief reign—and the influence of Tribe’s jazz-inspired sound—served as New York City rap’s final moment of innocence. Once the throne moved Northwest to Long Island City’s Queensbridge Houses, there’d be no going back.
Coronation: The release of his debut album, Illmatic.
Biggest Challengers: Q-Tip, Phife Dawg
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: King of New York (‘94)
By 1994, Nasir Jones was already being touted as the second coming of Rakim, as he’d built upon the buzz he started on Main Source’s “Live at the BBQ” by submitting a legendary brag rap performance with his 1992 debut single “Halftime.” But it wasn’t until 1994 that the 19-year-old rapper fulfilled prophecy, and in turn captured the Queens throne, with the April release of his seminal debut, Illmatic.
The greatest debut album in hip-hop history, Illmatic marked the arrival of the Best Rapper Alive, but more importantly, introduced us to the genre’s next breeding ground for talent: Queensbridge. The largest public housing complex in North America, QB doubled as its own world, with 96 buildings spread across a six-mile radius. And on Illmatic, Nas was our tour guide, providing listeners with their first real glimpse of a micro-city where the music was violent and nihilistic, beef was inevitable, and hip-hop would find its next batch of superstars.
Coronation: Mobb Deep’s ground-breaking sophomore album, “The Infamous”
Biggest Challengers: Nas, Nature
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: Top 5 (‘95)
We don’t have time for honorable mentions. Sure, you could make a strong argument that Nas successfully defended the throne in ‘95, as evidenced by his spree of stellar guest verses that year (e.g. Mobb Deep’s “Eye For An Eye,” Raekwon’s “Verbal Intercourse,” AZ’s “Mo Money, Mo Murder Homicide,” Kool G Rap’s “Fast Life”). But let’s not make it complicated: That spring, Queensbridge—and the entire borough of Queens—anointed a new king, Prodigy, with the release of Mobb Deep’s sophomore LP, The Infamous.
If you thought it couldn’t get more real than Nas’ portrayal of the streets on Illmatic, The Infamous presented a worldview that was far more nihilistic. Forget storytelling, Prodigy got straight to the point with bone-chilling imagery, particularly on Mobb Deep’s signature hit “Shook Ones Part II”: “For all of those who wanna profile and pose / Rock you in your face, stab your brain with your nose bone.”
By crafting a soundtrack for not only the cold streets of Queens but for all of New York City, Prodigy owned ‘95 unlike any rapper not named Biggie. Contrary to popular belief, he would reign until ‘97, defending his crown in ‘96 by following-up Nas’ then-mixed-reviewed second album, It Was Written, with Mobb Deep’s critically-acclaimed third LP, Hell On Earth.
Coronation: Capone-N-Noreaga’s 1997 debut LP, The War Report
Biggest Challengers: Nas, Prodigy
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: Top 5 (‘98)
The case for Noreaga’s two-year reign is simple: He crafted the best Queens rap album in 1997 (Capone-N-Noreaga’s The War Report), as well as in 1998 (his solo debut, N.O.R.E.).
He peaked at exactly the right time, during a brief window where the borough’s past two kings—Nas and Mobb Deep—were in-between album cycles, right when mafioso rap had just been supplanted by Bad Boy’s bubble-gum pop-rap as the hottest wave in the game. But it’s not Nore’s fault that he caught his predecessors sleeping.
Released in June ‘97, C-N-N’s The War Report earned instant classic status, as tracks like “T.O.N.Y.,” “L.A. L.A.,” and “Bloody Money” became underground rap’s answer to the Shiny Suit Era. And with Capone locked up behind bars, the LP served as Noreaga’s showing-out party and positioned him as Queens next big star.
The following summer, Noreaga delivered on the hype with his solo debut, which produced one of the year’s biggest hits (“Superthug”), along with one of the greatest posse cuts in rap history (“Banned From T.V.” featuring Nature, Big Pun, Cam'ron, Styles P. and Jadakiss). If anything, Noreaga’s underrated reign as the King of Queens is merely due to the embarrassment of riches NYC rap had in the late-’90s.
Ja Rule, 1999-01
Coronation: Opening for JAY-Z and DMX on the Hard Knock Life Tour, before dropping his platinum-selling debut album, Venni Vetti Vecci
Biggest Challengers: Nas, Prodigy, Nature
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: Top 5 (‘00, ‘01)
Few rappers have fallen as fast and as far as Ja Rule. But there’s simply no denying that at the turn of the century, he was not just the hottest rapper in Queens, but also one of the biggest rappers in NYC, if not the entire rap game.
Of course, old heads will scoff at his reign, and for good reason. Ja didn’t have the best Queens rap album in any one of the three years he held the belt: 1999’s Venni Vetti Vecci pales in comparison to Nas’ I Am… and Mobb Deep’s Murda Muzik; 2000’s Rule 3:36 is inferior to Prodigy’s H.N.I.C. and Nature’s For All Seasons; 2001’s Pain Is Love ranks behind Cormega’s The Realness and Nas’ Stillmatic.
Still, commercial success has to stand for something, and for a two and a half year stretch from June 1999 to December 2001, Ja Rule maintained the Q borough’s crown on the strength of his chart dominance. Building on the momentum of his debut album, Venni Vetti Vecci—which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, and was certified platinum one month after its release—Ja unleashed consecutive multi-platinum LPs, Rule 3:36 and Pain Is Love, in 2000 and 2001 respectively.
As for singles? You may recall Ja Rule had a few. In the first two years of the new millennium, he scored three No. 1 singles on the Hot 100 (“I’m Real,” “Ain’t It Funny,” “Always On Time”), along with another three top 10 hits “Between Me and You,” “Put It On Me,” “Livin’ It Up”). If 50 Cent hadn’t set out to destroy Ja Rule, there’s a good chance we remember Ja’s career in a more positive light.
Coronation: 2001’s Stillmatic
Biggest Challengers: Cormega, Ja Rule, 50 Cent
Peak Position in NYC Power Rankings: Top 5 (‘01, ‘02)
Six years after giving up the belt he seemed destined to hold for the entire ‘90s, Nas reclaimed the throne in December 2001 with the release of his fifth album, Stillmatic. Over the next year, Ja Rule would continue his hot streak with another chart-topping album (2002’s The Last Temptation) and a pair of top 10 singles (“Mesmerize,” “Down 4 U”), and 50 Cent would announce his arrival with a legendary mixtape run and breakthrough single (“Wanksta”), but neither rapper was able to supplant Nas as the King of Queens.
Nasty Nas followed up Stillmatic—his best full-length offering since 1996’s It Was Written, no less—with two critically-acclaimed releases in the final quarter of 2002: the classic compilation album The Lost Tapes, which is arguably better than Stillmatic; along with his underrated sixth LP, God’s Son. Released over a 12-month stretch, together the three projects reminded the rap game why it was foolish to sleep on the God MC.
50 Cent, 2003-10
Coronation: The release of his debut LP, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, which sold 872,000 copies in four days
Biggest Challengers: Nas, Lloyd Banks
New York City Power Rankings: King of New York (‘03, ‘05)
By the time “In Da Club” peaked at No. 1 on the Hot 100 in January 2003, it was already known 50 Cent would live up to the hype. Arriving in February, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and sold 872,000 copies to become the biggest opening-week hip-hop debut of all time (also the then-second biggest first-week sales for any rap album ever). It was a landmark pop culture moment, making 50 both the best rapper and biggest pop star alive.
As such, saying Peak 50 Cent was the King of Queens is like saying Peak Michael Jordan was the best player on the ‘90s Bulls. When you’re the biggest pop-star on the planet and the Best Rapper Alive, the New York rap throne is yours by default; it’s not necessary to stake claim to your neighborhood’s title belt.
And yet, like all great villainous kings, Fif made sure to wipe out any and all potential threats to the throne, as he destroyed Ja Rule with diss track after diss track—culminating with the knockout blow on 2003’s “Back Down”—and signed the borough’s former king, Prodigy’s Mobb Deep to G-Unit. In hindsight, 50’s reign was the beginning of a period in which Queens was short on talent, and would fail to generate another superstar until the following decade.
Nicki Minaj, 2010-present
Coronation: Her career-altering guest verse on Kanye’s “Monster”
Biggest Challengers: Nas, Action Bronson
New York City Power Rankings: King of New York (‘10, ‘14)
Nicki’s meteoric rise was a lot like 50 Cent’s, in that both South Jamaica-bred rappers went from buzz-worthy rapper straight to Best Rapper Alive, seemingly overnight. But while 50 built momentum upon a string of notable mixtapes, Nicki parlayed her lone 2009 project, Beam Me Up Scotty, into a legendary guest appearance blitz in 2010 that culminated with her career-cementing verse on Kanye’s “Monster.”
Nicki had amassed enough clout bodying feature after feature during 2010 that, by the time she rapped “50k for a verse, no album out” on “Monster,” there was no reason to question whether or not she was being serious. If anything, she should’ve been charging more for her services. Either way, the verse served as the moment when the Queens hip-hop scene was put back on the map, and Nicki cemented her status as not only the King of Queens but also the King of New York.
In the nine years since, she’s defended the throne from worthy suitors, particularly Action Bronson, by remaining the biggest commercial rap star from the Q borough. As it stands, Nicki’s 10-year reign is the longest stretch any rapper has held the King of Queens title belt. And that matters.