Fans of Capcom’s illustrious Street Fighter franchise and Nicki Minaj’s 2018 single “Chun Li,” named after the video game’s iconic leading woman, had to find humor in the Queens-raised rapper's mid-song taunt, “They need rappers like me, so they can get on their fucking keyboards, and make me the bad guy, Chun-Li.” While it would be fair to say the two have similarities—at the least, they are renowned for techniques as rapid and deadly as machine gun fire—Chun Li isn’t a villainous character, and neither is Nicki.
Although bad press and controversy plagued the entirety of Nicki's rollout for Queen, her chart-topping, fourth studio album, Lil Wayne’s second most successful protégé didn’t abruptly become a hip-hop bad guy; how she behaved and reacted throughout 2018 didn't suddenly transform Onika Maraj into Cruella de Vil—yet.
A bad guy is 50 Cent.
During the days of “How To Rob,” the industry-shaking single he released in 1999, Curtis Jackson was Public Enemy No. 1 in hip-hop. The word bold doesn’t describe the audaciousness of creating a fantastical song about committing armed robbery against your industry peers. Before his plaques were platinum, on early projects like Guess Who's Back? and The Power of a Dollar, 50 rapped with chilling, remorseless malice; he sounded like a man ready to seize every gold chain and green dollar within arm’s reach; cold street raps made by an arctic heartbeat.
50’s legacy in hip-hop is, in part, bound to rap beef, the form of psychological warfare he mastered to destroy his many adversaries. There’s twisted joy found in his diss tracks—something like a boogeyman who loves the taste of poison on his tongue. His intense battles with The Game and Rick Ross exemplify the lines he’s always been willing to cross to crush and humiliate an enemy, but the most famous head mounted above the Queens-born rapper’s fireplace is that of Murda Inc's multi-platinum-selling rapper, Ja Rule.
We should require children of tomorrow to learn of the scathing dialogue that derailed Ja Rule’s ascension and further stamped 50 Cent as the rap game's Goliath.
“I'm New York City's own bad guy” —50 Cent (“Back Down”)
Trolls of today will never successfully mimic the real terror of early career 50 Cent. Getting rich without having to die didn’t turn G-Unit’s prospering leader into a sunnier, more positive artist; he merely shifted from a villain of terrorizing aggression to typing some of hip-hop’s wittiest and most scathing Instagram captions. Although 50’s anti-industry temperament isn’t the sole rap villain archetype, he remains a one-of-a-kind antagonist. No one is equally heartless and unrelenting, but they come close.
On “Do That,” a memorable deep cut from his 2018 mixtape Slimeball 3, Atlanta rapper Young Nudy doesn’t have a hint of jest in his voice while rapping, “I'll shoot a nigga face shot, hunnid shot, nigga put him in the dirt, love seein' a mama cry nigga (what), love seein' feelings get hurt.” What’s most chilling is how sincere he sounds, like a shark grinning with blood-stained teeth.
An air of absolute authority makes Nudy's imagery so realistic. If he says your chain will get snatched, then your neck isn’t a safe place for diamonds; if he says your girl can get took, consider your relationship at risk. You can almost feel the gun in your hands when he raps, “The AK-47 got a little kickback.” There are moments where his deadpan delivery and playing-the-dozens flow sound as if all of Gucci Mane’s negative energy became a rapper born and raised in Paradise, East Atlanta.
For further evidence, press play on Sli’merre, Nudy’s acclaimed 2019 collaboration album with his secret weapon producer Pi’erre Bourne, to hear mischief and mayhem collide. Flashbacks of drive-bys, drug deals, and old flames sound like Grand Theft Auto cutscenes over Bourne’s cartoonish, airy production. Twice on “Long Ride,” the album’s impressive introductory track, Nudy gleefully ad libs “The demon!” The random outbursts are more mischievous than menacing; some might even say playfully dangerous. Nudy is the cool badass, more Shadow the Hedgehog than Sonic.
“Dr. Evil, I'm Dr. Evil, Evel Knievel” —Young Nudy (“Extendo”)
Young Nudy isn’t portraying a hard-as-nails image for the sake of rap villainy, though; his natural candor is nefarious. We can find the same trait in the music of his cousin and fellow East Atlanta rapper, 21 Savage. Before the slime, came the slaughter.
Few debut mixtapes begin with an intro ominous as “Skrrt Skrrt” from 21’s Slaughter Tape. Fukk 12’s haunted house keys work in unison with his voice, and although it takes roughly 45 seconds before he raps a single lyric, the mood is captivating. Once 21 begins, though, the words illustrate a terrifying reality; by the end, his nightmarish “skrrt skrrt” becomes a noise Freddy Krueger would whistle on Elm Street.
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The 2016 version of 21 Savage is an example of a rapper who could’ve engineered a convincing “How To Rob” remake, but industry shenanigans didn’t appeal to him; they weren’t real enough. Life before rap made him observant, brutal and honest, and those traits became the basis of his raw, call a spade a spade identity.
By the time 21 released his 2016 breakout EP, Savage Mode, featuring the production expertise of Metro Boomin, he perfected his charismatic style of clever, deadpan lyricism, in which he laughs at lames, mocks wannabes, and commits acts of indulgence while reminiscing on nights of pain and days of pleasure.
As 21’s life improved, and he began to live more like a rock star than a savage, he maintained his edge by creating records over unique, fearsome atmospheres. On both “ASMR,” a highlight from his admirable, third studio album, i am > i was, and Metro Boomin’s “Don’t Come Out The House,” his whispering flow is thrilling as it is frightful.
The late, great Notorious B.I.G. created Frank White, a mafioso persona who rapped of kicked in doors, waved four-fours, and dealing drugs to survive in a Ready To Die society, where good or evil don't exist, just the conquered and the conquerors. It’s easy to imagine a young Savage born into the world of Biggie’s “Every Day Struggle” or “Gimmie the Loot” while an elder B.I.G could easily exist in the background of records like “Gun Smoke” or “Ocean Drive.” Life and times of the unlawful and starving.
“I'm a fuckin' bad guy, nigga” —21 Savage (“Bad Guy”)
The multi-platinum rapper extends the character who lives and dies by the funk, but who adequately made the savage persona real enough to be respected with the same accessible charm that turned Atlanta’s own T.I., Jeezy, and Gucci Mane into worldwide, household names. In real life, 21 Savage has proven to be a good Samaritan who gives back to his community but with a bad guy disposition.
A good man behind a bad mask also sums up Metal Face Doom, otherwise known as MF DOOM, the masked alter-ego Daniel Dumile created in the late 1990s after his rap group KMD dissolved following the passing of his younger brother and group member DJ Subroc.
“DOOM’s music was revanche, and the DOOM persona felt as though it had emerged from the graveyard of rappers murdered by glam-hop,” wrote the best-selling author, journalist and comic book writer Ta-Nehisi Coates in a rare, 2009 interview with the elusive, London-born, Long Island-raised rapper. Wearing a mask and waxing poetic over the Scooby Doo Theme song wasn’t a marketing strategy guaranteed to sell millions of albums—it didn’t—but since the release of Operation: Doomsday, his 1999 solo debut, the self-proclaimed super villain rose from obscurity to a legend of rap lore.
Without becoming a cliché caricature, Dumile has spent a career strutting over obscure samples with a colossus tone and poetic, comic book imagery. “How DOOM hold heat and preach nonviolence?” he asks on “Raid,” one of many classics from Madvillainy, his timeless joint album with ganja guru Madlib.
It’s almost comical how one of rap’s most noteworthy villains is a carefree elder statesman whose stream-of-conscious style isn’t filled with venomous diss tracks aimed at music industry executives or atrocious narratives about revenge, but humorous one-liners, unforgettable, boastful tangents, and unorthodox stories woven with stoner hijinks.
DOOM isn’t a super villain of action, but of aura. The ugly brother with a gorgeous flow made fun of rap beef rather than engage in a war of worlds.
"Madvillain, more accurately, the dark side of our beings" —Madvillain ("The Illest Villains")
Earl Sweatshirt’s debut mixtape Earl and Captain Murphy’s Duality are far darker and lyrically more villainous than anything found in DOOM’s discography, but their horrorcore wouldn’t exist without the slippery masked man. Much like with Phonte and Drake, DOOM’s inspiration is prevalent in the styles of many modern rappers. To date, none have captured his mystique.
Not all heroes wear capes, nor do all villains attempt to dominate society, and that’s what all rap villains have in common: a sense of humor to match their sense of anarchy.
By Yoh aka MF YOH aka Yoh31.