A movie, much like a record, tends to live and die by word-of-mouth.
The continued cross-pollination of both mediums, then, reinforces the idea that consumers are more open to new things when people they trust offer up a co-sign. Men In Black, released in 1997, will always be tied to the new jack swing of the self-titled Will Smith single from its soundtrack. Would 1998’s Belly still enjoy cult classic status without DMX and Nas’ raucous single “Grand Finale” attached? The Bad Boys For Life soundtrack has spawned a firecracker of a hit in Black Eyed Peas and J Balvin’s “RITMO (Bad Boys For Life),” boasting 283 million streams on Spotify, and counting.
Movie soundtracks utilizing rap songs is nothing new. But every so often, these songs take on a life of their own, becoming pop hits or fan favorites through the organic spread of the movies. For your argumentative pleasure, we’ve ranked the 10 best rap songs from movie soundtracks. See you in the comments.
Honorable mention: Will Smith, Kool Moe Dee, & Dru Hill’s “Wild Wild West” from Wild Wild West
Let me be clear: Wild Wild West is one of my favorite movies of all time. I know it’s a silly and overambitious remake of an obscure Western TV show, but the banter between Will Smith and Kevin Kline is killer, and the mechanical spider is still a sight to behold. The film also features one of the catchiest earworms ever to grace a movie soundtrack in “Wild Wild West,” in which Smith raps the plot of the movie over an anxious interpolation of Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish.” Kool Moe Dee (recruited to recreate the hook of his song, also titled “I Wish”) and Dru Hill croon for dear life on the hook.
“Wild Wild West” is the best kind of perfunctory pop, a machine-bred snack meant to pass through your system and leave nothing but a reminder of its existence throughout your intestinal tract. “Wild Wild West,” which had all the charm of a song like Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” but without the youth-driven staying power, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won the Golden Raspberry for Worst Original Song in the same year. Lest we forget.
10. JAY-Z, Amil, and Ja Rule’s “Can I Get A…” from Rush Hour
Irv Gotti’s production on “Can I Get A…” is a cinematic event. The simple setup of drums with a slight touch of melodic percussion sounds tailormade for shootouts and noirish buddy cop shenanigans. Overtop, a still-peaking JAY-Z, and fellow Roc-A-Fella signee Amil, come to work, rapping back and forth with silky flows. It is a young man named Ja Rule, however, who offers up the song’s standout verse. His gruff and energetic voice render him the fresh-faced sun around which the entire song orbited.
“Can I Get A…” proved to be a perfect fit for the 1998 Rush Hour soundtrack and, thanks to Def Jam, became the film’s promotional single. The three artists tell no story on “Can I Get A...,” and there is no continuity tying it to the film that it helps to soundtrack. “Can I Get A…” is steely and groovy like the city Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker run through in Rush Hour, and JAY-Z, Amil, Ja Rule, and Irv Gotti are content to provide the footwork.
9. Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” from 8 Mile
If you had one shot, one opportunity to create a song for a fictionalized version of your life, would you capture it? Or just let it slip? The story of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” is a rap industry legend. Released six months after Em’s fourth studio album The Eminem Show broke sales records worldwide, 2002’s 8 Mile served as a victory lap set to celluloid. “Lose Yourself,” the lead single, is a tale of anxiety and mom’s spaghetti from the perspective of Eminem’s character B-Rabbit, leaning into Em’s oppressively technical rhyme schemes to create one of the most recognizable rap songs of all time.
Not only did “Lose Yourself” become Eminem’s first No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100, but it also minted him as the first rap artist to ever win an Oscar. The record is one of Eminem’s signature songs, a tale of perseverance and aggression dovetailing perfectly with its companion movie. While much of the song can be overly serious to the point of self-parody—a roaming indicator of its now 47-year-old creator’s continued crusade for the right to use teenage shock tactics as he sees fit—it’s hard not to get lost in the music almost 20 years later.
8. OutKast, Sleepy Brown, & Scar’s “Morris Brown” from Idlewild
OutKast has made a career of bottling starlight from the grooves of candy-painted Cadillacs and turning it into music. Even by these standards, “Morris Brown” is a brilliant bolt of energy. Big Boi, Sleepy Brown, and Scar float over the André 3000-produced track, finding elegance in the business end of drums and horns straight out of an HBCU marching band. It’s the kind of giddy nonsense you’d expect from late-era OutKast, complete with a colorful video that owes as much to Freaknik as it does to Hype Williams.
“Morris Brown” was released as the second single for the soundtrack to OutKast’s 2006 movie musical Idlewild (which doubled as the group’s sixth and final studio album) and is named after the titular Georgia HBCU and their Fighting Wolverines marching band. On an album that proudly blends hip-hop with old-school blues and jazz influences, “Morris Brown” is a decidedly modern outlier. It spent more time reassuring fans of Big Boi and André’s working relationship than it did recounting nights in the movie’s speakeasy. Even still, it’s hard not to get a contact high from a song beaming this brightly.
7. DMX’s “X Gon’ Give It To Ya” from Cradle 2 The Grave
DMX always seemed uniquely suited to action movies. Belly wasn’t exactly a masterpiece, but the camera loved him. Casting DMX in the Jet Li-led action flick, Cradle 2 The Grave, was a smart move, but the movie’s lead single, “X Gon’ Give It To Ya,” pushed the film into the stratosphere. No one can growl on the mic like X, and his verses come close to charring the booming beat underneath them. “I’m a jail nigga, so I face the world like it’s Earl in the bullpen,” X growls.
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Cradle 2 The Grave is barely remembered over 15 years after its release, but the success of “X Gon Give It To Ya” helped the soundtrack earn a Gold certification from the RIAA. As the years went on, “X Gon Give It To Ya” proved to be a force of nature not bound by plastic jewel cases. The song became one of X’s signature records, appearing in everything from video games to commercials, to an episode of Rick and Morty. DMX always had the energy to spare, but “X Gon’ Give It To Ya” is a nitro boost for the ages.
6. B-Real, Coolio, Method Man, LL Cool J, & Busta Rhymes’ “Hit ‘Em High (The Monstars Anthem)” from Space Jam
Released in 1996, Space Jam is the pinnacle of live-action/animated hybrids. Forget Roger Rabbit; Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck dropped buckets with Michael Jordan. Seeing the Looney Tunes in the real world was exciting, but that excitement was met head-on by The Monstars, a group of gigantic aliens shaped like colorful mountain ranges. Naturally, the film’s scriptwriters matched up five intergalactic titans with five of rap’s most boisterous voices of the time.
B-Real of Cypress Hill, Busta Rhymes, LL Cool J, Coolio, and Method Man became the Monstars on “Hit ‘Em High,” a standout cut from the Space Jam soundtrack. Each MC’s signature flow adds to the zany atmosphere created by Poke and Tone. Busta Rhymes, in particular, sounds elated to rip open this slice of space-fried Wu-Tang worship. I’d be willing to bet that a lot of kids began their Backpack Rap phase after hearing this song, and could you blame them?
5. Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, & Future’s “King’s Dead” from Black Panther
The first Black superhero to lead a movie in 20 years needed the proper soundtrack, and Marvel Studios had one artist in mind: Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick worked closely with his TDE cohorts and Panther director Ryan Coogler to create the film’s companion album. Whatever its shortcomings may have been, we can’t deny the explosiveness of the album’s first single, “King’s Dead.”
Kendrick hangs on the periphery for most of the song, leaving TDE stalwart Jay Rock and promethazine lothario Future to do the heavy lifting on the verses. Drums assault the senses as Jay Rock jumps between bars and cadences like ladder rungs. Future’s high-pitched chant, indebted to Three 6 Mafia, steals most of the spotlight, but the sheer sonic weight of “King’s Dead” is what makes the record stand out. It’s no surprise the song was selected to be both the first single for the Black Panther companion album and Jay Rock’s third full-length, Redemption. Being a king requires Vibranium toughness.
4. Nelly, Diddy, & Murphy Lee’s “Shake Ya Tailfeather” from Bad Boys II
The warm-up jerseys. The grey du-rag. The clips of exacerbated cops making goofy faces to the sounds of horns like Benny Hill in riot gear. The video for Nelly, Diddy, and Murphy Lee’s “Shake Ya Tailfeather” has it all. The early 2000s vibe of the video extends into the song proper: Koko Bridges and Nelly himself add tinny horns to programmed drums equally indebted to Mannie Fresh and Bad Boy producer Stevie J, a blend correctly set for the tropical locales of the video and the movie it soundtracks.
“Shake Ya Tailfeather” was the lead single for the 2003 Bad Boys II soundtrack, already a big vehicle for stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence and director Michael Bay before the guy responsible for “Country Grammar” got a hold of it. To say the song exploded would be an understatement: the record hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and got everyone from the corners of St. Louis to the show beaches of New York shaking tail feathers like they were there. The melody is infectious, and each rapper finds a pocket and goes to town, even Diddy. “Shake Ya Tailfeather” is the bottled essence of a raucous block party infiltrating the most delightful Sandals resort you can imagine. This commentary is a compliment.
3. Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg’s “Deep Cover” from Deep Cover
It’s 1992. N.W.A., then the World’s Most Dangerous Group, have broken up. While Dr. Dre is putting the finishing touches on his landmark solo album The Chronic, he’s tasked with creating a song for the soundtrack of the Laurence Fishburne-starring movie, Deep Cover. Alongside an unknown kid named Snoop Doggy Dogg, Dre enters the studio and comes out with not just a kickass theme song, but one of the most menacing rap songs in history.
Hearing “Deep Cover” for the first time is like stumbling across a mugging: your heart starts racing, your head nods to the beat of your shuffling feet as you book it to parts unknown. The dark synths and pulsing drums created a sway suitable to the world of crooked cops and double-crosses experienced by Dre and Snoop daily. “Deep Cover” was initially meant to appear on The Chronic, but the record was removed due to rising tensions following the Ice-T and Body Count chest-puffing single “Cop Killer.” What “Cop Killer” provided in explosive catharsis, Dre and Snoop’s “Deep Cover” matched with gutter-soaked paranoia you could swing your hips to.
2. Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” from Do The Right Thing
If you could soundtrack a riot, what song would you choose? Would you make one of your own? Spike Lee was faced with this question while creating what would become one of his landmark films, 1989’s Do The Right Thing, about one very long, hot day in the Bed-Stuy area of Brooklyn boiling over into police violence needed a heater of a song. The movie required a booming anthem anytime Radio Raheem, played by Bill Nunn, walked into frame. It needed Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power.”
It’s impossible to hear “Fight The Power” and not begin sweating from the inside out. Chuck D’s overpowering voice and thoughts on racism; Flava Flav’s ad-libs; the Bomb Squad’s wall-of-sound production crashing against every solid surface; every bit of the song inflames the senses. Public Enemy created one of the greatest rap songs of all time solely to push the rest of America’s head into the fires of late ‘80s racism is just the icing on the cake.
1. Nate Dogg & Warren G’s “Regulate” from Above The Rim
You can hear the lowriders bump in the distance before I type a single word. There are few songs as sonically smooth as Warren G and Nate Dogg’s “Regulate” that are also so narratively jagged. The story follows a hectic night beginning with jacked jewelry and cars crashed into garbage cans, and ends with friction over at the Eastside Motel. Warren G gets his raps off before ceding most of the song to Nate Dogg, whose vocals are so unridged, you’d think they were edited on a computer. If Warren G’s steady beat is the base, then Nate’s golden vocals are the flavorful spices crocheting perfectly like flannel patterns.
The pairing has remained devastatingly effective since the song’s debut in 1994, soundtracking deadly summers and close calls. “Regulate” was released as the lead single to the Tupac-starring basketball drama Above The Rim, itself a story of circumstance and close calls. Above The Rim’s New York setting doesn’t distract from the distinctly California origins of “Regulate,” a testament to the song’s place against any backdrop. Warren G and Nate Dogg earned a No. 2 Billboard Hot 100 hit for their troubles, but the timelessness of “Regulate” can’t be confined to a chart position. It’s the sunrise and the sunset, a perfect bit of California G-funk any piece of celluloid would be happy to hold.