The 10 Greatest MCs of the 2000s

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Best of the Decade: Top 10 MCs of the 2000s

Jay Z and Eminem
Kristian Dowling/Getty Images

Fact #1: The 2000s was not the greatest era in hip-hop.

Fact #2: It wasn't even the second greatest era in hip-hop.

Fact #3: Despite facts #1 and #2, the dominant form of pop music in the 2000s was hip-hop.

While pop teenyboppers screamed their lungs out on TRL, hip-hop was sweeping through the globe with a force not seen since The Beatles. The biggest names in rap were making boundary-shattering music that rivaled the best pop music of the aughts.

Bling rap was hip-hop's answer to bubblegum pop. When bling rap ate itself alive, out came a new wave of eclectism from the other end. The emergence of new hip-hop poets from places like Atlanta and Houston proved the South had something to say. 

No matter where you landed, talent awaited. In short, no legitimate house party was complete without a burned mix CD comprised of the rappers on this list.

Here are the 10 best MCs of the 2000s.

02
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#10. Bun B

Bun-B.jpg
(Photo © Rick Diamond/Getty)

Best AlbumUnderground Kingz (2007)
Best Song: "International Players Anthem (I Choose You)" (2007)

There are four rappers who were almost guaranteed to steal your song in the 2000s: Andre 3000, Busta Rhymes, Lil Wayne and Bun B. Bun is one of the most reliable go-to guest MCs.

His breathtaking run of guest appearances saw him team up with Jay Z, Webbie, Three 6 Mafia, T.I., E-40 and Bone Crusher, among others. And that's leaving out a whole host of collaborations with  fellow Lone Star State rappers like Lil Keke, Slim Thug, Paul Wall and Chamillionaire. I vividly remember speaking with Bun B during his incredible run of show-stealing cameos and struggling to remember a well-known rapper he hadn't worked with. I think there were only three or four at the time. He's since crossed some of those off his list.

But these weren't just collaborations for the sake of collaboration. During Houston's most dominant phase in hip-hop, Bun B was the glue that held hip-hop together. Your album wasn't official until it had received the Bun B stamp of approval.

But, of course, Bun B isn't one of the greatest MCs of the 2000s on the strength of guest verses alone. That's like grading Quentin Tarantino on the strength of his cameos.

In 2005, at the peak of the Texas Takeover of the mid-2000s, Bun B dropped his first solo album, Trill. It debuted at NO. 6 and produced the instant hits "Draped Up" and "Get Throwed." His follow-up, II Trill, docked at No. 2 on Billboard and earned 5 Mics in The Source.

Emboldened by solo stardom, Bun B kept the UGK flame a solid blue. The mixtape King of the Trill arrived in 2005. More guest verses followed. Bun B stayed busy. After his UGK partner Pimp C died in December 2007, Bun B was forced to go it alone. He paid tribute to Pimp every chance he got.

Bun B would ensure that UGK maintained a health success-to-output ratio through the albums released after Pimp's demise. The Grammy-nominated OutKast collaboration, "International Players Anthem (I Choose You)" is one of the best songs by both groups. The final UGK album, 2009's UGK 4 Life, was UGK at its purest: a fitting capper to the duo's career.

Bun B's Discography (2000s):

  • 2001: Dirty Money (UGK)
  • 2005: Trill
  • 2007: Underground Kingz (UGK)
  • 2008: II Trill
  • 2009: UGK 4 Life (UGK)

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#9. T.I.

Tip.jpg

Best Album: Trap Muzik (2003)
Best Song: "What You Know" (2005)

T.I. rose to stardom in the 2000s. After stumbling on his first album, he came out strong with Trap Muzik. His bread and butter was the lean, street anthem. When other Dirty South rappers were straining to be heard, Tip quietly devised a hidden formula: DJ Toomp. Toomp and T.I. became such a formidable force in the mid-00s that every rapper wanted a beat from Toomp. T.I.'s confidence grew with his success. He declared himself King of the South.

Riding that wave of justified charisma, he titled his 2006 album King. It was certified platinum. His 2008 album, Paper Trail, was certified double platinum. The hits kept rolling: "Swagger Like Us," "What You Know," and "Whatever You Like" were all over mainstream radio.

T.I. faced legal troubles, but nothing could stop him. He built his Grand Hustle imprint and started putting other rappers on the map. As T.I. began his quest towards all-time great status, he gave B.O.B. a platform. 

Today, T.I. is still as relevant as ever.

T.I.'s Discography (2000s):

Related: The 25 Best T.I. Songs 

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#8. Ludacris

Ludacris.jpg
(Photo © Scott Gries/Getty)

Best AlbumWord of Mouf (2001)
Best Song: "Southern Hospitality" (2000)

When you think of Ludacris, you think of instructional dance songs: "Stand Up," "Move B***h" "Shake (of all things) Your Money Maker." But you also think of Atlanta hip-hop. Ludacris is on a shortlist of Atlanta rappers who made the South a dominant force in the 2000s. He was the unofficial ambassador of ATL, rivaled only by OutKast and T.I.

His first album, 1999's Incognegro, was a blip on the radar. Def Jam repackaged it as Back for the First Time the next year and a star was born. By the mid-00s, Luda had chopped off his signature braids, widened his scope and kept the hits pumping. 

Ludacris' Discography (2000s):

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#7. Andre 3000

andre-3000.jpg
(Photo © Jon Furniss / Getty)

Best Album: Stankonia (2000)
Best Song: "B.O.B." (2000)

Some dweeb out there will always toss all of hip-hop into the same waste basket. But even this dweeb was wise enough to include the requisite qualifier, "Well, with the exception of OutKast" in the 2000s.

Thanks to Andre 3000 and Big Boi's unparalleled run, fans from the East, West and Midwest started to realize that the South had something to say.

Just because Ice Cold has never had a full-length album to his name doesn't mean he's not worthy of a slot on the GOAT white board. For much of the 2000s, he was selective about where he invested his energy. When he chose a lucky song to bless he made sure to leave some memorable bars behind.

'Dre employed his skillful wordplay, whether rhyming on forgotten tunes like Mystikal's "Neck Uv Da Woods" and Slimm Calhoun's "It's OK" or popular ones like DJ Unk's "Walk It Out (Remix)" and UGK's "International Players Anthem." It's impossible to argue against his greatness. He made everyone forget the original "Throw Some Ds." He held a storytelling clinic on "Da Art of Storytelling 4." He made hardcore hip-hop nerds fall in love with a mushy R&B joint like "You."

When Speakerboxxx/The Love Below dropped, it changed everything. It felt so wrong, yet it felt so right. It was clear that Ice Cold had fallen out of love with the rapped word. Ice Cold won two Grammys and bagged 9 nominations after "retiring" from rap.

Still, here was the greatest one-two punch in rap, dropping two separate albums in one package. On the Speakerboxx side was Big Boi's rap album; on The Love Below side was Andre's funk/soul/Prince-esque gumbo mix. But who are we to tell a genius which expressive weapon to pick up and which one to ditch?

Andre 3000's Discography:

  • 2000: Stankonia
  • 2003: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
  • 2005: Idlewild

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#6. 50 Cent

50-Cent
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Best Album: Get Rich or Die Tryin' (2003)
Best Song: "Many Men" (2003)

You couldn't go anywhere in 2003 without hearing a song or two off 50 Cent's first album, Get Rich or Die Tryin'. You could go to a house party, a dance club or Bingo Night at a old folks home and hear "In Da Club" pumping through the speakers. 50 Cent was the man of the moment.

And with being the man comes competition. 50 Cent never backed down. He battled Ja Rule, Fat Joe, Jadakiss and Nas. It was Ja who suffered the biggest blow out of all of Fif's adversaries. Following his feud with 50 Cent, Ja Rule never released another meaningful record. His career went kaput.

I don't care for numbers when discussing rap greatness. But 50 loves numbers, so let's consider the stats. Get Rich or Die Tryin' sold 800,000 units in its first week. Staggering. There are some remarkably skilled artists across many genres who will never sell that much in a lifetime. 50 cleared that in one week.

Let's keep going...

GRODT then went on to gross 12 million sales worldwide and 8 million in the U.S. 50 received the incredibly rare diamond plaque for his first album, folks. Even at his lowest point--2009's Before I Self Destruct--Fif still bagged a gold plaque for sales exceeding 500,000 units.

Here's the breakdown of 50's mind-boggling sales domination in the aughts:

  • Get Rich or Die Tryin' (2003) - 8 million
  • The Massacre (2005) - 4 million
  • Curtis (2007) - 1.3 million 
  • Before I Self Destruct (2009) - 500,000

Ever the savvy business mind, 50 spun his fortune for a big business break with Vitamin Water. As the pitchman for Vitamin Water's Formula 50, Two Quarters was entitled to $5 million and a 5% equity stake.

When Coca-Cola acquired Vitamin Water's parent company Glaceau for $4.1 billion, 50 Cent earned his biggest payday yet: a whopping $200 million before taxes. Ka-ching. He never had to rap a day in his life again.

50 Cent's Discography (2000s):

  • 2000: Power of the Dollar
  • 2003: Get Rich or Die Tryin'
  • 2005: The Massacre
  • 2007: Curtis
  • 2009: Before I Self Destruct

See Also: The 10 Richest Rappers in the World

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#5. Nas

Nas.jpg
J. Shearer/WireImage

Best Album: God's Son
Best Song: "Made You Look"

Nas set the highest bar possible for himself and his peers with 1994's Illmatic. Esco's first album has been described with every superlative in the dictionary. His 1996 follow-up, It Was Written, was solid but under-appreciated. 

Nas spent the late-90s/early-2000s chasing elusive pop success. The day Nas dominates club rotation is the day I officially eat my own head.

Without a single pop bone in his body, Nas still sold millions of records. But he also dropped a few singles he'd like to forget ("Oochie Wally," "You Owe Me," etc). 

You know what Nas is good at? Spinning tales so vivid you can see, smell and taste them. Stringing lyrics so sharp you can feel them slice through the wind like a Samurai sword. That's what Nas did on Stillmatic amidst his historic feud with Jay Z. Many rappers have taken a swipe at Jay, but "Ether" remains the only song to ever actually strike a heavy blow against one of rap's greatest.

Whatever high Nas felt from slaying a giant was deflated by new of his mother's death. Enter God's Son, the most personal album in Nas' career. It was also one of his most cohesive works. Nas recounted war stories, doted on his future ex-wife, and mourned his late mother. No radio concessions. No head-scratchers. Just Nas pouring his heart to the world.

After a rocky start to the 2000s, Nas was back to peak form.

Nas' Discography (2000s):

  • 2001: Stillmatic
  • 2002: The Lost Tapes
  • 2002: God's Son
  • 2004: Street's Disciple
  • 2005: Hip Hop Is Dead
  • 2008: Untitled

See Also: The 25 Best Nas Songs

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#4. Lil Wayne

Lil Wayne
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Best Album: Carter II (2005)
Best Song: "Fireman" (2005)

Would Lil Wayne be the big enchilada he is today if it wasn't for his mind-boggling output in the 2000s? Who knows? It's surreal to think that he went from Birdman's apprentice to a rap Supernova before our eyes. We watched Wayne grow from a teen Cash Money soldier to a Young Money general who now influences some of today's biggest names, notably Young Thug.

Through the transformation, we saw Weezy ride the bounce train, usher in the bling era and, eventually, conquer the mixtape game.

Something snapped sometime in the early 2000s. Surrounded by a sea of talented MCs, Lil Wayne boldly crowned himself Best Rapper Alive. To back up his claim, he went on a mixtape spree. He dropped freestyles and cameos like a man suddenly possessed with an illness that compels him to document his every thought. 

At his best, Lil Wayne exemplified the essence of dedication to one's craft.

Lil Wayne's Discography (2000s)

  • 2000: Lights Out
  • 2002: 500 Degreez
  • 2004: Tha Carter 
  • 2005: Tha Carter II
  • 2006: Like Father, Like Son (with Birdman)
  • 2008: Tha Carter III

See Also: The 10 Best Lil Wayne Songs

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#3. Kanye West

Kanye West
Kanye West. Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Best Album: Late Registration (2005)
Best Song: "Jesus Walks" (2004)

The strongest case for Kanye West's place as one of the best rappers to emerge in the 2000s is this: 50 Cent. Let me explain.

50 Cent was the most popular rapper on the planet when Kanye West first rose to prominence. Yeezy and 50 couldn't have been more different. 50 was the dog who barked. Kanye rapped softly through the wire. 50 was a former dope dealer who liked to party. Kanye was a crate digger,a mama's boy.

In fact, 50 and Kanye made a joke of their differences years later when they staged a SoundScan battle. (In case you're wondering, Kanye destroyed 50.)

Keep in mind that hip-hop theater was the norm in the 2000s. Kanye sensed that people craved a new sound. By being authentic to his persona, Kanye simultaneously moved against the grain.

Yeezy had the music to back up his promise. His debut, 2004's College Dropout, reached fever-pitch anticipation and was embraced as a fresh of breath air. West breathed even more life into the game with his next outing, the musically rich Late Registration.

But thou shalt not judge a man by his albums alone. It's impossible to ignore Ye's string of beats and hooks and verses on other people's work.

At some point, during the mid-00s, Kanye West and The Neptunes were responsible for 90% of the Top 10 songs in the US.

A Kanye beat widened your reach and sometimes got you on the radio. The only Dilated Peoples song to ever crack the Billboard Hot 100, "This Way," was tracked by Mr. West. Slum Village's most popular single, "Selfish," owes its success to a clutch assist from Kanye West.

Kanye West's Discography (2000s):

See Also: The 10 Best Kanye West Songs

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#2. Eminem

Eminem.jpg
Christopher Polk/Getty Images

Best Album: The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)
Best Song: "Stan" (2000)

Before Eminem started doing whatever he thinks he's doing with Rihanna, he was a wrecking ball. He had the clever lyrics. He had Dr. Dre's priceless guidance. Em had momentum. After all, he rode into the new decade on the back of a brilliant solo debut, The Slim Shady LP

While everyone was busy talking about his first, Em was already back at work. His best was yet to come. A year later, Em released what I consider his best work to date, The Marshall Mathers LP. His third album, The Eminem Show, is a career highlight. In short, Eminem released his best work in the 2000s. His singles were goofy, but his albums are entire masterclasses on the art of emceeing.

In fact, strip away the last half of his catalog and you can make a strong case for Em as the best MC of the 2000s.

Eminem's Discography (2000s):

  • 2000: The Marshall Mathers LP
  • 2002: The Eminem Show 
  • 2004: Encore 
  • 2009: Relapse

See Also: The 10 Best Eminem Songs | The 10 Best Eminem Videos

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#1. Jay Z

Jay Z and Beyonce
Bey Z. Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Best Album: The Blueprint (2001)
Best Song: "Takeover" (2001)

And the #1 rapper of the 2000s is...

Jay Z.

I know what you're asking yourself: Is Jay Z ever going to fall off? No.

Jigga has found ways to stay relevant throughout his career. Even when he *air quotes* retired from rap, Jay Z was still the biggest name in rap. At this stage in his career, Jay Z is no longer a rapper; he's an event.

Let's backtrack to an earlier time...

Jay Z stepped off the block in the late-90s. But he was initially considered a rappity rap guy. He truly came into his own as a pop force in the early '00s.

With Vol 3, Jay figured out how to make the type of gloss on grime rap that makes the cash register ring while still keeping "real" rap heads happy. He conquered the charts while still wielding one of the most influential flows rap has ever witnessed. He did it while juggling a court case in which he allegedly stabbed his friend Lance Rivera. He did it as a lyric-obsessed hip-hop scholar who made it cool to "decode" rap lyrics. Rap Genius should send him a check every month.

Jay battled Nas and emerged with a masterpiece, The Blueprint. The label he co-founded brought us a wealth of new talent: Kanye West, Jay Z, Cam'ron, Beanie Sigel, Just Blaze. After a grip of successful records, rap's Michael Jordan hung up dropped the mic on The Black Album, arguably his third best album. Then, he hung up his Jordans.

Even in retirement, Jay created powerful moments outside the studio. He squashed his beef with Nas. He became Def Jam president. He signed Nas to Def Jam. President Carter also introduced us to some dude named Ne-Yo and some girl named Rihanna.

Sure, his first jump shot out of retirement was an air ball. Well, they can't all be slam dunks. Those R. Kelly jawnts. Let's not even discuss those. Still, when you consider Hov's entire body of work in the 2000s, he was heads and shoulders above the rest of the game.

Jay Z is the king of the 2000s.

Jay Z's Discography (2000s):

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