Top 50 Rap Songs of 2012

Counting down 2012's best hip-hop songs

Hip-hop witnessed plenty of memorable rap songs in 2012, but only 50 could make the final cut. I give you the 50 best rap songs of 2012. I also made a Spotify playlist for this year's picks. (See also: The 10 Best Rap Albums of 2012)

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El-P - "Works Every Time"

© Fat Possum

The glitch-hop of “Works Every Time” paints the scene like a flood of overhead lights, industrial effects spinning underneath. And in the middle of it is El-P. He signifies the struggle to wrest our souls from addiction, which El-P uses as a metaphor for the things that tie people down. "I'll do anything, anything, anything to go home," he says. But you get the feeling there's no other place he'd rather be.

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Raekwon - "Never Can Say Goodbye"

Raekwon apes the Jackson 5 cut of the same name and kicks a warm ode to his youth: "And my mother was in gangs back then/Kinda strange back then." "Never Can Say Goodbye" appears on Raekwon's Lost Jewelry EP, which sets up the third installment of his Only Built 4 Cuban Linx series.
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Heems - "Womyn"

Heems' Nehru Jackets exists primarily to showcase the production chops of his boy Mike Finito and standout track "Womyn" shows that Mike is deserving of some hype. Heems is in full DR mode here, rattling off free associative rhymes about the fairer sex while Mike's Xylophone and staccato drums dance in the background.
"Sade is in My Tapedeck" is TNR's best volley yet. The EMI twosome (Alexander The and Arowbe) wrote the song as a birthday gift to Ms. Adu. It's also an ode to OutKast, as evinced by the title and hook. Fittingly, slick drums and jazz atmospherics combine to yield the silky smooth tune a Sade/Outkast homage deserves. Double entendre done right.
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Meek Mill - "Burn" (Ft. Big Sean)

Giddy. Raw. Ferocious. Also proof that it's possible to wring a decent verse out of Big Sean by surrounding him with superior talent.
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Dustin-Prestige - "I Am Legend"

© I.V. League

Audacity is Presto's M.O. He's the type of guy who wants to make sure you feel his aura when he walks into a room. So on this bold anthem, he grabs hold of the beat with a totally politically incorrect boast and never lets go. Does his city proud in the process.

Pusha T laughed off his rivals with this Biggie-inspired taunt which hews to the Old School mantra of not naming names. The alarms, Frank White's laughter, and scathing disses mirror the theme song to a horror flick. Call the coroner.
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Big K.R.I.T. - "Money on the Floor" (Ft. 8Ball & MJG and 2 Chainz)

A modern update on a vintage smash, "Money on the Floor" hearkens to "25 Lighters" and boasts earwormy rap goodness, with standout performances by Ball, G, and Two Necklaces.
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Angel Haze - "Werkin' Girls"

Detroit-born Angel Haze stomps her way to viral success, breathing fire and crushing divas on her way to the top.
© The Artist

Don't let the title fool you, "Watching the Moon" isn't exactly a lullaby. It's a man and his woman quibbling over work-related issues. It's also proof that Rukus can go rhyme for rhyme with any of the names on the 2012 Freshman list. Marium Echo is no slouch, either. She can hold a note alongside any singer on the charts. Here, they combine for some sweet-sour music that drips with honesty.

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Chief Keef - "I Don't Like"

Chief Keef had one helluva year in 2012, and it all started with his accidental smash, "I Don't Like," which spells out a number of things the Chicago rapper doesn't like. "I Don't Like" also announced the arrival of the dazzling Young Chop who shouldn't have any trouble logging more production gigs in 2013.
© Amoeba Music Group

ANTHM is not your average rapper: stock broker by day, lyricist by night. His allegiance to the Golden Era is little different from the rap revivalism sentiment of so many boom bap admirers, but coming from a mind as nimble as the Duke-educated ANTHM, it feels so damn inspirational.

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Nicki Minaj - "Beez in the Trap"

The impossibly catchy hook does its job, as do the club-centric beat and Minaj's confident rhymes.
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Nas - "The Don"

Nas - The Don
Nas - The Don. © Def Jam
"The Don" is as brazen as your typical Nas street single, but this time his boasts are more assured. Peep his unflappable cool as the bragfest draws to a close. "Don sh-t/Under fire, I remain on some calm sh-t," he rhymes with a near-whisper.
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A$AP Rocky - "F**kin' Problems" (Ft. Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and 2 Chainz)

"F**kin' Problems" is A$AP Rocky's idea of a wink: Drake as a zany playboy? Kendrick Lamar as the lecherous thug? 2 Chainz as the wicked linchpin? And why does it sound this good? We've been had, y'all.
On "9-24-11," Action Bronson flubs his lines over and over and keeps going, stopping to edit on the fly. It captures the vibe of Bronson's, Blue Chips, a collaboration with Fool's Gold producer Party Supplies, that relies on sample-based production and spontaneous rhymes. Bronsolino is assaulting beats with relative ease even when he's half-asleep. This isn't even fair anymore.
A grim song made even grimmer by the death of one of its contributors just three days after it dropped as part of Pro Era's Aprocalypse mixtape. The crew renamed and re-released the song in honor of 19-year-old Capital STEEZ, who some believe committed suicide on Christmas Eve.
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Wu-Tang - "Rivers of Blood"

Deceptively soulful intro quickly makes way for a speed-rap contest, clanking swords, buzzing synths, and one of the most memorable Wu tracks in recent memory.
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Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - "Thrift Shop" (Ft. Wanz)

As long there's pen and paper, hipsters will always be a punchline in rap. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are just the latest to mine hipster jokes for a hit on this brilliant single from The Heist.
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Juicy J - "Bandz a Make Her Dance" (Ft. Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz)

Now this is some "Let's Move" fit soundtrack for the hood. "Bandz a Make Her Dance" permeated car stereos and strip clubs throughout America, thanks to the perfect blend of Mike Will Made It's slow-motion production and Juicy J's woozy flow. Chainz and Tunechi are merely here as ornaments.
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Freddie Gibbs - "Bout It, Bout It" (Ft. Kirko Bangz)

Freddie's thug-rap steez meets Kirko's syrupy Houston flow.
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All Day - "Medication"

Vintage rap with a modern freshness. The thumping drums, the Cannonball Adderley hat tip, and the slick quotables make this one of the year's best rap songs.
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Brother Ali - "Letter to My Countrymen" (Ft. Cornel West)

Brother Ali's Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color is, at its core, about making our world a better place and doing so in an inclusive manner. No song sums up that concept better than the introductory "Letter to My Countrymen," which includes the line: "This is a letter to my countrymen/Not from a Democrat or a Republican/But from one among ya, that's why you call me 'Brother'/Ain't scared to tell you we're in trouble 'cause I love ya."
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Killer Mike - "Big Beast" (Ft. T.I., Bun B, and Trouble)

The three rappers you least expect on an El-P beat team up to salute the Old School and, ultimately, set the tone for one of the year's best albums. You should watch the video. It's awesome.

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Schoolboy Q - "Hands on the Wheel" Feat. A$AP Rocky

In which Schoolboy Q and A$AP Rocky prove that their "Brand New Guy" magic wasn't a fluke.
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Aesop Rock – "Zero Dark Thirty"

I concede, I have no clue what it's about (enzymes and Big Foot breakdancing with Led Zeppelin in West Virginia...whaaa?), but that hasn't stopped me from bobbing my head and rhyming along. It's classic Aesop Rock: throbbing bassline, unshakably esoteric lyrics, asphyxiating rhyme structures. Anything less would be re-god-damn-diculous.
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T.I. - "Sorry" (Ft. Andre 3000)

As soon as I got my hands on Trouble Man, I skipped "Trap Back Jumpin'," jumped right past "Ball" and dove straight to "Sorry." I was glad I made this decision because it didn't disappoint. The main attraction is, of course, Andre 3000, who dedicates his verse complaining that he's lost his mojo and whatnot and then proceeds to make a liar out of himself.
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Schoolboy Q - "There He Go"

Fact: I'll listen to anything with Sounwave in the production seat. His contribution to Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city were standouts. He's also starting to carve out a brand of production that varies slightly from his work the Digi+Phonics crew, as evidenced on "There He Go" — a thick, viscous mass that gradually evolves into an irresistibly cool palette.
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Freddie Gibbs - "The Hard" (Ft. Dana Williams)

Gibbs' strength has always been his ability to take rap tropes and imbue them with his rasp, while hinting at depths beyond his years. That secret weapon is deployed to great effect in this grim, steady-rolling track from Baby Face Killa, whose lilting hook is primed for repeat listens.
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Kendrick Lamar - "Swimming Pools (Drank)"

© TDE/Aftermath
One of my initial gripes was that "Swimming Pools" ended too abruptly to be thoroughly enjoyable. So, imagine my delight when a new version popped up on good kid, m.A.A.d city bearing an extra verse. It sounds even better within the ebb and flow of the album.
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Azealia Banks - "1991"

There's everything to love about "1991": Banks' dangerously tongue-twisting raps, the fierce attitude, the other beat building in the background, the seamless beat flip. Pure, sugar-dust gold.
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Ab-Soul - "The Book of Soul"

With keys swirling over hi-hats and sparse drums, Ab-Soul reflects on childhood, family, love, loss, health issues, and career with vivid details: "I had a Sounwave beat tape trying to be Drake."
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Lupe Fiasco - "Freedom Ain't Free (Around My Way)"

© Atlantic/WBR

Furious politi-rap tom yum sans broth.

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Earl Sweatshirt - "Chum"

Like most teenagers, Earl Sweatshirt is guarded. He rarely lets us into his personal space. Here, he makes an exception and peels back the curtain to reveal a tear ("It's probably been 12 years since my father left/And left me fatherless/And I just used to say I hate him in dishonest jest/When honestly I miss this ni--a like when I was six/And every time I got the chance to say it, I would swallow it"). That sorta honesty always makes for compelling music, especially when the artist is a preternaturally skilled storyteller of Earl's caliber.
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Kanye West, Pusha T, Ghostface - "New God Flow"

Kanye West delivers this Cruel Summer standout over a booming bass and a nasty "Mighty Healthy" sample. Ghost Deini pops up at the end, wielding one of his classic flows like it's '95 all over again.
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Kendrick Lamar - "Black Boy Fly"

© Top Dawg/Aftermath
This heart-wrenching tale about dreams of escaping the harsh streets of Compton is easily my favorite song on good kid, m.A.A.d city. Unfortunately, it only appears as a bonus cut.
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Nas - "Daughters"

Nas - Daughters
© Island Def Jam

When Nas' 17 year-old daughter, Destiny Jones, instagrammed a box of condoms and a Benz nicknamed "Cocaine," Nas grabbed a pen and scribbled his thoughts. "Daughters" was born. The song finds Nas weaving an ultrapersonal narrative on the challenges of parenting in the social media era, as No I.D.'s steady keys roll and bounce with unnatural grace.

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Roc Marciano - "The Man"

Just about any song on Reloaded would've made the cut. I singled out "The Man" for its lo-fi, DOOM-esque production, Hall of Fame-worthy basketball references ("Sniff the Chris Mullin off the envelope"), and endless loop of quotable lines ("Never been a hater, I don't give a f*ck enough"). Smooth like Play-Doh.
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Joey Bada$$ - "Waves" / "Survival Tactics"

I'm including both "Waves" and "Survival Tactics" as a 2-for-1 for two main reasons: 1) I couldn't decide which one I liked better, and 2) Together, they serve as the perfect entry point to Joey Bada$$' breakout mixtape, 1999. There's no better example of the 17-year-old Brooklynite's rap revivalism aesthetic than this pair. They showcase different sides of the teenager's sound— "Waves" is a reflective jazz-rap tune, while "Survival Tactics" is a fierce, almost strident sample of his preternatural skill and sophisticated poise.

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El-P - "Tougher Colder Killer" Feat. Killer Mike & Despot

© Fat Possum

In which El-P dons the mask of a soldier recounting heinous acts to a victim's mother, while Killer Mike answers the one question on everyone's mind, "Wait, how does he know the guy's mother?" The answer, it turns out, is an unprintable double entendre.

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Future - "Turn on the Lights"

Hip-hop's sad robot Future adorably runs down a list of qualities he's looking for in a dream girl ("Turn on the lights, I’m looking for her too/I heard she keep her promises and never cheat on you").
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A$AP Rocky - "Goldie"

ASAP Rocky - Goldie
ASAP Rocky - Goldie. © RCA
Rocky transforms his voice into a deep bass that winks at Houston's chopped and screwed sound as a "f-ck you" to mudslingers. Regional boundaries don't exist to him and that's not a crime.
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Big K.R.I.T. - "Rich Dad, Poor Dad"

Big KRIT - Live from the Underground
Big KRIT - Live from the Underground. © Island Def Jam
The song and flipbook video give us a tour of K.R.I.T.'s childhood, sharing golden nuggets he was fortunate to have received from his old man, reminding us of the type of genuine emotion that elevated him to rap royalty in 2012.
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Rick Ross - "Stay Schemin'" (Ft. Drake and French Montana)

As far as hits go, "Stay Schemin'" passed every test. It was ubiquitous. It inspired freestyles and remixes and battle raps. And it added the eternally confusing slang "fanute" to rap lingo.

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Odd Future - "Oldie"

Camaraderie over everything. That's always been Odd Future's secret weapon. Amidst the disparate projects that threatened to splinter the L.A collective, the fellas found time for this fierce showcase. Tyler leads the charge with two gnarly verses; Frank Ocean kicks his shoulder-shrugging, collector's item raps; Hodgy Beats steps up his game; and Earl comes back like, as he says, lateral passing. Even non-rapping member Jasper manages to conjure fits of brilliance. You really have to watch the the impromptu video to fully appreciate what this song means to the crew.

Danny Brown revisits his boyhood over hissing snares and a pulsing piano. "Remember when my first meal was school lunch," Brown reminisces. The beauty of the track is how Brown details various stages of his youth as the track progresses. Pure reflective goodness. And a supercute video.

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GOOD Music - "Mercy"

When that Super Beagle sample drops, you know you're in for a treat. What follows is a parade of each rapper's obsession. For Pusha Ton, it's opulence ("My Audemar like Mardi Gras"); Big Sean, derrière ("build a house 'pon dat ass, that's an asstate"); Kanye, hyperbole ("Step in Def Jam office like I'm the sh-t, tell them give me 50 million or I'm gon' quit"); 2 Chainz, braggadocio ("Money tall like Jordan").

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El-P - "The Full Retard"

Every discussion on El-P seems to center on his potent production. He's also a murderously skilled rapper; he rhymes vicious, sticks to the topic, and actively avoids prosaic punchlines. Above all, El-P weaves his work with an ineffable quality that makes it impossible to imagine anyone else capturing the same effect. "The Full Retard," a highlight from Cancer 4 Cure, finds him breathing bursts of fire with his patented octane flow. He sounds like the five years separating I'll Sleep When You're Dead and Cancer 4 Cure never happened. The taut rhymes and, yes, blustering beat, are something you'd only expect from El-P.
Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar. © TDE
"Cartoons & Cereal" in one word: Cloudobanger. Music: Space jam done right, all ethereal keys and glitchy drums. Concept: Audiobiography at its grittiest, with Kendrick reflecting on the world as seen from a kid's eyes — cleverly juxtposing light and darkness ("You was holding the handgun, she was giving birth"), while riding the beat like a rodeo. MMG basso Gunplay comes through and makes it doubly enjoyable.
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Killer Mike - "Reagan"

© Williams Street
Killer Mike comes out swinging at past presidents with the swagger of a southpaw, landing haymakers on Reagan's oppressive policies vis-à-vis the Iran-Contra scandal, while El-P supplies the walk-on music. Instaclassic.