Drake, Sexyy Red, and Lil Yachty made rap sound fun, and artists like Ken Carson and Baby Keem pushed us into new sonic territory
While plenty of energy was spent this year debating whether or not rap was still at the forefront of pop culture as it reached its fiftieth anniversary, there was no shortage of exciting new music to enjoy. There was Lil Yachty’s generational run of loosies, each an introduction of new vocal terrain for the increasingly prolific musician, the rise of St. Louis’ own Sexyy Red, who doused the culture in the scarlet with her run of summer anthems (not to mention a grade-A Drake feature), and Ice Spice’s continued cultural dominance, replete with an NYC deli.
There’s no doubt that 2023 was an odd year across pop culture, as new technology (A.I.-generated rap was all the rage), and global crises make for a confusing landscape. Still, hip-hop artists seem to have done as they have always done, adapting to the new climate, and reshaping the way we hear music in the process. From Central Cee’s soon-to-be global takeover to Ice Spice’s down-to-earth anthems and the ascendent Brooklyn drill trio 41’s infectious chemistry, here are the rap songs we loved in 2023.
Offset & Cardi B, ‘Jealousy’
Offset and Cardi B are sharklike business partners on “Jealousy,” their best collaboration yet. They contort the outsized interest in their marital viability and direct it towards the reason they’re famous in the first place: excellent rapping. Offset is in rare form, bold, clear, and rapturous, spitting fire at haters with a vengeance. It’s less about what he says about taking them down than how athletically he says it, racing from one idea to the next. Cardi B, who has become a secret weapon in rap, takes a slightly stickier different approach, with fleshier examples of how you’re not shit (“Bitches is mad stupid/They get to the bag and lose it/I’m still in the bed, I live on her head, water, and gas included” she says, pulling from a new motif of hers) taking an already outstanding turn from Offset and making it extraordinary. —M.C.
Quavo Feat. Takeoff, ‘Patty Cake’
Throughout 2023, Quavo paid tribute to Takeoff, his nephew and costar in the Atlanta trio Migos who was murdered in November 2022. He honored him at events like the 2023 Grammy Awards and joined a group of anti-gun violence activists for a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus. Quavo also included Takeoff’s voice on several songs from his second solo album, Rocket Power, such as “Patty Cake.” Produced by DJ Durel and TheLabCook, it opens with horn-like fanfare and Takeoff’s familiar stentorian voice. “I made an M today, thank God, it’s time to celebrate,” Takeoff proclaims as Quavo laces the former’s bars with ad-libs, re-creating their famed magic once more. —M.R.
Doja Cat, ‘Agora Hills’
While “Paint the Town Red” dominated the charts, “Agora Hills” is a standout on Doja Cat’s buzzy fourth studio album Scarlet. From the beginning, Doja has shined on a laid back palette; across songs like “Mooo!” “Juicy,” and “Like That,” she brought a crazy sexy cool. “Agora Hills” is a richer return to form, dense and dreamy with her looped coos, spacey synths and bouncy bass. She takes on two distinct, ear-perking personas to rap a layered love song on the reality of being with a superstar, particularly her, while pledging to be uncouth and unfettered to the demands of her fans. “‘Who that man with the big strong hands on her ass in the club with the paps?’ Baby, that’s you,” she coos to her boo, convincing him he’s the prize in while their privacy is invaded. —M.C.
Central Cee & Dave, ‘Sprinter’
If American hip-hop listeners had any aversion to U.K. rap in the past, Central Cee’s recent run has firmly put those qualms to rest. The London MC responsible for a spree of viral tunes, including last year’s “Doja,” which featured a hook so infectious Doja Cat herself took notice. This year, Central Cee teamed up with fellow U.K. rap heavyweight Dave, firmly introducing the world to their region with the short and sweet EP Split Decision. That project’s standout single, “Sprinter,” is a case study of what makes both rappers so compelling. With an almost literary knack for storytelling, Cench and Dave trade braggadocious quips about the life of a young bachelor in their prime. —J.I.
The odds were stacked against Gunna in every direction this year. After being released from prison on an Alford plea, the rapper faced an unrelenting cascade of criticism within the rap internet. This was after spending a year in prison at what should have been the height of his budding career. Yet, Gunna seems poised to emerge from both situations stronger than before. “Fukumean” the inescapable hit from his comeback A Gift and a Curse, released just six months after he left Georgia prison, carried the rap charts for the first half of the year. Its infectious hook’s perfect match with Gunna’s trademark flow made for a welcomed return for one of rap’s brightest stars. —J.I.
Baby Keem & Kendrick Lamar, ‘The Hillbillies’
While Baby Keem spent much of the year starring on Kendrick Lamar’s Big Steppers Tour, fans hungry for a sequel to his bestselling 2021 album, The Melodic Blue, made do with this vibrant sequel to their “Family Ties” collaboration. “We gon’ fuck up the world/Excuse me but is that your girl?” they boast on “The Hillbillies,” an EvilGiane production defined by the duo’s frizzy flows, slowed-and-chopped samples, goofy ad-libs, and Jersey club vibes. It’s a fun track that reaffirms their partnership as a place of comfort for the globe-trotting Lamar, and a spotlight for his younger cousin on the come up. —M.R.
J Hus ft. Drake, ‘Who Told You’
Beautiful and Brutal Yard, the excellent J Hus album from this summer, had the feeling of being just ahead of its time. Hus, a reliable provider of diaspora-spanning hits, connected with Drake, on the pitch-perfect “Who Told You.” Of all of Drake’s globe-trotting ambitions, his forrays into Afrobeats and sounds from West Africa bear the most fruit. Here, we’re greeted by “One Dance” Drake, laying on the accent just a tad more subtly. Along with J Hus’ infectious hook, the song is an ideal anthem, one that I suspect finds a permanent spot in the pantheon of summer hits. —J.I.
On “Bent,” producers Mcvertt and Synthetic crafted a medley of lush synths for the Brooklyn trio of Kyle Richh, Jenn Carter, and TaTa to trot out of the New York drill scene in unison on the path to mainstream rap stardom. Kyle Richh’s gruff voice and delivery makes him a percussive presence on the single. He brutely opens up the track lamenting, “the Ds on my ass,” telling a wild story that a cop chase before belting out “Hennessy got me bent, bitch, when is we fuckin’ again?” a line ripe to belted out in unison at their shows. His partner-in-rhyme Jenn Carter follows up, making her presence felt with just 8 bars before TaTa closes out with his own ruckus verse. The group has been open about trying to bring “fun to drill,” and “Bent” epitomizes that mission. —A.G.
Drake feat. J. Cole, ‘First Person Shooter’
It’s always a rap holiday when J. Cole and Drake get together. And “First Person Shooter,” their collaboration from Drake’s For All The Dogs album, was more Christmas than President’s Day. With triumphant production crafted by an all-star mix of producers, “First Person Shooter” gave Drake a reprieve from For All The Dogs’ romantic woes to simply have fun, offering a bombastic verse that Cole follows up by lamenting the beef-thirsty blogosphere, before rhyming, “I’m lettin’ it rock ’cause I love the mystique.” On Drake’s show-closing verse, he lists off his romantic conquests and lets the rap world know, “Niggas talkin’ ’bout when this gon’ be repeated / What the fuck, bro? I’m one away from Michael, nigga, beat it.” Cole is one of the rap game’s certified feature killers, and his presence pushed Drake to talk his shit, which always feels like overdoing it in the best way possible. —A.G.
Ken Carson, ‘Jennifer’s Body’
A lot happens in the brief moment of silence at the start of Ken Carson’s hit “Jennifer’s Body.” For one, Carson steps confidently into the frame as a formidable member of Playboi Carti’s sharply rising Opium label. A Great Chaos, Carson’s third full-length, was one of the year’s more memorable rap albums and on the second track, after the song’s iconic beat cuts out for a dramatic pause, Carson arrives like a jolt of electricity, declaring the two things he’s never seen with a vocal dynamism rivaling his label’s boss and etching himself into the pantheon of this year’s most quote-worthy rap songs. You could maybe say the hallmark of the past generation of producers was the beat switch — think Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode,” or Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA.” The beat pause might very well be the Zoomer answer to the production styles of the past. Ken Carson manages to prove that he’s very much at the forefront of the next generation. —J.I.
Lil Yachty ft. J. Cole, ‘The Secret Recipe’
Lil Yachty started 2023 by eschewing rap on his bold, polarizing Let’s Start Here… album. But the Atlanta artist’s career-long effort to prove his chops as an MC didn’t dissipate, as evidenced by a slew of singles such as “Secret Recipe,” a back-and-forth with J. Cole over a solemn jazz loop that sounds solely concocted for one’s deepest meditations. Yachty starts off the track with an emphatic, back-against-the-wall energy, rapping with a high speed and higher pitch, sounding like a speeding car set to hydroplane off a race track. Cole follows up with a more measured delivery, giving off the energy of an NBA veteran who makes shooting 30 straight threes look routine through years of dedication. Both men are reflective with Yachty lamenting a lack of respect for shifting the sound and Cole rhyming, “My greatest flex is that I made a milli’, feel like I’m Bangladesh.” For Yachty, holding one’s own with an MC as revered as Cole is a strong way to earn your respect. —A.G.
Veeze, ‘Not A Drill’
This year belonged to Veeze, the laidback Detroiter whose delivery belies intricately clever wordplay woven into his raps. “Not A Drill,” the opening track of his excellent June release Ganger, gave us a motto for a year replete with harrowing events that’d arrive in the passing, ambient dread our newsfeeds. October’s emergency alert, sent to every phone in the country, seemed to mainly offer confirmation that we’re indeed living in scary times. So, Veeze’s opening credo on the track, “This is not a fire drill, nigga, this the real thing,” manages to carry an added urgency. Except Veeze is cool and collected amidst the chaos, his raps feel like they’re being delivered from a lawn chair. His vocals arrive with a nonchalance that suggests a level of expertise bordering on mastery—how LeBron might approach a pickup game with children. —J.I.
Ice Spice, ‘Deli’
For decades, club music sonics were siloed into sweaty warehouses and hole-in-the-wall venues eons away from the hip-hop landscape. But that’s changing with songs like Ice Spice’s “Deli,” where producer Riot’s frenetic club drums and filtered wails bled into the New York Drill energy and made the already danceable genre that much more enjoyable. The song is buoyed by Ice Spice shouting out a girl “showing her panty,” which is the perfect kind of confounding yet unforgettable line that indents a song into consciousness. Ice Spice slides over the chaotic production, offering a typically braggadocious verse about making money, a munch who “call me that bee while he eatin’ my honey,” and being the “baddest lil bitch on my block.” Her effortless bravado gives you get the sense that she recorded her vocals while patting her hair and thinking about what she’s going to wear while performing the banger in front of ravenous crowds. —A.G.
Latto feat. Cardi B, ‘Put It On Da Floor Again’
Latto’s record-breaking venture into pop stardom last year with“Big Energy” doesn’t detract from the thing she has been since she was a little girl in pastel, rapping and rocking a pastel hair bow and lavender backpack in a sea of gruff grown men – a tried and true MC. When Latto released “Put It On Da Floor” after teasing it at her fantastic inaugural Coachella performance this spring, it was a gory reintroduction to her cutthroat snark after the sugar of “Big Energy.” Then, as Larisha Paul pointed out in the song’s entry on our multi-genre list, Cardi B’s remix feature “dumps an ocean’s worth of gasoline on an already-blazing fire. The Bronx rapper’s signature one-liners stack up within seconds and include some hall-of-fame level entries, like the homage-paying declaration, ‘I’m sexy dancin’ in the house, I feel like Britney Spears,’ and the flooring takedown, ‘Got her lurkin’ on my page before she feed her kids.’” — M.C.
Sexyy Red, ‘SkeeYee’
In a lot of ways, we’ve entered the era of the Regular Rap Girl, in which stars are made out of grit, not glamor. Cardi B was a waymaker, offering unfettered glimpses of herself as a proto-creator with at-home videos on Instagram before breaking through with her steely anthem “Bodak Yellow.” More recently, Ice Spice took off as an around-the-way girl, playing the neighborhood’s sweetheart in a tube top and cutoffs at the park in the video for her hit “Munch” – for another single, she’d head to the deli. Glorilla’s “F.N.F (Let’s Go)” had a similar appeal, steeped in the freedom of car-side shenanigans with her best girlfriends. Enter Sexyy Redd with 2023’s “SkeeYee,” where she reps her roots with curt this-is-where-I’m-from-and-this-is-what-I-like bars about cutting up in Hellcats and strip clubs. Her conversational delivery and almost whiny trills make her exciting flow feel casual, and Tay Keith’s production is nostalgic for the simpler times of T-Mobile Sidekicks and physical mixtapes with its sinister piano loop, spacious bass, and piercing high hats. “SkeeYee” spread like a contagious laugh, so silly that it’s extraordinary. — M.C.