There are, unfortunately, too many bad reasons to listen to hip-hop. I love Nelly’s Band-Aid. No thank you. Ja Rule’s thug operas are the future of the game. Screw you. I loved NSync, and Justin is so hip-hop now. That’s false.

Paul Wong
Courtesy of Sony
Smooth voice be damned. A coherent track list from Ghostface Killah would be nice.

One of the most compelling reasons to love hip-hop, though, is that the genre provides those who have something to say with an avenue through which to speak. Unlike some other musical forms in which instrumental artistry often trumps the lyrics being recited, hip-hop’s poetry-over-beats format inherently asks listeners to attend to an artist’s words. Given this focus on what’s being said, those who roc(k) the mic with a distinct voice have an advantage.

That follows, then, is a list of those whose flows are most enhanced by their voices; those rappers who have pipes that embellish and distinguish their rhyming. This is not a list documenting the most recognizable voices, so you won’t see Magoo on it. This is not a list cataloguing the best lyricists, so you won’t see Eminem. Readers who do not see Jill Scott or D’Angelo should not have a conniption because this list only accounted for hip-hop’s rapping emcees and excluded its singers. Similarly, this is a contemporary list and thus, the notable voices belonging to Chuck D and Big Daddy Kane were excluded because they are generally inactive. Having been briefed, please proceed.

10. Freeway Free’s inclusion on this list surely will anger some hip-hop fans who believe that his nasal voice and sometimes bizarre delivery are more annoying than people who try to plausibly assert that Harry Potter is better than Lord of the Rings. But like those misguided Potter fans, Free’s detractors are wrong. Freeway employs a singsong delivery that stops short of Ja Rule but certainly mirrors his songs’ melodies more so than the flow of someone like Nas. He is able to successfully find this middle ground precisely because his higher pitch and timbre perfectly bridge the schism between rapping and singing. Further, Freeway is not all singsong all the time. His work on tracks like “Line ‘Em Up” and “What We Do” is almost wholly straight spitting, and he acquits himself nicely. Anyone who has heard Jay-Z’s “1-900-Hustler” knows that Free made that song his own because of his voice and style.

9.Rakim “It’s been a long time / I shouldn’t have left you / Without a dope beat to step too,” said Rakim on “I Know You Got Soul.” William Griffin has been gone from hip-hop’s spotlight for so long that his words from 1987 seem prescient today. Yet, anyone who has heard “The Watcher 2” off of Jay-Z’s latest album knows that Rakim can still deliver and that considering him out of the game is a mistake. His solid, consistent, deep voice allows Rakim to deliver his involved metaphors and similes with great authority and confidence – a trademark of his pioneering style.

8. Mos Def The socially conscious lyrics and matter-of-fact tone that emanate from Mos’ mouth never sound forced. This owes to an unassuming voice that provides the emcee with a subtlety when wanted, yet also makes his moments of passion that much more pronounced. There is even a humorously sleepy quality to Mos’ voice that sometimes – listen to the Roots’ “Double Trouble” – makes it sound as though he has been roused from sleep and is recounting tales half-coherently.

7.Snoop Dogg Snoop’s voice is a welcoming and relaxing one. While some of his subject matter and beats can be the exact opposite – deterring and frenetic – listeners can mostly find the sound of the Dogg’s flow soothing, and this makes his material palatable. This vocal quality, in conjunction with a measured delivery, has helped the D-O-double-G cultivate his laid-back persona and makes his rhymes sound crafted and engaging.

6.DMX Before Ja punked DMX and stole his guttural sound and thug niche, no one sounded scarier when they got on the mic. That can still be true, because the man’s voice hasn’t changed, just his beats and regard. Whether it be the ominous barking which often precedes a verses or the gruff delivery, DMX has the perfect voice for his music. He’s ominous without being unbelievable, and his tales of the streets are made credible by a worn voice that implies that X has lived what he spits.

5.Jay-Z If one can patent the subtle, playful precursory sounds often made at the opening of rap songs, then Jay-Z should. When listeners first hear an “Uh huh huh” at the start of a song, they know that the smooth, narrative voice of the Jigga man is not far off. At this point, after all the hits and all the exposure, Jay’s conversational style makes each individual fan feel as though he or she is the only friend to whom Jay is speaking. Jigga, in turn, parlays this trust into expressive freedom that he uses to escort his listeners though various subjects. The voyage is made possible by Jay’s inviting tone.

4.Guru Guru has a husky, relaxed tone of voice that lends his music an effortless sound. From storytelling to battling, Guru’s subdued nature gives his flow a supercilious sense. This, in turn, only enhances the respect one has to have for an emcee as talented as Guru. No emcee sounds more comfortable on the mic, and no emcee could ever want to have his style compared with the relaxed Guru’s. Simply and literally, the man makes it sound easy.

3.Baatin Mainstream hip-hop heads might not know Baatin, but the Slum Village emcee has a quiet, scratchy voice that translates to a smooth flow. Providing a distinct contrast to the more energetic sound of fellow S.V.er T3 or the commanding delivery of departed SV member and super producer Jay Dee, Baatin is an understated contributor to any record, and whether he be repping Conant Gardens or wondering how many hits it takes “a record to blow,” his deft rhyming skills and voice can mesmerize audiences.

2. Ghostface Killah Even if there were no Wu, everyone would know Ghost. His voice can sound abrasive, measured, sympathetic, loud. Yet this diversity is a perfect complement to his creative and, frankly, deranged personality. The man’s three LP’s have made fans both amazed and scared, yet he is one-of-a-kind in his delivery and his voice has a great exuberance. Coupled with varied subjects and tones, Tony Starks’ unique yet versatile sound ensures that music fans know who is flowing.

1.Chali 2na The best voice in hip-hop is the deep, melodic baritone possessed by the Jurassic 5 emcee. 2na’s sound is distinctive, and his delivery is always anchored by the bass in his voice. When harmonizing with his compatriots – a J5 staple – the deep sound really stands out. 2na is also able to inject his rhymes with a playfulness that often manifests itself in his vocal modulations. On stage, working in concert with 2na’s innate sense of performance, these variations endear the emcee to the often adoring and captivated crowd. Another effect deftly cultivated and exploited by Chali is his astounding ability to rapidly spit while maintaining a consistent volume and tone. Sometimes never stopping for air, Chali pleases fans even further, mesmerizing those hearing a big man with a booming voice spit rhymes quickly. Chali 2na’s voice is an unforgettable, unmistakable sound that suits his music and distinguishes him from his peers.

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