When (Relatively) Unknowns Stole The Show
A big part of the foundation of hip hop is battling. The idea of showing off your skills in front of your peers, one-upping your opponent in the process. That same concept, outshining your peers, has continued in today's hip hop scene. Nowadays, instead of full on battles (aside from Drake and Remy Ma) rappers tend to do this on each others tracks. Recently, Kendrick Lamar has been the master of this technique in strong performances on tracks like Control, Nosestalgia, and Holy Key. However, what's even more exciting is when a little known artist steps into the spotlight and steals the show. To be clear, we say relatively unknown meaning not known to the mainstream or casual listener. That is not a knock to the respective fan base of the artists listed. With that being said, here the list:
Chance the Rapper - Ultralight Beam
If you were a fan of Kanye West's The Life of Pablo, then you probably knew that Chance the Rapper would make an appearance on this list. While Chance the Rapper had a pretty substantial following up to this point, with his critically acclaimed project Acid Rap and notable guest appearances including one on Lil Wayne's Dedication 5, Ultralight Beam cemented his place in the mainstream. The religious themes on the song are right up Chance's alley, as he brings clarity and focus to the message Kanye could only auto-tune about. Chance had made it obvious before that he is cut from the cloth of Kanye, most obviously on Acid Rap's "Good Ass Intro", and he continues to champion his idol within this verse with references to "Otis" ("I made Sunday candy I'm never going to hell") and "Late" ("throw this at the end if I'm too late for the intro") . It's as if he knew that this verse would be game changing, as he repeats "This is MY part, NOBODY ELSE SPEAK!" We definitely heard you Lil Chano.
UGK - Big Pimpin
This addition may seem strange to some hip hop fans, considering UGK had been around 8 solid years before they appeared on Jay'Z's classic "Big Pimpin" but hear me out. While it is true that UGK had a massive following in the south prior to this song, with classics such as "Pocket Full of Stones" and gold certified Ridin Dirty, as their name states, they were still relatively underground at this point, at least outside of the south. That all changed when Jay-Z and Timbaland invited them to appear on the belly dance inspired beat. Ironically, the late great Pimp C didn't even want to be on the song! Apparently, he thought the single was too "poppy" for the UGK duo. He didn't even want to appear in the video! Eventually, he was convinced to join the video and he reluctantly contributed 8 solid, memorable bars for the track. UGK definitely stole the show, with Bun B's razor sharp lyricism and Pimp C's unforgettable southern drawl, and their career really took off after this song.
Killer Mike / T.I. - Never Scared
This song was a certified anthem upon it's release in 2003, back when music that made you want to fight in the club was it's on genre. This was the main artist's, Bone Crusher, first single and it was a huge hit, but it definitely wouldn't have been as potent without the contributions of Killer Mike and T.I. While Killer Mike had been featured on several Outkast songs at this point (and even won a Grammy for "The Whole World") he was still carving a name for himself in the industry. T.I. on the other hand, had already released an album (I'm Serious) but it was slept on and didn't receive as much attention as it deserved. The two young lyrical titans had something to prove, and they did just that with their verses on Never Scared. Killer Mike wastes no time, personifying his gun with permanent PMS (she stay bitchin). Not one to be outshined, T.I. comes right after with his on brand of Bankhead tough talk ("better tell these pussies, they ain't fuckin with no rookie/ I'm a Bankhead nigga, I'll take yo cookie"). Their contributions were also a cool sneak peek into what we would all see in the future of Killer Mike and T.I., who remain some of hip hop's elite lyricists.
J. Cole - A Star is Born
This song appeared on Jay-Z's Blueprint 3, an album that registered a "mmehh" on the scale of Jay-Z albums. Jay's verses on this were equally unimpressive, full of name drops, back-handed compliments, and ego. Luckily, young Jermaine Cole saves the day with his show stealing verse. Before this point, J. Cole had two critically acclaimed mixtapes with The Come Up and The Warm Up. He stated on the latter tape that had gotten a deal with the newly found Roc Nation, and this feature was set to be his debut with the Big Homie. He did not disappoint. In his verse, he tells the listener his under dog tale and delivers some sharp wordplay. He provides the counter of Hov's braggadocio with the humbleness and "your favorite rapper's rapper" flow that he still showcases today. Four platinum albums later, he has definitely proved himself to be a shining star.
Lupe Fiasco - Touch the Sky
Yes, we have another Kanye song, but this may be the best overall song on this list. While the other songs had the main artists out shined by unknowns, I think "Touch the Sky" would have been awesome as a stand alone track from Kanye. With a triumphant Just Blaze beat featuring a Curtis Mayfield sample, it's hard not to like Kanye's story of packing U-Haul vans with his mom and sharing KFC buckets with his girl. However, the addition of Lupe Fiasco turned out to be the icing on the cake. Up to this point, Lupe floated around a few record labels and delivered his classic mixtape series Fahrenheit 1/15, which highlighted his skills as an insanely lyrical, conscious rapper. His freestyle over Kanye's "Diamonds from Sierra Leon" caught the attention of Mr. West, and Lupe was invited to do a verse for "Touch the Sky". While some new rappers might play it safe on a mainstream single, Lupe stayed true to his fans and gave a super-lyrical 16 bars, referencing everything from Japanese manga, Thunder Cats, and porn stars. This paved the way for his standout single "Kick, Push" and led to him becoming a household name.