Whether your hip-hop knowledge is next to nil or you can quote every verse from Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage" by heart, hip-hop has undoubtedly impacted your understanding of pop culture at some point over the past few decades. Ever since its inception in the mid-1970s, hip-hop has infused everything from social movements to fashion trends to slang — and, of course, the music industry.
Though most people might think of music when it comes to the catch-all phrase “hip-hop,” rapping is just one aspect of hip-hop culture (along with DJing, breakdancing, graffiti, and more). But rap lyrics have captured the public imagination for decades, as they allow artists to use raw, expressive wordplay to push back against the dominant narrative. It was, and remains, a way for individuals to speak their truths in powerful, inventive ways.
Many famous hip-hop artists have become icons in their own right. From The Notorious B.I.G. to Tupac, Dr. Dre to Nelly, Busta Rhymes to Kanye West, Queen Latifah to Lauryn Hill, Salt-N-Pepa to Nicki Minaj, each artist carries with them a distinct persona and bravado. It’s just one reason hip-hop has had such a widespread and lasting cultural effect: It is always evolving, and never boring.
Below, we’ve rounded up 12 of the most famous hip-hop lyrics of all time, which speak to the dynamic, wide range of hip hop’s reach.
I said a hip-hop, the hippie, the hippie / To the hip, hip-hop and you don't stop the rockin'.“Rapper’s Delight," The Sugarhill Gang
It’s hard to explain the sheer joy that emanates from the first few lines of the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” released in 1980 on their eponymous album. Largely considered the first commercially released rap song, the record has faced its fair share of controversy, with critics noting that the track doesn’t dip into the urban anger that powered so many of its less commercially successful predecessors. Still, hip-hop’s entrance into the mainstream marked a shift in the genre’s appeal and audience, the effects of which are still felt today.
Got the hottest chick in the game wearin’ my chain.“Public Service Announcement,” Jay-Z
Though it was misquoted no less than three times at the 2016 Emmy Awards, Jay-Z’s highly recognizable line from his 2003 hit “Public Service Announcement,” off The Black Album, is still one of the best-known hip-hop lyrics of all time. It may not be the most dexterous of lines, but it was made extra memorable by the fact that it was referencing his then-girlfriend, now-wife Beyoncé.
Went from makin' tuna sandwiches to makin' the news / I started speakin' my mind and tripled my views.“Get Up 10,” Cardi B
Cardi B first shot to fame with her appearance on VH1’s "Love & Hip Hop: New York," but it wasn’t until she released her 2018 single “Bodak Yellow” that she really started making headlines. Known for her no-holds barred flow and her candid lyrics, Cardi B became the second female rapper to top the Hot 100 with a solo, no-features single, 20 years after Lauryn Hill's "Doo Wop (That Thing)". Her lyrics are often fun and irreverent, though her messages are bold, touting female empowerment, hustler mentality, and an ode to her humble roots in the Bronx.
It was a clear black night, a clear white moon.“Regulate,” Warren G featuring Nate Dogg
Warren G’s 1994 hit “Regulate” originally appeared on the soundtrack for the film Above the Rim, but it continued its success as part of the rapper’s 1994 album Regulate… G Funk Era. The song is largely counted among the greatest narratives of the genre, with compelling lyricism, a fluid back-and-forth between the two rappers, and most importantly of all, an effortless cool.
Gettin’ funky on the mic like a old batch of collard greens.“Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang,” Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Dogg
Snoop Dogg (at the time better known as Snoop Doggy Dogg) and Dr. Dre make for an unstoppable force. The pair teamed up for this ever-catchy song, which was included on Dr. Dre’s 1992 album The Chronic. The dynamic duo reunited at the Super Bowl halftime show to perform the popular track 30 years later, much to the delight of Gen Xers and millennials everywhere.
Is it worth it? Let me work it / I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it.“Work It,” Missy Elliott
In a sea of talented female emcees, Missy Elliott stands out as someone who combines smooth flow and raunchy lyricism with enviable ease. The multi-hyphenate raps, sings, produces, and writes songs, and has collaborated with many of the all-time greats, including childhood friend Timbaland. She’s been called the “Queen of Rap” and has four Grammys to her name. In 2021, she was even honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Damn right I like the life I live / 'Cause I went from negative to positive.“Juicy,” The Notorious B.I.G.
The ‘90s were a prime time for hip-hop, and The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy,” off his 1994 album Ready to Die, was an anthem for hip-hop fans of the era. The track recounts the rapper’s hard upbringing in Brooklyn and his unlikely rise to fame, while encouraging listeners to “reach for the stars” and similarly pull themselves out of adverse circumstances.
Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem / Baby girl, respect is just a minimum.“Doo Wop (That Thing),” Lauryn Hill
In a musical genre so often dominated by men, Lauryn Hill commanded attention and respect with her smooth lyricism and signature soulful voice. Incredibly, she only ever released one studio album, 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, but the staying power of her songs prove that one was all she needed to leave a mark.
Let's change the way we treat each other / You see, the old way wasn't workin' / So it's on us to do what we gotta do to survive.“Changes," Tupac Shakur
In his brief time on earth, Tupac Shakur managed to write and record some of the most influential songs in hip-hop history, including “Changes,” which was released posthumously on his 1998 Greatest Hits album, two years after Tupac was shot and killed at the age of 25. The song has had extreme longevity past its initial release, with everyone from the Insane Clown Posse to Nas sampling the song for their own hits.
If I told you that a flower bloomed in a dark room / Would you trust it?“Poetic Justice,” Kendrick Lamar featuring Drake
In 2012, Kendrick Lamar forever staked his claim in hip-hop history with his hit album good kid, m.A.A.d city. One of the standout tracks was “Poetic Justice," a song that's been revered for its incisive lyrics and its smooth sampling of Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place.” Lamar went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his 2017 album DAMN, making him the first rapper to ever be bestowed the honor.
Real Gs move in silence like lasagna.“6 Foot 7 Foot,” Lil Wayne featuring Cory Gunz
No one does wordplay quite like Lil Wayne, who is revered by fans for his smart, almost nerdy, fascination with double entendre and puns. On his 2011 hit “6 Foot 7 Foot” off the album Tha Carter IV, he samples a Harry Belafonte song that uses the titular phrase to refer to Jamaican dock workers, using the power of hip-hop to usurp the white gaze.
If heaven had a height, you would be that tall.“The Light,” Common
Musical influence and lineage is hugely important to hip-hop culture. Common, for instance, sampled Bobby Caldwell’s “Open Your Eyes” and The Detroit Emeralds’ “You’re Gettin’ Too Smart” for his 2000 track “The Light.” The hit track, from his 2000 album Like Water for Chocolate, was penned for his then-girlfriend Erykah Badu and is a prime example of a hip-hop love song.
Featured image credit: Brett Jordan/ Unsplash