A Beginner's Guide to Rap Music

guide, music, rap

Don't care about the preamble? Skip to the music!

How to use this guide

This guide is divided into rough "subgenres" of rap music. For the most part, these aren't going to be the subgenres you'd find in other listings. Rather, they categorize the music by its strengths and notable features rather than by its social context. Instead of listing music as, e.g. "southern crunk," it might instead be listed as "poetic." While the traditional labeling schemes are helpful when you're familiar with the genre itself, they're not particularly useful when you don't know what you're looking for.

And so, I would suggest this guide be used in the following way. If you're completely new to rap music, listen to a random sampling of the tracks under Start Here. I've handpicked these to be relatively diverse in their sound, yet all should be relatively easy to listen to. Should you not like any of them, rap is probably not going to be a genre you'll enjoy.

However, if you do like some, pay attention to the feelings they evoke in you, and to what it is you like about them. Do you like the music behind the words? Maybe it's the impressive speed with which these people are able to spit out words. Or it could be you appreciate the storytelling or poetry of the lyrics. Once you have a rough understanding of the parts you like, find the closest subgenre listed below, and go through its tracks. If you find an artist whose music you like, branch out to other subgenres they're listed under and give those a listen, too.

With any luck, you'll find a few artists you like. From there, I'd suggest asking Google what their best album is, and listening to that all the way through. You're probably not going to like every track on it, but I'm certain you'll find some that you do. Rap music often features multiple artists on a track, and so explore other artists who collaborate with your favorites. Rappers with similar styles will usually work together, and so this is a great way to expand your taste beyond this guide.

There's a lot of prose in this guide, which is usually intended to give you some signposts for things to which you might benefit from paying attention. That being said, the majority of the contributions here is the list of music itself. Feel free to skip the text if all you're looking for is some new bangers.

Tracks in bold are my personal favorites of the lists.

Caveats and other disclaimers

Rap music comes with its fair share of criticism towards many of its themes. It's been accused of being misogynistic, racist, of promoting drug-use and immoral behavior, alongside a bevy of other antisocial accusations. While these blasts are not without merit, it is crucial to remember that rap music is a medium. In the same way that it's possible to appreciate well-written literature even while disagreeing with its central premise, one should be willing to grant hip-hop the same suspension of dislike. Of course, if a track or artist isn't for you, that's OK, but one should be capable of appreciating the art of a medium even without necessarily approving of its subject.

Along these lines, often rap music will deal with themes (and have titles) that might be considered unpleasant to a sensitive listener. It should be understood that this list is a compilation of music that I like, and as such, I will not censor myself of any titles or tracks that might be deemed impolite.

Furthermore, the music represented here is first and foremost music that I like. If you are already a rap aficionado, the absence of a favorite track or artist of yours, it's nothing to be upset about. If you think my list is drastically wrong, feel free to write your own (and if you send me an email, I'll even link to it here!)

And so, without further ado, let's get into the music.

Start Here

The following is a list of tracks I consider widely easy to listen to. If none of them tickle your toes, rap music might not be for you.

The Three Pillars

Hip-hop is a vastly diverse genre. Therefore, it shouldn't be a surprise that different sub-genres of hip-hop will appeal to different people. In my opinion, there are a few primary facets of rap music worth paying attention to. These are the beats, the lyricism and the flow.

The beats are the backing instrumentals. Hip-hop is different from most other genres of music in that it generally has very simple backing. It is not uncommon for a beat to be a few bars sampled from a completely different genre (funk is a popular one, though!)

The lyricism is a little harder to define, but roughly corresponds both to how clever the lyrics are, and to the complexity of the rhyme scheme. As a genre of music that leans heavily on words, rappers often turn to word play and phrases that can be interpreted in many different ways. Furthermore, lyricism also encapsulates the rhyming scheme; some rappers might rhyme only in couplets, while others will have upwards of ten rhymes in a single line.

The flow of a track is the delivery of its verses. A flow might be smooth or staccato. It might be easygoing and reminiscent of storytelling, or it might feel artificial and affected. The flow, in other words, characterizes the performance of a song.

As you go through the following tracks, try to keep an ear open to the three pillars: beats, lyricism and flow. See if any of them resounds more strongly in you than the others.

Emphasis on Beats

Tracks with particularly interesting beats. Hip-hop music often samples from eclectic sources; these ones are from extra eclectic ones.

Emphasis on Lyricism

These tracks are interesting lyrically. They feature dense rhyme schemes, rely on double, triple or sometimes quadruple entendres, and are otherwise rewarding to analyze linguistically.

POETIC

CLEVER WORDPLAY

EMPHASIS ON STORYTELLING

Emphasis on Flow

Tracks performed exceptionally well. Many of these are very fast, involve tongue twisters, or come off so effortlessly that they might lull you to sleep. But in a good way.

TECHNICALLY IMPRESSIVE

HEAVY FLOW

SMOOTH FLOW

Particular Moods

Looking for hip-hop music that will scratch a particular itch emotionally?

INSPIRING

ANGER

HOPELESSNESS

DARK

REDEMPTION

Miscellaneous Categories

EASY LISTENING

Looking for an easy playlist for a small get-together? The music here is categorized by catchy beats, light subject matter, and being relatively well known. You're probably not going to impress anyone by knowing this music, but you might get some looks if you don't.

LIGHT AND FUN

Hip-hop music that will put a smile on your face, be it for its silly rhyme schemes, fun subject matter, or ridiculous imagery.

GANGSTER RAP

This is the kind of stuff that rap music gets some of its bad reputation from.

MUSIC BY WOMEN

While this is not really a genre, rap music is usually dominated by men, so it's nice to call out particularly good examples from women. You'll also find these tracks in other sections, if they fit there too.

NON-ENGLISH

Though rap is an American phenomenon, that doesn't mean it can't cross cultural boundaries.

GENRE BENDING

Rap can also cross genre boundaries!

RIDICULOUS / OFFENSIVE

And finally, a collection of tracks that are so ridiculous, either on premise or how hard they go out of their way to be offensive. That's not to say there isn't value here, but if you're squeamish, you might want to look elsewhere first.