30 hip-hop tracks that defined the 2010s
From minimalist mosh-pit fillers, to family-friendly trap, here are the best, most important moments from the decade when rap got weird.
Handily, for a list of hip-hop tracks that defined the 2010s, rap music can be shoehorned fairly neatly into thematic decades. There’s the old-school 80s, where the various components of the culture came together and -- if we’re truly honest -- MCs and DJs were still figuring out how the whole thing worked. Then the golden age of the 90s, with its quantum leaps forward in lyrical skill, production complexity and sheer star power -- the era that still over-indexes in rap’s canonical moments.
Next the hedonistic, high-sheen 00s, where hip-hop truly went mainstream -- often assisted by R&B hooks, or club beats, or just by being done by a white guy -- and severed ties with an increasingly purist, craft-focused underground.
And finally the 2010s, a strange sort of decade, where the music seemed to turn its back on both the big-budget gloss of chart rap and self-consciously worthy "real hip-hop", and enter its awkward art-school punk phase -- dressing weird, taking drugs, forgetting how to rap properly and making strange, spooky beats on its laptop.
Except that, somewhere around the era’s midpoint, the same internet tools that had allowed hip-hop to get more DIY, deconstructed and democratic -- DatPiff mixtapes and Soundcloud streaming; lo-fi music videos on YouTube and song snippets on Vine and TikTok -- began to propel this strange, uncommercial new vision of rap to global domination. So that, in 2019, hip-hop is no longer part of the pop mainstream, it is the pop mainstream -- a chart-devouring, genre-blurring beast borne out of bedrooms and built on the good old internet. Entirely subjective (but also correct), here are the 30 best and most important songs that helped it get there.
30. Flex (Ooh, Ooh, Ooh) – Rich Homie Quan (2015)
The first casualty of rap's 2010s version of the punk wars was good diction. Rapper after rapper lined up to reject tired old concepts of “being a competent MC”; kids thrilled to 21 Savage's monotone mutter and Kodak Black's stumbling, mush-mouthed flow, while their parents cried into old Lyricist Lounge compilations. Rich Homie Quan's near-incomprehensible 2015 breakthrough was a mumble-rap milestone -- 35 years of rhymes, metaphors and punchlines refined to their purest essence: a series of joyous noises.
29. Yonkers – Tyler the Creator (2011)
Tyler, the Creator wore a lot of hats (and wigs) in the 2010s: Odd Future svengali; Golf Wang streetwear entrepreneur; sonic experimentalist and introspective wise old head by the age of 28. But its his earliest incarnation -- verbose and foul-mouthed bundle of dirt-rap contradictions -- that produced his most dramatic musical intervention. Lurching, queasy, and darkly funny, "Yonkers" was four-ish minutes of precisely zero fucks being given.
28. Tomboy – Princess Nokia (2016)
With a cocktail of intersectional feminism and very specific 90s references we didn't know we needed, Princess Nokia (FKA Wavy Spice) thrillingly pre-empted hip-hop’s woman-dominated late decade.
27. XO Tour Llife3 – Lil Uzi Vert (2017)
Of all the stylistic twists you might have expected of hip-hop at the start of the decade, becoming more emo was probably low down the list. But then along came of clutch of face-tattooed, hair-dyed introverts making drug-addled bedroom sing-rap about feeling alienated and girls treating them badly, and it was… something. Hot Topic pocket rocket Lil Uzi Vert made the most compelling case for that something being a good thing.
26. Mo Bamba – Sheck Wes (2017)
There was something lovably low-key about a lot of this decade’s big moments. Take the breakout hit from Harlem native Sheck Wes: a twinkly one-fingered melody over a gut-shaking bass drone; shouty rapping that can most kindly be described as functional; a bit in the middle where the computer playing the beat conks out and Wes is reduced to acapella swearing; a series of half-hearted boasts (“I’m the best drug dealer”) overshadowed by its central tribute to the titular Mo, a good-but-not-yet great NBA player who went to school with Wes. It's a thoroughly charming musical "will this do?" One to which we answer: Sheck yes.
25. White Iverson – Post Malone (2015)
Later hits flattened out Post's Soundcloud wonkiness into frat-friendly autotunealongs, but debut smash "White Iverson" remains an infectious enigma -- all stoned vulnerability laced through with a fragile bravado that mimics the flawed genius of its central metaphor.
24. Birthday Song – 2 Chainz feat. Kanye West (2012)
The greatest bit of hip-hop name day commemoration since 50 Cent wished us many happy returns **whether or not it was even our birthday**. "Birthday Song" actually celebrates all of life's rich pageant, from nativity ('All I want for my birthday is a big booty ho') to last rites ('When I die, bury me inside the Gucci store'). Bonus points for its social (sur)realist video, which is a bit like if Martin Parr had directed a strip rap banger.
23. Thotiana [Remix] – Blueface feat. Cardi B (2019)
LA rapper Blueface emerged in late 2018 with a tonne of stoney charisma and a weird, arrhythmic flow that bore little relation to whatever beat it was notionally riding. Breakthrough mixtape Famous Cryp was more of an interesting curio than anything that demanded repeat listens, but then Cardi B jumped on a remix of its best track, traded her own laser-guided filthiness with Blueface's goofy, rambling boasts ("Momma always told me I was gonna break hearts"), and an unlikely phenomenon was born.
22. Black Beatles – Rae Sremmurd feat. Gucci Mane (2016)
It may have risen to ubiquity for a very mid-2010s reason -- as the soundtrack to the viral "mannequin challenge" -- but the Atlanta trap weirdos' paen to being a bit sad at the strip club had a timeless hookiness that would have cut through even without a load of videos of teenagers standing very still in high school common rooms.
21. Bound 2 – Kanye West (2013)
Having reached his artistic and technical peak somewhere around the 7 minute mark of the monumental "Runaway", Kanye began taking his creations apart to show how they worked. This consciously self-de(con)structive streak produced diminishing returns as the decade progressed but on something like "Bound 2" it felt genuinely transgressive -- the lush, dusty soul samples of 'the old Kanye' but artificial-seeming (like that ludicrous green screen music video) and jarring; clever-dumb lyrics that mashed together the crude ("don't get spunk on the mink") and the affecting ("I'm tired, you tired / Jesus wept") in the space of a few bars.
20. Old Town Road – Lil Nas X feat. Billy Ray Cyrus (2019)
There’s so much to love about the "Old Town Road" saga -- how a teenager from Atlanta bought a beat off a teenager from the Netherlands, built around a sample from a Nine Inch Nails deep cut that came out while both were in primary school, rapped a bunch of hokey cowpoke lyrics over the top, went viral on TikTok, caused consternation among the country chart compilers before ascending to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, added collaborator after collaborator (starting with Billy Ray Cyrus) to remix after remix to help keep him there for an entire summer, before coming out as one of the first openly gay male hip-hop stars and generally being thoroughly charming throughout the whole process -- that it wouldn’t really matter if the song wasn’t a banger. Reader, the song is a banger.
19. Walker Texas Ranger – DaBaby (2019)
The biggest new star of the decade’s final year had little in common with his predecessors. But what DaBaby lacked in face tattoos, neon hair and codeine-infused autotune, he more than made up for in crisp rhymes, punchy punchlines and outsize charisma. DaBaby’s most 2010s characteristic? His instantly-gifable catalog of low-budget, high concept music videos.
18. OOOUUU – Young M.A. (2016)
Young M.A. hasn’t again hit the heights of her brilliant, bolshy, boozy debut, but we’re reminded of the old Joseph Heller line when people would complain he’d never written anything as good as Catch-22: who has?
17. Swimming Pools (Drank) – Kendrick Lamar (2012)
What’s left to say about Kung Fu Kenny, this decade’s most critically-acclaimed rapper by a country mile? Perhaps that, for all that we admire his high-art, politically-charged videos and his complex, challenging To Pimp a Butterfly album, we kind of liked him most of all when he made a cautionary anti-drinking song that sounded like the sort of back-in-the-day house party that you’d really like to have a few drinks at.
16. Trap Queen – Fetty Wap (2014)
Rap narratives haven't traditionally presented us with many functional, egalitarian, co-supportive couples, but the central characters in Fetty Wap’s sing-rap one-hit-wonder were straight relationship goals. Cooking crack together, joint strip club trips, all the while aspiring to a pair of matching Lamborghinis -- it was 2010s hip-hop’s most purely sweet moment.
15. 212 – Azealia Banks feat. Lazy Jay (2011)
Social media beefs, problematic outbursts and a scattergun application of her considerable talents have conspired to make the 2010s something of a wasted decade for the Harlem rapper. But if it proved a false one, “212” was a hell of a starting pistol to sound. Over the grimiest of club beats, Banks flips from character to character -- horny Azealia, funny Azealia, sassy Azealia, absolutely furious Azealia -- with the dexterity of a master thespian. Later evidence suggests it wasn't quite such an act.
14. Hands on the Wheel – Schoolboy Q feat. A$AP Rocky (2012)
Xanax, cough syrup and prescription painkillers were rap’s 2010s drugs of choice, but the scene still found room for the occasional old-school, weed-and-booze fuelled banger. Schoolboy Q’s Interscope debut single was just such a banger.
13. Shotta Flow – NLE Choppa (2019)
Sparse, menacing rap music accompanied by profoundly goofy dancing was another weirdly pervasive 2010s trope (indeed, the UK drill scene built an entire musical movement around it). But no one delivered the dance routine-death threat dichotomy more compellingly than 16-year-old Memphis MC NLE Choppa.
12. Big Ole Freak – Megan Thee Stallion (2019)
Breakthroughs don’t come much more impactful than having a whole season named after you, but pop music’s summer 2019 was officially a hot girl one, and that hot girl was Megan Thee Stallion. A second-generation MC out of Houston, Texas, Megan stood tallest in a crowd of proudly sex-obsessed female rappers (City Girls, Doja Cat, Asian Doll, Rico Nasty, Saweetie) and Big Ole Freak was her dirty magnum opus.
11. Family Don't Matter – Young Thug feat. Millie Go Lightly (2017)
Young Thug's 2016 mixtape Jeffrey -- with its tight 40-ish minutes of gorgeous, reggae-tinged stoner-trap and cover portrait of Thugger in an Alessandro Trincone dress -- might be the most complete artistic triumph of the decade. Beautiful Thugger Girls, released 10 months later by the hyper-prolific MC, is a more rambling affair, but it does kick off with the lovely "Family Don't Matter" -- all folksy acoustic guitar and weary romanticism, not to mention a country sensibility and opening "yeehaw" that cleared the way for Lil Nas X's full cavalry charge.
10. Broccoli – DRAM feat. Lil Yachty (2016)
Things that will make a rap tune a certified banger in any era: a silly central euphemism for weed, a joyous singalong chorus, a self-aware and hilarious video, the plinky-plonkiest piano accompaniment since Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend”, a recorder solo. DRAM and Yachty ticked all these boxes and more.
9. Bad and Boujee – Migos feat. Lil Uzi Vert (2016)
“Raindrop, drop top / smokin' on cookie in the hotbox” -- In the annals of era-defining opening lyrics, it's no "It was all a dream / I used to read Word Up! Magazine or "I grew up on the crime side / the New York Times side". But Offset's wonky nursery rhyme intro was memorable enough to launch a thousand memes, and have white America singing along to eerie Atlanta trap like it was the most normal thing in the world
8. F**kin Problems – A$AP Rocky feat. Drake, 2 Chainz, Kendrick Lamar (2012)
A$AP Rocky augmented and ornamented the decade in so many ways -- fashion icon, artistic muse, actor, intercontinental enfant terrible, psychedelic drug advocate -- that it wouldn’t even really matter if he hadn’t left any especially lasting musical contributions. Nevertheless, by rounding up three of the era’s heavyweights and collectively going H.A.M on the topic of bad bitches (and why we love them), he ensured he absolutely did.
7. Nosetalgia - Pusha T feat. Kendrick Lamar (2013)
Sometimes you want to hear deconstructed, introspective Soundcloud sing-rap. And sometimes you want to hear Pusha T and Kendrick in beast mode boasting about being really good coke dealers.
6. Minnesota – Lil Yachty feat. Quavo, Skippa da Flippa (2016)
If the 2010s were rap’s punk era, then Lil Yachty’s “I couldn’t name five songs by Tupac or Biggie” was its Bill Grundy interview, foot-through-the-telly moment. Sadly, Yachty got progressively better at rapping and less interesting as the decade progressed but for at least two moments -- that quote, and the wonderful, weird, icy-fresh "Minnesota" -- he sounded like a true revolutionary.
5. Hot N*gga – Bobby Shmurda (2014)
It'd be bleak if Bobby Shmurda's cultural impact got reduced to one song, or even one line from one song. But even if incarceration permanently derails his once-promising career, it's a heck of moment to be remembered for. Prefiguring the late 2010s meme-rap explosion, Shmurda's hat-flip, "about a week agooo" line delivery and hip-swinging 'shmoney dance' were all it took to propel his debut single to Vine-fuelled A-list status. But the track and video that surrounds the iconic 6 secs -- a slinky, crazy-confident statement of intent; a perfect whole-crew-standing-around-looking-tough set-up -- are just as irresistible.
4. Mask Off – Future (2017)
Future’s sleepy auto-croon was one of the more ubiquitous sounds of the 2010s, whether straight from the horse’s mouth or emanating from one of his many imitators. Metro Boomin-assisted flute-rap was more of an early 2017 phenomenon, but the two came together beautifully on this haunting pharmaceutical shopping list.
3. N*ggas in Paris – Kanye West x Jay Z (2011)
Josephine Baker dancing onstage at the Folies-Bergère; James Baldwin writing Go Tell it on the Mountain at a table in the Café de Flore; Kanye West and Jay-Z getting fucked up at Le Meurice. "N*ggas in Paris" both situated early 2010s hip-hop in a specific history of African-American cultural cosmopolitanism, and signposted its future. Ralph Lauren polos were out; Margiela jackets were in. Goodbye sweeping soul samples; hello sparse, spooky synth riffs you could how somehow mosh to.
2. Marvins Room – Drake (2011)
In an era short on big stars, Aubrey Graham probably shone brightest, dad-dancing his way through all the touchpoints of 2010s success: reaction gifs, memes, high concept/low budget YouTube virality, even boring old platinum-shifting albums and mixtapes. He also arguably kicked off one its defining moods – chemically-altered 3am sadboi introspection -- with this unflinching poor-little-rich-kid self-portrait. Depressing sex jams were a big 2011 moment (see also: Frank Ocean's "Novacane" and the Weeknd's House of Balloons album), but Drake's late-night lamentations echoed across the decade -- like a horny, self-hating clarion call.
1. Bodak Yellow – Cardi B (2017)
You could write an essay on the meaning of Cardi B’s ascent to hip-hop's highest tier. How streaming-facilitated genre-blurring and the removal of traditional gatekeepers enabled a stripper turned internet celeb turned reality TV star to not only score an absolutely monster rap hit, but to be pretty much universally critically-acclaimed doing it. Alternatively, you could just listen to the first few bars -- that ominous haunted house riff punctuated by a spat out ‘said liiil BITCH…’ -- to figure out the essential truth. Cardi goes hard. That’s the same in any decade.