The Most Distinct Voices in Hip-Hop

I really enjoyed writing the post about “ugly” voices, so I’ve decided to do a second installment on vocals. Vocals are so interesting because they can be the most immediate thing you hear and really impact a song. Guitar riffs, orchestral swells, and breakbeats can sound really similar, but voices can be distinct. Oftentimes, vocals can make or break a band or artist.

Nowhere is this more true than in Hip-Hop.

Of course, the production, or the beats, in hip-hop play a huge role in the genre as well. In hip-hop’s infancy, the DJ was the star of the show, not the MC.  While the production is essential, I would argue that vocals are just as or more important. It’s possible to still dislike an artist because of his or her voice, no matter how catchy the beats are. For example, I like the beats behind some of Lil’ Waynes’s songs , but I can’t stand the way he raps.

Today’s post is all about the most distinct voices in hip-hop. However, I’m mostly going to focus on current artists for the sake of brevity.

1. Chali 2na

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I had to start with this guy for sentimental reasons. Chali 2na is one part of the legendary Jurassic 5. Thanks to my cool, older brother Cleve, J5 is the group that really got me into hip-hop. They broke down all the misconceptions I had about rap, and my favorite member (and I think Cleve’s too) is Chali. He has this really satisfying baritone voice that immediately stands out. Even though J5 hasn’t put out an album in a while (here’s to hoping they do since they’ve been touring), Chali has released a few solo albums that are pretty good. I really like Fish Out of Water, which has songs that hearken back to the old-school sound of J5, and songs where he allows himself to be vulnerable. His deep voice works really well on songs like “Song for Bebe,” which shares the painful story of the death of his close cousin. While I definitely hope J5 puts out another album, I also hope this guys keeps working for years to come.

2. Nicki Minaj

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I’m pretty new to Nicki’s stuff. I heard her legendary verse on Kanye’s “Monster,” and I have heard a few of her hits on the radio, but I recently decided to give her newest album, The Pinkprint, a try. Even though it’s kind of long (even though a lot of rap albums are), I still enjoy a lot of the songs. I love how Niki can transition from her sweet, proper “Barbie” voice to a vicious growl. She’s also has the ability to write a variety of different types of lyrics. She has songs about heartbreak and songs about how awesome she is. It’s a good mix as so many rappers just write and rap about rapping.

3. Pusha T

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It may sound contradictory, but Pusha has such a smooth, viscous flow. As you might have guessed from his subtle stage name, King Push raps mostly about selling dope. I think Pusha summed up his vocal style in the song “New God Flow,” which he did with Kanye: “I think it’s good that Ye got a blow dealer/a hot temper mixed with a cold killer.” Guess which one is which? Typically, I don’t really like hearing dudes rap about selling drugs, but that’s the genius behind Pusha. His voice is so pleasing and his raps are so skillful and clever. I view it like watching Scarface or Breaking Bad. Even if the characters are sometimes unsympathetic, the piece is so well written that it’s just good art. Same is true with Pusha.

4. Killer Mike

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KIller Mike has gained popularity with his 2012 release R.A.P. Music and from his collaborative project with El-P, Run the Jewels. Mike has a song called “Big Beast,” which is exactly how I would describe him except I would add “with a heart of gold,” at the end. He is intense and takes no prisoners, but he loves the people. His politically-charged raps about police brutality and the prison industrial complex have weight, but he’s also not afraid to have fun on songs too. As far as how his voice sounds, he is an Atlanta gentleman and sometimes raps with a pleasant southern drawl. On Run the Jewel’s “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry,” he describes how he “Tip Toe[s] on the track like a ballerina.” This is a perfect way to describe how he raps: graceful, skillful, and uncompromising.

5. Danny Brown

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I really hated Danny Brown for a while. Not just his nasally high-pitched voice but also his songs. A lot of his work comprises of bizarre sex jams, which sometimes feel kind of juvenile. His last album, Old, won me over though. The album has a good mix of party songs and serious songs about growing up in Detroit. Brown also mixes up his vocal style on songs like “Old” and “The Return” making his songs a little more palatable. His really high-pitched voice can be grating at times and his style of rapping is definitely an acquired taste. Still, his unique vocals make him a distinct artist working today.

6. Drake

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Drake’s newest album features the number six a lot, so I figured I’d put Drizzy in this spot. People love to hate on Drake, but dude is super successful, so some people must be lying about not liking him. Drake sings/raps in a lot of his songs, which some people may think is corny, but I like it. Lauryn Hill does it and sounds fantastic. Drake is no Lauryn Hill, but I think he pulls off the rapping/singing thing pretty well. Another factor that makes Drake so distinct, is what music writer Tom Breihan pointed out as his ability to make “…every line sound like a hook.” It’s true too, especially on his newest If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. I’ve had a ton of one liners and hooks stuck in my head for the week and a half it’s been out.

7. Kendrick Lamar

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Kendrick Lamar is definitely one of the most versatile hip-hop artists currently out there. This is exemplified in his two most recent singles, “i” and “The Blacker the Berry.” “i” is a fun summer jam, which has Kendrick’s voice modulated up a bit. It’s a lighter song about self love that is extremely accessible to any audience.”The Blacker the Berry” is a heavy song about black-on-black violence where Kendrick basically raps in a snarl. Both songs are amazing in their own way. Listen to Kendrick’s album, good kid m.A.A.d. city, and you’ll find even more examples of this versatility. Kendrick’s voice can be light, fun, sober, or viscous, but it’s always entertaining and immediately catches your ear.

8. Kanye West

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Like Drake, people love serving up an ice cold glass of hater-ade to Kanye. Say whatever you want about his public persona, arrogance, or whatever. All I’m saying is that Ye makes some excellent music. I know I said this post was about vocals, but Kanye is also well known for his production work. Think about the 10 ½ years or so since College Dropout. Kanye has managed to always push himself musically without alienating fans or losing relevance in popular culture. I mean, it says something if one of the Beatles will collaborate with you.

Okay, let’s talk about Yeezy’s voice. I love it when Kanye plays around with the pronunciation of words (e.g. when he purposefully mispronounces Versace “Ver-say-see”). I also love it when Kanye gets weird and experimental with songs like “Black Skinhead.” He’s also capable of really moving songs like his latest “Only One,” a song written from the perspective of his late mother singing to him about how she wants Kanye’s daughter to know about her. Try not to shed a tear or two during that one. Point is, Kanye has had one of the most unique, distinct voices for over 10 years, and I have a feeling he has a few years left in him.

There’s my list. Like I said, I only focused on more recent artists. There are some old timers still working like Ghostface, Nas, and Jay-Z who also have really distinct voices. Maybe I’ll do a post about those guys later. For now, let me know if there is anyone I left out.

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