Hip-hop is very much dependent on the ‘guest verse’ and the success of a hip-hop song will often hinge on whether it has that little ‘feat.’ tacked on at the end. In most other genres the lyrics are sung, and this naturally involves a range of notes and tones. Rapping, at its most basic level, involves listening to someone talk over a backing track. It can be extremely dull to listen to the same voice drone over an instrumental for 80 minutes. Enter the ‘guest’ rapper. A slight change in tone, pace or intonation can be all that is needed to breathe new life into a track.
Hip-hop, however, is also naturally about competition. The danger in depending on a support act is that the support act might upstage the main event. In an industry built on braggadocio and rivalry, there might be nothing more embarrassing than being bested on your own turf. Killed on your own track. Or as Nas famously put it, “murdered on your own shit.” We take a look back at hip-hop’s best scene-stealing cameos.
Track: Scenario Remix, 1992
Host: A Tribe Called Quest
Guest: Busta Rhymes
Priors: Ghostface Killah on Iron Maiden
A Tribe Called Quest were the masters of the “hippity-hop” / Rappers Delight style of old-school early 90’s rap. Simple, bouncy rhymes that flowed naturally and landed right on beat. Dinco D’s verse is emblematic of early 90s hip-hop, almost whimsical with a child-like quality “true blue! Scooby Doo, whoopee doo!” Enter the Leaders of the New School and Busta Rhymes. Because of Busta’s representation of the “new school” the Scenario Remix feels like the passing of the torch. And whilst Busta Rhyme’s verse is hardly revolutionary, (and still contained some of the rhythmic hallmarks of the era) it paved the way for a more frenetic, relentless rapping style that would come to dominate the late 00s.
It’s almost as if the Tribe caught a glimpse of their own death. Busta Rhymes is formally announced by Q-Tip and then given a small bridge to start warming up. He is handpicked for the last verse, the perfect opportunity to provide the finishing blow. “Watch as I combine all the juice from the mind” Busta starts. This is the perfect explanation for the complex neurochemistry that is about to begin. Busta delivers a barbarian flow, wild and booming, as we’re introduced to his trademarks roads. He crams syllables into beats “vo-cab-u-lary’s necessary / when digging in-to my library.”
Busta’s verse is so iconic that it is one of the most sampled all of time. Afrika Bambaata used the line “heel up, wheel up, bring it back come rewind” in Zulu War Chant. Nicki Minaj transformed Busta’s most famous guttural bark “rawr rawr like a dungeon dragon” into an entire song. And who could forget the truly bizarre rework of Busta’s “chickity-choco the chocolate chicken” into the Barenaked Ladies’ “chickity China the Chinese chicken” in 1998 one-hit wonder One Week. Busta Rhymes is a manic assassin, spraying rounds and making messy casualties of legends Phife Dawg and Q-Tip. As the closing act for hip-hop’s greatest posse cut, Busta K.O’s it and alludes to the future of a more sophisticated art form.
Track: Renegade, 2000
Priors: 50 Cent on Patiently Waiting
In response to Jay-Z’s The Takeover Nas produced a diss track so hot that its burn was supernatural, Ether. In a track that implies Jay-Z was molested as a child, one line hit even harder: “Eminem murdered you on your own shit.” Thus Nas gave birth to the expression we now use when a guest verse is hotter than that of the original artist.
Nas was of course speaking of Renegade, the ill-fitting addition to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint. Renegade feels out of place because it was originally intended as collaboration between Eminem and Royce Da 5”9. Written in 2001, Renegade came at the beginning of Eminem’s burgeoning interest in music production. The haunting beat is pure Slim and maybe it’s the reason the Detroit prodigy was able to dethrone the God MC. Home-court advantage.
Renegade is a classic exercise in trading bars. Both rappers get two verses each and go line-for-line in the chorus. This kind of equality makes it very easy to compare the performance of the two rappers. Hova’s verses are representative of everything about The Blueprint, crisp and clean. Jay-Z respects the beat, landing perfectly with the iconic “motherfuckers / say that I’m foolish / I only talk about jewels do you / fools listen to music / or do you just skim through it?” Jay-Z peddles the narrative of his entire career; financial difficulties, a fatherless childhood, and being forced to sell drugs to survive – a winning formula. The only problem is that Eminem’s “Evil” is just so much more interesting than Jay-Z’s “Bad.” Both rappers are given the opportunity to sing the song’s chorus, it’s just that when Eminem screams “Renegade!” he really means it.
Eminem’s use of assonance is incredible – “who’s the king of these rude, ludicrous, lucrative lyrics?” Also, Em’s verse is almost unmatched for its crescendo-like quality, the subject matter and the quality of the rhymes getting more and more intense as he reaches this climax “go to war with the Mormons, take a bath with the Catholics in holy water, no wonder they tried to hold me under longer.” But did Eminem really murder Jay? Hov seems to think so, conceding defeat on A Star Is Born; “his flow on Renegade, fucking awesome, applaud him.”
This jousting was historically important. In 2000 the undisputed king of hip-hop was Jay-Z. Eminem was at most a shocking court jester. There was little doubt that his success would be a passing novelty. Five albums later and the world is still split on who is the GOAT, Eminem or Jay.
Track: Run This Town, 2009
Guest: Kanye West
Priors: Drake on Pop Style
On Run This Town Kanye West gives us a glimpse of a magic trick he would perform again on Watch the Throne – sawing Jay-Z in half without ever lifting a finger. On Watch the Throne Kanye’s “less” beats Jay Z’s “more” time and time again. Kanye’s rhyme patterns are often simplistic. He falls into the habit of rhyming non-rhyming words. “Coke on her black skin made it striped like a zebra / I call that jungle fever.” But Kanye’s rhymes are moreish. They’re memorable. It’s his emphasis and Frank Sinatra-like enunciation. It’s his wit and effortlessness. It makes every line a punch line. The great mystery of this trick is that you know Jay-Z is the better rapper, but he’s not the rapper you want to hear more of.
Released in 2009 as a single off Jay-Z’s The Blueprint III, Ye’s verse comes at an established point in his career, but before My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy took him to “genius” level. Kanye’s verse is important because it’s the first real time he challenges his mentor. What we get is Kanye butchering his Big Brother on his own song with a breezy flow chocked full of witty one-liners. “I can spend my whole life goodwill hunting / only good gonna come is it’s good when I’m cumming” Ye’s verse is jam-packed with quotables – “we give a damn about the drama that your dude bring / I’m just trying to change the colour on your mood ring.”
In 2016, Kanye is still assassinating rappers without breaking a sweat. He absolutely phones in his verse on Schoolboy Q’s THat Part. The last 20 seconds of his verse is something like a ”freestyle” where he resorts to making sound effects and then laughing hysterically. But it’s listenable. Kanye’s verse on Pop Style is the benchmark for simple, witty rhymes that everyone can sing along to at pre-drinks – “they like Pablo, “why are all the windows tinted on your Tahoe?”
Something of a gracious loser, Jay-Z again conceded defeat. Well sort of. In an interview Jigga was asked whether Kanye had killed him on his own track, he said: “as long as I’ve been in the game, that’s gong to happen, once or twice or even three times.
Track: Skew It On The Bar-B, 1998
Priors: Mobb Deep on Nighttime Vultures
By 1998 Outkast had already shattered perceptions of the South as a hip-hop backwater. Nonetheless, the hip-hop intelligentsia had still decreed East-Coast boom bap as the benchmark of the genre. On their magnum opus Aquemini, Outkast invited Raekwon The Chef to join them on Skew It On The Bar-B, with the hopes of murdering the east-coast great on home turf.
Raekwon, used to the simple boom bap drums of the East Coast, might have been expected to struggle with Outkast’s melody and distinct Southern flavour. The Chef rises to the challenge. He embraces the style of the track, yet still delivers his trademark “ghetto Mafioso” flow.
It’s no easy feat to best a rapper regularly placed in the top five of all time list, but Raekwon manages to slay Andre the Giant on his own song. Andre 3000 comes with one of the most memorable opening verses of all time, “the common denominator, the n**ga numerator / never know the hater, n**gas cater to your ego.” Outkast love showing off their supersonic rhyming speeds and this track is no exception. The assonance in Andre’s verse is delectable.
The typically lethargic Rakewon is energised by the bouncy Organized Noize track. Matching the speed of Outkast without compromising his own style. Raekwon’s ability to adapt shows the versatility of his flow. But his choice of subject matter is safe territory, preferring the thematics of drug dealing and skirmishes with police than the extra-terrestrial nonsense of the Atlanta natives. Raekwon takes it to one of the greatest rappers all time, seamlessly rhyming off the same word for twelve whole bars, “hydro slide raw like fuck Ronaldo, fly ride though, shit lookin wild dope.” Raekwon milks this “o” sound, repeating it a full 25 times. Outkast hoped for an ambush but instead got killed in their own home.
Track: Diamonds from Sierra Leone Remix, 2005
Host: Kanye West
Guest: Jay Z
Charge: Murder in the First Degree
Priors: Pusha T on Drug Dealers Anonymous
Given that Kanye and Jay’s relationship was far from perfect in the early stages of Kanye’s career, the track does contain a sense of the Def Jam President putting the young upstart in his place. From the beginning, Jay-Z seems dismissive of his protégé, ‘leave this to the professionals’ he implies; “yup, I got it from here, Ye damn.”
On the Diamonds from Sierra Leone Remix Yeezy does a decent job of tackling dense issues on an already superb track. Kanye explores the conflict diamond trade with some serviceable rhymes, but Jay-Z’s verse is truly memorable. If nothing else, it gave us the homophone that is the ultimate slogan for Jay-Z’s entire career: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!” With a basketball team, a clothing line, his own brand of cognac and an entire identity built around entrepreneurship, the catechism perfectly captures the phenomenon that is ‘Jay-Z.’
The master of multiple meanings, Jay-Z’s verse contains one of the densest quadruple entendres with “the pressure’s on, but guess who ain’t gonna crack?” In a time before Rap Genius, unpacking this line would have required reference to Jay Z’s autobiography and lyric bible, Decoded The line simultaneously refers to four things: the pressure of keeping Roc-A-Fella afloat after a falling out with co-founders Dame Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke, the high pressure conditions in the Earth’s mantle necessary for the creation of diamonds, the natural pressures that come with selling crack cocaine. In the following line Jay-Z says “haha, pardon me, I had to laugh at that.”: His own wit has caused him to ‘crack up’ laughing.
Early in his career, Kanye showed a degree of humility that would not be seen again after 2009. Big Brother deals with how Kanye’s admiration for Jay-Z inspired him to work harder. Despite his best efforts, he concedes that on “that Diamonds Remix, I swore I’d spazz / then my big brother came through and kicked my ass.”
Track: International Player’s Anthem, 2007
Guest: Andre 3000
Charge: Murder in the First Degree
Priors: Jay-Z on 30 Somethin’
UGK’s International Player’s Anthem and its classic video clip centres around the wedding of Andre 3000 and the admonitions of his friends, who warn him against abandoning the single life. Andre might provide the guest verse, but it is Andre’s wedding, Andre’s story, and Andre’s verse that you remember from this anthem.
Forever a master of “Storytellin’” this verse is exceptional for its vivid narrative, covering everything from communicating to ex-lovers to fidelity and revenge. It’s a rare hip-hop ode to monogamy, Andre acknowledging that a married life means foregoing the sea of women that surround him. Andre adopts a spoken word style suited to the confessional rap. Andre uses that classic Outkast technique of splitting up words so the rhyme arrives on beat, “reconsider, read some liter-rature on the subject” and “fuck it / you know we got your back like chiroprac-tic.” This verse also contains a killer double entendre “I’m so like a pimp / I’m glad it’s night.” Both a reference to the peak business hours for pimping and the soul of Gladys Knight And The Pips
This verse in 2007 almost kicked off the trend of Andre 3000 channelling his numerous talents into measly guest verses. Whilst we have to be thankful for Andre’s killer verses on Lloyd’s Dedication to my Ex, Beyoncé’s Party, and Frank Ocean’s Pink Matter, these verses may have slaked Andre’s urge to rap, and it might be the reason we haven’t had a solo album from him since The Love Below.
The curious thing about International Player’s Anthem is that Andre really provides more of an ‘intro’ or ‘opening monologue’ than a ‘verse.’ The bass drops when Pimp C takes the mic, and the song is completely transformed into a crunk banger. Pimp C and Bun B ride the fast pace of the new song, and provide its ‘anthem’ element. Even when ‘warming up’ Andre 3000 is spitting fire.
Track: Shadowboxin, 1995
Guest: Method Man
Charge: Murder in the First Degree
Priors: LL Cool J on 4, 3, 2, 1
Liquid Swords by the Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA is still considered to be one of hip-hop’s finest displays of lyricism. An old-school disciple of quality rhymes, the GZA was the architect responsible for putting together some of the finest rhymes ever pressed on wax. Getting Method Man to jump on Shadowboxin’ was a calculated decision, Meth complementing the feel of the track perfectly. Method Man and GZA box, but it is the former who comes out on top, besting the Genius at the top of his game.
In retrospect, the verse is trademark Method Man. Meth’s flow has a Dr. Seuss-like quality to it, shifting between nonsense words and pop-culture references (“ticallion stallion, chinky-eye and snot-nosed”). The comparisons between Busta Rhymes are fair, not only for the guttural noises (“everything huh in any shape form or fashion / now everybody talking bout they blasting hmmmm) but for the sheer range of his subject matter and vocabulary (“slip the cardiac arrest me, exorcist Hip Hop possess me.”)
The hip-hop world knew right away that Method Man had brought his A-game, earning the prestigious “Hip Hop Quotable of the Month” for his verse in the December 1995 issue of The Source.
It might not be correct to classify this as a ‘guest verse’ since Method Man anchors the entire track, with his talents being put front and centre in contributing both the first and last verses. Legend has it that the middle verse from GZA was an afterthought; a fun opportunity to jump onto an already hot track. Again, the GZA knew he had been bested, conceding in an interview that it “always seemed more like Meth’s track” with his verse as “filler.” But it’s unfair to dismiss the GZA’s verse as mere “filler,” dropping an unreal line with “my sword still remain imperial / before I blast the mic, RZA scratch off the serial.”
Track: Beautiful Bliss, 2009
Guest: J. Cole
Charge: Pre-meditated Murder
Priors: Jay-Z on A Star Is Born
What makes this murder so particularly twisted and cruel is the sense of betrayal, of thwarted dreams and a stolen birthright that came with it. In 2009 Wale signed with Interscope and was being touted as the next big thing. His debut album Attention Deficit sold poorly, despite favourable reviews from critics. This album was supposed to be the real debut of Wale, but what we got instead was the debut of J. Cole.
Wale invited up and coming rapper J. Cole to put down a guest verse on the otherwise forgettable Beautiful Bliss. Like Renegade, the name of the song has become synonymous with guest-on-host murder.
Legend has it that J. Cole was extremely conscious of the attention surrounding this mainstream feature and made a concerted effort to spazz. As a result, Cole’s verse is filled with vivid imagery, catchy punchlines and raw energy. On Beautiful Bliss J. Cole shows his hunger. “Ain’t nothing given, dog, it’s earned / if you just living, dog, you learn / I let you n*ggas see the light / I’m like the prison yard, I yearn.” J. Cole’s final exclamation “I’m from the Ville boy!” shows his intensity.
The cruelty of this murder is that Wale probably thought he was doing J. Cole a favour. Putting a young rapper on an album guaranteed to blow. What Wale could not have foreseen was that J. Cole would spit flames and then go on to forge a far more successful career in the exact same lane. Wale accidentally gave life to a terrifying rival in the alternative hip-hop scene. While Wale never lived up to his potential, his protégé showed early signs of becoming one of the greats.
Track: Monster, 2010
Host: Kanye West
Guest: Nicki Minaj
Charge: Triple Homicide
Priors: Big Sean on Dance (A$$)
File this under triple homicide. On Monster the “bride of Chucky” easily disposes of Kanye West, Jay-Z and (to a much lesser extent) Rick Ross. It’s more than the best verse on the track. Or even the best verse on the album. It simply must be considered one of the greatest verses of all time.
Nicki Minaj’s verse on Monster is even more shocking because it is effectively her debut. It’s true that Minaj had already had a strong summer on urban radio with her first single Your Love and an equally blistering verse on Trey Songz’ Bottoms Up. But it was Monster that brought Nicki to mainstream audiences and provided the perfect launching platform for her debut album Pink Friday, released just one-month later. Nicki says it best herself: “50K for a verse, no album out.” Believe the hype, this is an artist to invest in. Less than six years later and she has become a hip-hop institution and the frontrunner for the greatest female MC of all time.
Minaj’s energy and vibrancy make it abundantly clear that she will carry the torch for the next generation. She utterly shames the G.O.A.T. contender, the not-so-Young Hov. Her distinctive tones are a breath of fresh air on the very album that revitalized the whole genre. On an album as bright as MBDTF, Minaj manages to eclipse not just some of the best rappers on earth, but the best artists. Although it is one of the great humblebrags, Kanye West has it right when he describes it as “the best verse on the best hip-hop album of all time.”
Minaj does imagery like few others. The first few lines of her verse paint one of the most vivid in hip-hop (“I’m in that Tonka colour of Willy Wonka”). She takes aim at male-dominated industry (“you can be the King but Watch the Queen conquer”). She pays homage to her Trinidadian roots (“Tony Mattheron, dutty wine it, wylin”), boasting one of the many accents and voices at her disposal. A voice Minaj uses like an instrument, constantly altering between sickly sweet chirping, low growls and piercing screams, all in the one breath.
It is a credit to the quality of this verse that, despite its sheer complexity, everyone knows the words. It’s the kind of verse that you make the effort to learn. This is exactly what hip-hop is about. This is what you live for.
Track: Control, 2013
Host: Big Sean
Guest: Kendrick Lamar
Charge: Mass Murder
Priors: Pusha T on Nosetalgia
No surprises here. This is an example of premeditated murder. An act of hip-hop terrorism, Kendrick Lamar’s verse was a calculated move to incite fear amongst the rap community.
Big Sean and Jay Electronica provide serviceable verses, but none can compare to K.Dot’s conscious intent to “blow up the internet.” Kendrick’s worldwide chest-thumping transformed a B-side reject from Big Sean’s sophomore album into a social media shitstorm. Lamar’s Twitter account saw a 510% increase in followers in the week following the track’s release and he gained 88,000 new fans on Facebook. Even the lesser artists that Kendrick shouted out received a boost in profile, with Mac Miller gaining 87,000 new followers. The official story is that it could not be included because the “sample didn’t’ clear.” Or maybe Big Sean didn’t want to give any more oxygen to Kendrick Lamar on his own album.
Hip-hop is inherently about bragging, but Kendrick’s boasts on Control border on sacrilegious. He places himself right at the beginning of a ‘barber shop’ lists of the G.O.A.T that includes Jay-Z, Nas, Eminem and Andre 3000. He claims to descend directly from 2pac, and most shockingly calls himself “the King of New York.” It’s testament to Kendrick’s skills that some of these claims don’t even seem that outlandish.
He adopts an unusually gruff voice that’s suited to the seriousness of the subject matter. “This is hip-hop and n**gas should know what time it is” he says, offering a warning and wake-up call to his competition. Kendrick’s verse is blistering and relentless. While the earlier bars contain some of the most quotable lines of all time, the final moments show off his skills as a lyricist, with vivid images and complex internal rhymes.
Nowadays, even the least subtle diss tracks have the good sense not to specifically mention the rapper’s name. On Control Kendrick methodically moves through the list of top rappers, articulating their stage names with his gravelly voice. “Big Sean, Jay Electron,’ Tyler, Mac Miller / I got love for you all but I’m tryna murder you n**gas.” You know that Kendrick wanted to see his name on lists like this when he specifically used the exact language Nas used to describe Eminem’s verse on Renegade.
Kendrick’s Control verse served to revitalise the competitive spirit of the genre. It called forth a wave of response tracks and incited more debate and discussion than any hip-hop track since.