The epic cyphers that go down every year for the BET Hip-Hop Awards are more inclusive now than they’ve ever been. After relocating to Miami Beach, Fla. last year and hosting the first-ever all-Miami cypher, BET expanded their horizons to ensure that artists from every corner of the rap game would be represented in the 2018 cyphers regardless of heritage, birthplace, gender, or sexual orientation — and they did it well.
It’ll be hard to follow up Eminem’s grueling verse from last year, in which he skewered President Trump with his deadly bars. Nonetheless, artists from the TDE squad, Roc Nation, and slew of independent artists delivered ferocious bars with a side dish of drama served hot. The talented group of consists of hard-hitting lyricists we’ve known and loved for years, like Ms. Erykah Badu, to fresh artists who’ve recently blown up, such as Bri Steves, Phora, TDE’s Reason. Not to mention more rising emcees that you may not have heard of, but should get to know.
Four freestyles made waves at the BET Hip-Hop Awards on Oct. 16. For the most part, each artist put their heart, mind, and soul into their verses. However, only one cypher can reign supreme over the rest.
Billboard ranks this year’s freestyles below.
4. Vic Mensa, G-Herbo, Taylor Bennett, and Nick Grant
Vic Mensa, Taylor Bennett, G-Herbo and Nick Grant teamed up for a cypher that’ll be remembered for years to come, but not for all the right reasons.
In his opening verse, the Roc Nation artist stirred up some drama when he said, “Loser. Your favorite rapper is a domestic abuser. Name a single Vic Mensa song, XXX we all know you won’t live that long. I don’t respect n—– posthumously, homicide ain’t new to me, catch up with Akademiks at your eulogy.” Mensa also vented about his album not selling and his fans being stale.
Fortunately, Taylor Bennett followed up with uplifting wordplay that would make his brother Chance The Rapper proud. He truly lightened the mood when he spoke about the minors in his community escaping the endless violence to become “renovators and pathfinders.” Although Nick Grant seemed out of place in the Chi-town cyph, G-Herbo continued to put on for Chi-town with his verse, in which he rehashed his rough come-up and embraced wise words from his Swervo counterpart Southside. “Southside told me these rappers, they pussy/A real [x] glass will fall back, we got a cushion/I’m like ‘Yea you right,’ I ain’t a killer but don’t push me.”
3. YBN Cordae, Blocboy JB, Duckwrth, Tobe Nwigwe
Hip-hop’s freshmen attempted to demolish the competition. After taking a pull from his inhaler, YBN Cordae started off the cypher strong with dominant bars that would shock any old head. “Lesson one — I’m a bad teacher/Who gives the class seizures/I smash diva, I stash reefer in the lab freezer/I’ma get my 12 wrappers where shit rhymes/Going like I’m 10 feet tall, You just 6’9.”
Eventfully, Houston’s own Tobe Nwigwe stepped up to the mic in a black hoodie and Nike slides, throwing out a couple punch lines heavy enough to make any weak lung collapse. Despite rare nods to Black Sabbath and Usher, Nwigwe’s freestyle eventually became more of an overwhelming diatribe of repetitive rhymes that seemed to digress too far from the neophyte cyph.
That’s when South Central rapper Duckwrth pulled us back to reality with his humble verse. He kept his thoughts on his indie roots and the previous presidential election brief, so that Blocboy JB could close out with a bang. Unfortunately, the “Look Alive” rapper was shockingly the most incoherent of the group. He may have won the award for “Best Mixtape,” but his freestyling skills didn’t really measure up with the rest of the crew.
2. Phora, Casanova, Reason TDE, Flawless Real Talk, Shawn Smith
After hearing the previous groups of seasoned lyricists and newbies, it’s easy to see this group had the most passion of them all. Rising rap stars Casanova, Phora, Reason of TDE, Rhode Island’s Flawless Real Talk, and Philly rapper Shawn Smith put all of their raw emotions, dedication to their craft, and overall stage presence on full blast in their cypher.
Flawless Real Talk came off as the most prideful MC as he reveled in his journey to the top. “Death is down the road, death is around the corner, God is walking with me the devil’s off in the water/Was gonna call it quits but the pay phone was out of order/Before I was diagnosed with an instrumental disorder.”
Brooklyn’s own Casanova brought his gritty flow to the cypher, and managed to intimidate the crowd with his signature mean mug and flashbacks from his prison bid. Shawn Smith didn’t serve up any jailhouse bars, but he followed up with slick rhymes about Travis Scott, Spongebob, and Kanye’s delusional MAGA ways.
L.A. spitters Phora and Reason of TDE closed out the cypher with some of the dopest rhymes of the night. The There You Have It rapper claimed there are two kings in L.A. since Lebron came, while Phora unleashed on all the oblivious mumble rappers like Lil Xan, and the rap pundits who follow their every move like Akademiks. In retrospect, he claimed he would “trade them all for ‘X,’” as in XXXTentacion. “Rap game is like a circus filled with Pez/But if you left it up to me then I would trade them all for X.”
1. Erykah Badu, Bri Steves, Sharaya J, Chika, Neelam Hakeem
This cypher had everything: expert lyricists, vicious bars, and a DJ who can scratch and rap at the same damn time. Although last year’s all-female cypher didn’t make it to national television, BET made sure this group of super lyrical women got the chance to bask in the limelight. Jersey City spitter Sharaya J opened up the cypher with an instant shock of swagger the game has never seen before.
“Now look at it, they ain’t wanna give me what was mine so I took it/Now it’s time for y’all to get it straight cause its crooked/When I tried to say it to they face, they was shooken/Now I’m overbooked and you can’t overlook it.”
All five ladies packed punches with every line they spit. Chika from Montgomery, Ala. delivered her blunt force bars with an aggressive flow that could give Young M.A. a run for her money. The West Coast’s soulful rhymestress Neelam Hakeem embodied the modern day Queen Latifah by using her wordplay to unite the masses while simultaneously dubbing herself as the rap game’s Thanos or Scar. At the same time, she remained alert to the rise of black power and the devastation that plagues our country today, like the water crisis in Flint, Mich.: “This isn’t the hour for any cowards/While children in Flint get poisoned by dirty showers/They put us in poverty cause they that sour/But when they lights go out/We turn on black power.”
Bri Steves shut down any doubt about the veracity of this cypher. She stepped in as if she were the “MJ to your Pippen,” slinging all types of OG references from Nas’ It Was Written to Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever.” As if we needed any more proof of how dope this cypher is over the rest, Erykah Badu came hrough to close out the set from the DJ booth, and claim the throne as the Black Ms. America.