Fans and critics love lists. But in rap, rankings like this take on a special level of import: aside from moving a crowd (shoutout to Rakim), being an MC means proving you’re the best. In no other genre do artists so blatantly express their desire to outdo competition. That made Billboard‘s editorial list a more high-stakes undertaking than usual. Many favorites — Big Daddy Kane, Caz, KRS — didn’t make it, and each of those omissions hurts deep down.
Note: we’re ranking these folks as MCs, not artists. That’s why Dr. Dre and Kanye West, for example, two legendary producer-rappers who don’t match the mic skills of those listed here, were left out. Even Tupac, perhaps the most influential rapper ever, is arguably known more for peerless songwriting than dominant bars.