For some time now, I have believed that a paradigm shift in rap has occurred in which the pendulum of talent has swung from the artist in front of the mic to the maestro behind the board. If you’ve read my piece on the relationship between hip-hop and the mainstream music industry, I intimated that in hip-hop the emphasis for music making has transitioned from conceptualizing complete bodies of work to cashing in on cultural trends that do not amount to timeless pieces of art.
Whereas during my youth, you couldn’t cut it without being lyrical or possessing some form of adept musicianship, today it’s mostly about riding short-lived waves and partaking in the cultural narrative of the day. This is not a complaint on the state of hip-hop, but a matter of fact as the genre has undoubtedly undergone this noticeable change; and it’s okay, for such is the evolution of hip-hop music and there’s nothing that anyone who doesn’t like it can do about it.
In my estimation, this shift owes its existence almost entirely to the exponential uptick in the talent of today’s hip-hop producers. It truly is amazing. I have gradually found myself appreciating the beats far more than the content of the actual songs. Stringing together a drum baseline and making use of a good sample has gone by the way of full-on orchestration and instrumentation. Uber-talented producers such as J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, Cardiak, Boi 1da, T-Minus and Mike Will Made It have overhauled what it means to be a hip-hop producer, transforming the medium into a discipline that mandates your ability to be able to approach production from a musician’s standpoint; not merely as a beatmaker.
Furthermore, these and a host of other producers have elevated the relative worth of their fellow MCs. They have quite literally made them sound better than they actually are. They’re the true talents behind hip-hop music, and if institutions like the Grammy’s decided to sans artists altogether and start awarding Grammy’s solely to producers, I’d be perfectly okay with it.
With this in mind, I started thinking: Which artists have been elevated most greatly by outstanding production? There are a multitude of directions that I can go with this as the list is long, and granted, I can only put together a list based on the music that I have been exposed to.
I began by jotting down as many names that I could come up with and derived at the strategy of beginning at the bottom with honorable mentions. These artists are relative newcomers and their individual bodies of work aren’t substantial enough to warrant a definitive place as an artist who is made by producers yet. Nevertheless, their music thus far has resonated with me far more for its production value than for the artists themselves, hence their place as an honorable mention. Hopefully with more time, all of them will develop as fully-fledged artists who serve as complements to their production, not counterweights.
From there, the list is a countdown from artists at the bottom who I have respect for but they don’t consistently compliment their beats, up to artists who in my opinion are completely made by high-value production and should thank the good Lord for the business savvy that they were blessed with to acquire the budgets necessary to afford the services of such incredible producers. So, without further adieu, here is my list of the top ten artists most aided by stellar production.
10. Honorable Mentions – OT Genasis, K Camp, Kevin Gates, RJ & Choice, and Fetty Wap. The Golden State Warriors made a post-game flight ritual out of it that went viral, and no club that I’ve been to fails to fall into a trap trance whenever OT Genesis’s “Coco” gets spun. The Juice808-produced banger gets plenty of radio and club play to be sure, but the subject matter of the track is quite limited albeit palpable given what resonates with today’s hip-hop fan. Nevertheless, narrow lyrical treatment and run-of-the-mill content is always superseded by great production, and despite my outlook on songs like Coco, I can’t help but get down with the cause whenever the beat drops.
OT Genasis’s career is just getting started, and so it would be difficult for me to reconcile with putting him on the list when there simply isn’t a big enough body of work to pull from. I can say one thing for certain, however. If Coco is any indication, then I’m looking forward to what Juice808 has to offer for the future. Look out for Juice808 tracks produced for Jeezy, Lil’ Wayne, Meek Mill and Young Thug, to name a few.
Likewise, K Camp has been on the mixtape scene, but as a fledgling solo artist, it’s difficult to tell whether he’s made by beats or whether he’s here to stay; but what he’s done thus far speaks to the former. “Money Baby”, produced by Atlanta-based hitmaker Big Fruit, and “Cut Her Off”, helmed by another Atlien – WillaFool – showcase how fertile the Atlanta music production continues to be. Hopefully with a few more hits, K Camp can distinguish himself a bit more.
The ability of Kevin Gates is more of a standout to me than the others on the honorable mention list, but man, “John Gotti”, produced by Kid Fresh, is as moody and atmospheric as they come. But I can’t help but harken back to the concept of subject matter:
Fast, doing the dash, your bitch on my ass, she want me to smash/ Flip out the flash, I rather get cash/ Drika she bad and she into bags/ Up in the Loius, Emilio Pucci/ I tell em it’s Gucci when they want them bands/ I got them racks and no longer wear jewelry/ ‘Cause I’m bout my business, and back selling sand.
This doesn’t exactly scream varied, but is it a hit? Yes. Plus, you can’t say enough about “I Don’t Get Tired.” Hitmaker Deko constructs an anthem-type song for Kevin Gates that’s perfect for speaking directly to his hustler demographic. Yet in the end, Deko remains the star of that show.
The masses may not be familiar with newcomers RJ & Choice, but one listen of the Los Angeles native’s “Get Rich”, produced by DJ Swish, will have you bopping your head incessantly. I myself am trying to get rich, so while RJ & Choice don’t appeal to my individual musical sensibilities, this song certainly does, hence the power of good production. From the perspective of mass appeal, they’re fairly new to the game, but their subject matter thus far isn’t distinguishable in any way from any of the aforementioned honorable mentions. I will say that if DJ Swish is cut from even a fabric of the cloth that DJ Mustard is cut from, I’m already a fan.
My final honorable mention is Fetty Wap, whose Tony Fadd of RGF Productions-produced “Trap Queen” has become the track of the spring and presumably the summer as well. Once again, I don’t know too much about him other than the fact that his songs have become infectious, but what he’s actually speaking to in those songs is entirely indistinguishable. But he appears here to stay, even to the point where he’s snagged the omnipotent Drake for a remix to his “My Way” hit, produced by NickEBeats. Additionally, if that’s not enough to convince you of Fetty Wap’s current staying power, this should do the trick.
9. Fat Joe
This is probably the most interesting placement on this list. Fat Joe is an artist whose prime years of relevance were during the 2000s. He is an artist of my immediate generation. His contemporaries – era-wise, not regionally – are the likes of Jay-Z, Nas, Jadakiss, DMX, Outkast, Ja Rule, Eminem, and 50 Cent, to name a few. Having said that, he exists outside the parameters of the rest of the artists listed here because his time has come and gone. He is no longer as active as he once was, which is why he places 9th, in addition to the fact that he is a talented rapper.
Given this, it would be logical to wonder why he would even be placed at all. The reason is because I have very distinct instances of Fat Joe being the beneficiary of unbelievable production. More than any other artist, I have found myself throughout my youth saying, “Oh my God, this beat is incredible. If only it was a Jay-Z song instead…” Fat Joe is interesting in that it’s clear that he can rap, but for some reason, he never really knocked it out of the park for me. It’s odd and I can’t definitively put my finger on it. He’s just, well, there. What he did manage to knock out of the park was the wherewithal to be a part of some outstanding production.
From “Definition of a Don”, produced by the legendary Alchemist, to the first time that I learned of the great Rico Love on “Aloha”, Joe has had quite the ear for and has greatly benefitted from upper echelon production. “Preacher on a Sunday Morning”, produced by Scott Storch. “K.A.R. (Kill All Rats)”, produced by Streetrunner. “Slow Down (Ha Ha)” produced by Scoop DeVille. “If It Ain’t About Money”, produced by the hometown homies Cool & Dre. The list goes on and I could spend days lamenting on Fat Joe’s extensive and impressive production catalog. Suffice to say, he used to frustrate me to no end because I suspected him of paying top dollar for beats that could’ve went to more able rappers, but it’s all good. Such is the nature of the beast and I enjoyed the songs nonetheless. The only other person that I can think of who committed and continues to commit beat-theft more than Fat Joe also happens to be number 1 on this list.
8. Rich Homie Quan
I first heard Rich Homie Quan via his Yung Carter-produced “Type of Way” hit back in the summer of 2013, and when I thought he’d be a certifiable flash in the pan, ‘Walk Thru”, produced by Dupri of league of Starz and the single’s guest contributor, Problem, proceeded to quell any suspicions I may have had of him being an artist with no substance. Still, I relegated him to yet another hip-hop act who had the foresight and charisma to cash-in on the trap-and-ratchet wave that Hip-Hop now finds itself engulfed in. Much to my surprise, however, I’ve begun to turn the corner on that viewpoint. After forging a music relationship with the alluringly opportunistic Birdman and becoming one half of the Rich Gang tandem with Young Thug, his lyrical content actually began to diversify, hence garnering some respect from me.
What followed was Rich Gang: Tha Tour, Pt.1, and it’s standout single “Freestyle”, produced by longtime collaborator Dun Deal and along with Issac Flame and Goose. “Freestyle” saw Quan lamenting on wanting to see his son grow up and attend college, among other things, and while he still gets outshined by the quality of his production, he is quickly becoming an artist whose penmanship can hold its own weight on any track. This I admittedly did not see coming. For this, I place him 8th on the list.
7. Juicy J
On the surface, given Juicy J’s absence of lyrical prowess you would think that I’d have him placed higher than 7th. But I think there’s something to be said for having an ear for production and an ability to consistently conceptualize and construct songs with great hooks and high replay value. To me, Juicy J, along with Rick Ross, is one of the best at doing as such. I’m no Juicy J fan, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t have “Bandz a Make Her Dance”, produced by the otherworldly Mike Will Made It, and “Low”, produced by Dr. Luke and Cirkut, on a loop during my pregame sessions before heading out to see what night has to offer me. Plus, when all else fails, Juicy J knows how to recruit collaborative efforts that elevate the relative worth of his hits tenfold, and that’s never a bad thing.
I could probably make an entire list of just the artists who have been greatly enhanced through the blessings of DJ Mustard, and if I did, YG would make the cut if for no other reason than the fact that his debut album, My Krazy Life, had the Compton born-and-breds working together in close and dynamic quarters. “My Nigga”, “Do It To Ya” (co-produced by C-Ballin), and the Drake-assisted “Who Do You Love” were all helmed by DJ Mustard, who has somehow found a way to infuse hip-hop with house music for a unique and delightfully infectious sound. Fortunately, although limited content-wise, YG has exhibited writing chops that don’t make him a complete burden to the superb production that he benefits from. For this, he finds himself placed 6th on the list.
5. Young Thug
It’s hard for me to articulate how I feel about Young Thug. I instinctively want to think of him in the same vein as Rich Homie Quan, but I’m not sure if that’s a reflection of how I think of him musically or because of the fact that up until the early part of 2015 both he and Quan were somewhat joined at the hip. When I can understand what he’s saying, I can tell that there is substance to what Young Thug has to offer in terms of his content. The problem is that I often have to reference a YouTube video with accompanying lyrics to understand the words coming out of his damn mouth. Thus far, I know him more for his bumbling flow and for Dun Deal and London on da Track, both whom have produced every song I can tolerate from this dude, including “Stoner” and “Freestyle” (The first being the single that put him on and both produced by Dun Deal), “Lifestyle”, and “If It Ain’t About the Money” (the latter being a T.I. track, both produced by London on da Track). Maybe he can seek a speech therapist at some point in the future.
4. 2 Chainz
I have a great deal of respect for 2 Chainz’s business acumen and his likely purposely subdued intelligence. The guy finished second in his high school class and attended and completed college at Alabama State University on an athletic scholarship. In terms of smarts, he is probably in the 95th percentile of hip-hop artists, which is why he maintains as prominent of a presence in the rap game despite his limited lyrical talent. Let’s face it, 2 Chainz is no lyrical beast, but much to his credit, he probably has no intentions of being so. What he is good at is being entertaining and aligning himself with producers who are top-notch at their craft and spare no expense at making sure that 2 Chainz is a standout at the club and in the whip on a Friday and Saturday night.
Once again, Mike Will Made It is a name that comes to mind, whose bumping and snapping “Where U Been” and smooth and sultry “No Lie” (featuring no-brainer Drake) give you no choice but to put 2 Chainz in your musical rotation. For more references, check out “Yuck”, helmed by Streetrunner, and “Used 2”, produced by the ghost, er, re-emerged Mannie Fresh.
He’s a crooner and a songster, but for my taste, Future is largely forgettable and a byproduct of great beats. Give him a hook, and he will smash it. An entire album left to his devices? I’ll pass. This isn’t to disparage him as an artist or anyone who is a fan of his; but for me, my fancy just isn’t tickled despite his clear songwriting abilities. Future resonates with me solely for “Same Damn Time”, Tony Montana”, “Honest”, “Chosen One”, “Karate Chop”, and “Move That Dope”, produced by Sonny Digital, Will-A-Fool, DJ Spinz with Metro Boomin, TM88, and Mike Will Made It (Notice a trend here?), respectively. These guys all deserve lifetime royalties in perpetuity for their ability to elevate the otherwise ordinary Future.
2. French Montana
Another beat-theft perpetrator, French Montana has no doubt benefitted from his various industry associations, chief among them Diddy and Rick Ross of Bad Boy Records and Maybach Music Group, respectively. Of all the artists on this list with limited lyrical ability who actually care about the craft, French is the most egregious. Even with his confined coke rap and fuck bitches get money range of motion, he can’t consistently keep my interest despite the effort that he places on trying to display some shred of rapping ability. Furthermore, despite his striking lack of talent as an MC, he is nevertheless heavily cosigned by artists that I do respect, such as Rick Ross, Jeezy, Fabolous, and Drake. I suppose the culture is bigger than the limitations of any one artist, which is certainly not surprising. He is utterly as good as the beats he is fortunate enough to lay rhymes over. He owes his career to Lee On the Beats (“Pop That”), Harry Fraud (“Shot Caller”), and, once again, Mike Will Made It (“Marble Floors”) and DJ Mustard (“Don’t Panic”).
The head of Cash Money Records ought to be arrested and sentenced to life in rap purgatory for crimes committed against elite production value. Okay, hyperbole aside, I can’t be too offended by Birdman because much like 2 Chainz, he doesn’t fancy himself some lyrical dynamo. He’s an astute businessman at the head of a label that houses some of hip-hop’s most popular and influential acts, artist and production alike. Cash Money boasts an impressive array of in-house production talent that includes the likes of The Beat Bully (‘Stay Schemin”), Cool & Dre, and Bangladesh. If that weren’t impressive enough, Birdman has the extensive cash flow to afford the services of any producer that he chooses. Standouts include “Money to Blow”, produced by Atlanta’s Drumma Boy, the fantastic “4 My Town (Play Ball)”, produced by Boi-1da, and “100 Million”, produced by the aforementioned Cool & Dre.
With such extensive resources and capital at his disposal, coupled with his complete and total disregard for concise lyrics and varied subject matter, Birdman has earned the rightful yet respectful top spot on my list of the top 10 rappers most aided by stellar production. Though I’m sure he’d hardly consider himself to be a rapper per se.
There you have it. These are the artists that I currently identify as those who are most assisted by their producer brethren, in my opinion. What do you think? Did I get it right or wrong? Who is too high or too low? Who would you remove and who would you add? Discussions like these are always fun and engaging, so don’t hesitate to chime in with your two cents as I’m sure there are plenty of outlooks that differ from my own.
Javis Ogden is a Miami native turned current Tallahassee transplant and the founder and chief contributor to Conscious Approach. He has worked as a creative content specialist since completing his graduate degree in Integrated Marketing at Florida State University, and he aspires to be a cultural critic, screenplay writer, ½ of the ESPN First Take debate panel, author, or whatever his short attention span will allow him to be inspired by at any given moment. When he isn’t pursuing freedom, you may be able to find him on an indoor basketball court. He is always in search of his muse. You can help him find it by following him on Twitter @JavisOgden, Instagram @JVWins, Facebook /JavisOgden, and snapchat JavisOgden.