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Top 50 Rap Songs of 2012

Counting down 2012's best hip-hop songs


20. Azealia Banks - "1991"

There's everything to love about "1991": Banks' dangerously tongue-twisting raps, the fierce attitude, the other beat building in the background, the seamless beat flip. Pure, sugar-dust gold.

19. Ab-Soul - "The Book of Soul"

With keys swirling over hi-hats and sparse drums, Ab-Soul reflects on childhood, family, love, loss, health issues, and career with vivid details: "I had a Sounwave beat tape trying to be Drake."

18. Lupe Fiasco - "Freedom Ain't Free (Around My Way)"

© Atlantic/WBR

Furious politi-rap tom yum sans broth.

17. Earl Sweatshirt - "Chum"

Like most teenagers, Earl Sweatshirt is guarded. He rarely lets us into his personal space. Here, he makes an exception and peels back the curtain to reveal a tear ("It's probably been 12 years since my father left/And left me fatherless/And I just used to say I hate him in dishonest jest/When honestly I miss this ni--a like when I was six/And every time I got the chance to say it, I would swallow it"). That sorta honesty always makes for compelling music, especially when the artist is a preternaturally skilled storyteller of Earl's caliber.

16. Kanye West, Pusha T, Ghostface - "New God Flow"

Kanye West delivers this Cruel Summer standout over a booming bass and a nasty "Mighty Healthy" sample. Ghost Deini pops up at the end, wielding one of his classic flows like it's '95 all over again.

15. Kendrick Lamar - "Black Boy Fly"

© Top Dawg/Aftermath
This heart-wrenching tale about dreams of escaping the harsh streets of Compton is easily my favorite song on good kid, m.A.A.d city. Unfortunately, it only appears as a bonus cut.

14. Nas - "Daughters"

Nas - Daughters
© Island Def Jam

When Nas' 17 year-old daughter, Destiny Jones, instagrammed a box of condoms and a Benz nicknamed "Cocaine," Nas grabbed a pen and scribbled his thoughts. "Daughters" was born. The song finds Nas weaving an ultrapersonal narrative on the challenges of parenting in the social media era, as No I.D.'s steady keys roll and bounce with unnatural grace.

13. Roc Marciano - "The Man"

Just about any song on Reloaded would've made the cut. I singled out "The Man" for its lo-fi, DOOM-esque production, Hall of Fame-worthy basketball references ("Sniff the Chris Mullin off the envelope"), and endless loop of quotable lines ("Never been a hater, I don't give a f*ck enough"). Smooth like Play-Doh.

12. Joey Bada$$ - "Waves" / "Survival Tactics"

I'm including both "Waves" and "Survival Tactics" as a 2-for-1 for two main reasons: 1) I couldn't decide which one I liked better, and 2) Together, they serve as the perfect entry point to Joey Bada$$' breakout mixtape, 1999. There's no better example of the 17-year-old Brooklynite's rap revivalism aesthetic than this pair. They showcase different sides of the teenager's sound— "Waves" is a reflective jazz-rap tune, while "Survival Tactics" is a fierce, almost strident sample of his preternatural skill and sophisticated poise.

11. El-P - "Tougher Colder Killer" Feat. Killer Mike & Despot

© Fat Possum

In which El-P dons the mask of a soldier recounting heinous acts to a victim's mother, while Killer Mike answers the one question on everyone's mind, "Wait, how does he know the guy's mother?" The answer, it turns out, is an unprintable double entendre.

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