Jay-Z - Jason Kirk

The 125 Best Rap Singles of 2001

While 9/11 and Jay-Z vs. Nas defined the year, global forces began disrupting the cloistered rap industry, whether it was ready or not.

Two events defined hip-hop in 2001.

The first took place on the morning of September 11, when jihadists kidnapped U.S. commercial aircraft and crashed them into the World Trade Center in Manhattan, New York. The tragedy unfolded on television, generating horrific scenes that seemed more appropriate for an adventure fantasy like the Will Smith vehicle Independence Day than real-life cable news broadcasts. It shattered the country’s psyche in ways still being felt today.

In that vacuum between 9/11 and the end of the year, when Wu-Tang Clan struck an uncharacteristically patriotic pose on Iron Flag, the music that resonated the most celebrated New York in all its social inequity, civic pride, and irrepressible hustler spirit, like DMX’s “Who We Be,” and Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein. DMX’s hit single forever destroyed the perception among his fiercest critics that he was a one-note thug barker. And The Cold Vein, produced by El-P and centered around Harlem rappers Vast Aire and Vordul Mega, drew widespread acclaim for depicting the city through the wizened sci-fi perspective of two former latchkey kids, even though major magazines like The Source and XXL declined to review it due to its indie status.

Dilated Peoples
Cannibal Ox

Jay-Z has long bragged of topping the Billboard album charts with The Blueprint despite its Tuesday, September 11 release. (Back then, major albums dropped on Tuesdays.) Apparently, his ability to move compact discs on the worst week the country experienced in decades was not only his triumph, but ours, too. To be fair, The Blueprint not only brought him his best reviews to date, but also marked a moment when pop critics finally seemed to notice him as a major artist, and not just a symbol of the rap industry’s turn towards corporatism. Canny throwback samples deployed by rising producer Kanye West, which subtly cast Jay-Z in a different light than the banger ethos of past smashes like “Big Pimpin’,” may have helped.

Which leads to the second defining event of 2001. After several months of back-and-forth bars nestled into various rap songs, Nas finally took his rivalry with Jay-Z public on “Stillmatic,” a freestyle recorded over the beat from Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full (Seven Minutes of Madness – The Coldcut Remix).” Jay-Z responded with “The Takeover,” which found him not only calling out Nas but swatting away other would-be kings of New York like Prodigy from Mobb Deep. But when Nas returned fire with “Ether,” Jay-Z dropped “Super Ugly,” a freestyle over Nas’s own “Got Ur Self A…”

Ever since those four records, fans have debated who won. In recent years, a consensus has formed around Jay-Z as the victor. Nightclub events and radio shows around the country adopted the name “The Takeover.” The track became representative of his commercial and critical peak when he could shift audience tastes with a stray bar or his mere vocal cadence. Nas’s album, Stillmatic, didn’t have the same impact as The Blueprint, drawing positive reviews tempered by increasingly loud naysayers who questioned his production choices.

But Jay-Z’s boosters may be forgetting the immediate aftermath of the battle. Back then, much of the rap world concluded that, after Jay-Z seemingly patronized Nas on ” The Takeover,” only to get hit hard with “Ether,” he badly overreacted on “Super Ugly” by revealing that he slept with Nas’s former wife. If Jay was the president of rap, then the effect was akin to the incumbent stumbling towards a first debate loss, unused to his authority being challenged by a contender. In the Beef documentary, DJ Kay Slay said that Nas had “got” to Jay with “Ether.” The following year, Jay seemed to hit a career bump with his uneven 2002 double album, The Blueprint II: The Gift and the Curse, while Nas cemented his reputation as a wayward innovator with God’s Son.

Nas, "Got Ur Self A..."

So, maybe Nas won the battle…and Jay-Z won the war. Meanwhile, a real war was taking shape outside that no one was safe from. The industry couldn’t hide forever from a recording industry slowly losing sales as fans ripped CDs and shared MP3s on peer-to-peer services. Yet it stubbornly clung to the platinum-or-better philosophy pioneered by Sean “P. Diddy” Combs — or was it just “Diddy” now? — who launched a long-awaited comeback with unstoppable hits like “Bad Boy for Life.” Major label artists unlikely to hit that sales target saw their careers wither while unreleased material leaked onto the web. It wasn’t just formerly hot prospects like Dr. Dre protégé Knoc-Turn’al who suffered. Veterans like Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest faced a similar fate.

Amidst the tumult, Missy Elliott shined as a paragon of commercial and aesthetic appeal. Her “Get Ur Freak On” marked another milestone in a career rapidly filling with them and pointed towards a future in which global music trends, from Punjabi bhangra to UK club sounds house and Eurodance, would exert an impact on mainstream U.S. rap culture. There were other modest signs of how American listeners, albeit mostly trainspotters and adventurous “hipster” niches in major cities, were becoming aware of English-language variants around the globe, from So Solid Crew and Roots Manuva in Britain to Kardinal Offishall in Canada, and Shing02 and producer Nujabes in Japan.

When Damon Albarn of Britpop band Blur, producer Dan the Automator, and comics illustrator Jamie Hewlett launched their multimedia art-pop project Gorillaz, they turned to indie-rap hero Del the Funky Homosapien to deliver the first single, “Clint Eastwood.” No matter how much the mainstream ignored anything that didn’t show potential to conquer the “urban” market — whether that was soon-to-be massive crunk acts like Lil Jon & the Eastside Boyz and T.I. or newly crowned hitmakers like Fabolous — the genre kept evolving, leading to new styles that evaded the industry’s conservative norms. There was a world outside, no doubt, whether thug-rap heads acknowledged it or not.

The 125 Best Rap Singles of 2001

  • Aesop Rock, “Daylight” (Def Jux)
  • Alias, “Final Act” (Anticon)
  • Asheru & Blue Black, “Truly Unique” (Seven Heads)
  • The Avalanches, “Since I Left You” (Modular Recordings)
  • Awol One & Daddy Kev, “Rhythm” (Mean Street)
  • Backbone AKA “Mr. Fat Face 100,” “Five, Deuce, Four, Tre” (Universal Records)
  • Bad Azz feat. Snoop Dogg, “Wrong Idea” (Doggy Style Records / Priority Records)
  • Beanie Sigel, “Beanie (Mack Bitch)” (Roc-A-Fella Records)
  • Beanie Sigel and Freeway, “Roc the Mic” (Roc-A-Fella Records)
  • The Beatnuts, “No Escapin’ This” (Loud Records)

  • Big Justoleum Lune TNS, “Plantation Rhymes” (Sub Verse Music)
  • Blackalicious, “Make You Feel That Way” / “Paragraph President” (Mahogany Sun / Quannum Projects / MCA Records)
  • Bubba Sparxxx, “Ugly” (Beat Club / Interscope Records)
  • Bubba Sparxxx, “Lovely” (Beat Club / Interscope Records)
  • Busta Rhymes, “Break Ya Neck” (Flipmode Records / J Records)
  • Cannibal Ox, “Vein” / “B-Boy Alpha” (Def Jux)
  • Choppa, “Choppa Style” (Take ‘Fo Records)
  • Cocoa Brovaz / Royce Da 5’9”, “Get Up” / “Let’s Grow” (Rawkus)
  • Common, “Tekzilla” (Rawkus)
  • Cormega, “Get Out My Way” / “R U My Nigga?” (Legal Hustle Entertainment / Landspeed Records)

  • The Coup, “5,000,000 Ways to Kill a C.E.O.” (75 Ark)
  • Cut Chemist, “Bunky’s Pick” (Stones Throw)
  • Cyne, “African Elephants” (Must!Delicious / Rice and Beans)
  • D-Styles, “Return to Planetary Deterioration” (Galactic Butt Hair Records)
  • Dabrye, One Three: “The Lish” (Ghostly International)
  • Declaime, “Exclaim the Name” (Superrappin / Groove Attack)
  • Deep Dickollective, “Straighttrippin’” (Sugartruck Recordings) (album track)
  • Deltron 3030, “Positive Contact” (75 Ark)
  • Devin the Dude, “Doobie Ashtray” / “Lacville ‘79” (Rap-A-Lot Resurrection)
  • Dilated Peoples, “Worst Comes to Worst” (ABB Records)

  • DJ Eli, Breeze, Q-Unique, Godfather Don, J-Treds, M.F. Doom, “Fondle ‘Em Fossils” (Fondle ‘Em / Def Jux)
  • DMX, “We Right Here” (Ruff Ryders / Def Jam Music Group Inc.)
  • DMX, “Who We Be” (Ruff Ryders / Def Jam Music Group Inc.)
  • Dr. Dre feat. Knoc-Turn’al, “Bad Intentions” (Doggy Style Records / Aftermath Entertainment / Interscope Records)
  • D12, “Fight Music” (Shady Records / Interscope Records)
  • Dungeon Family, “Trans DF Express” (Arista)
  • Eastside Chedda Boyz, “Oh Boy” (P.B.I. Records)
  • Edan, “Mic Manipulator” (Lewis Recordings)
  • El-P, “Stepfather Factory” (Definitive Jux)
  • Erick Sermon feat. Marvin Gaye, “Music” (NY.LA Music / Interscope Records)

  • Eve, “Who’s That Girl” (Ruff Ryders / Interscope Records)
  • Eve feat. Gwen Stefani, “Let Me Blow Your Mind” (Ruff Ryders / Interscope Records)
  • Fabolous feat. Nate Dogg, “Can’t Deny It” (Desert Storm Records / Elektra)
  • Fabolous, “Young’n (Holla Back)” (Desert Storm Records / Elektra)
  • Foxy Brown, “BK Anthem” / “Oh Yeah” (Def Jam Recordings)
  • G. Dep, “Special Delivery” (Bad Boy Entertainment)
  • Ghostface Killah feat. Method Man, Raekwon & Superb / Ghostface Killah, “Flowers” / “The Watch” (Epic)
  • Gorillaz, “Clint Eastwood” (Parlophone / Virgin)
  • Hi-Tek Feat. Common & Vinia Mojica, “The Sun God” (Rawkus)
  • Immortal Technique, “Dance with the Devil” (self-released) (video?)

  • Infamous Mobb feat. Prodigy, “Mobb Niggaz” (JCOR Entertainment / Yosumi Records)
  • J. Rawls feat. J-Live, “Great Live Caper” (Groove Attack / Superrappin)
  • Jadakiss feat. Styles of The Lox, “We Gonna Make It” (Ruff Ryders / Interscope Records)
  • Jay Dee, “Fuck the Police” (Up Above Records)
  • Jay Dee AKA J Dilla, “Pause” / “Track” (BBE / Stud!o / Rawkus)
  • Jay-Z, “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” (Roc-A-Fella Records)
  • Jay-Z feat. Biz Markie, Q-Tip & Slick Rick / Jay-Z, “Girls, Girls, Girls” / “Takeover” (Roc-A-Fella Records)
  • Jay-Z, “Super Ugly (I Got Myself a Gun)” (Murder Inc. Records)
  • Jay-Z, “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love) (MTV Unplugged Version)” (Roc-A-Fella Records)
  • Jean Grae, “How to Break Up with Your Girlfriend” (Ill Boogie)

  • Jermaine Dupri feat. Ludacris, “Welcome to Atlanta” (So So Def Recordings)
  • Juvenile, “From Her Mama (Mama Got Ass)” (Cash Money Records / Universal Records)
  • Kamaal/The Abstract, “Feelin’” (Arista)
  • Kankick feat. Kombo & Wildchild of the Lootpack, “On the Lookout” (Smoggy Day Recordings / Mean Street Records)
  • Kardinal Offishall, “BaKardi Slang” (Figure IV Entertainment / MCA Records)
  • Khia, “My Neck, My Back (Lick It)” (Dirty Down Records)
  • King Honey feat. MF Doom, Kurious & King Ghidra, Colapsus: “Monday Night at Fluid” (Sound-Ink)
  • KRS-One, “Get Your Self Up (Remix)” (Koch Records)
  • Kut Masta Kurt Presents Masters of Illusion, “The Bay-Bronx Bridge” (Threshold Recordings)
  • Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz feat. Big Kap, Chyna White, Ludacris & Too $hort, “Bia Bia” (BME Recordings / TVT)

  • Lil Wayne feat. Baby, Mac-10 & Mickey, “Shine” (Cash Money Records / Universal Records)
  • Ludacris, “Roll Out (My Business)” (Disturbing Tha Peace / Def Jam South)
  • Ludacris feat. Nate Dogg, “Area Codes” (Disturbing Tha Peace / Def Jam Recordings)
  • Mack 10 feat. Ice Cube, WC & Butch Cassidy, “Connected for Life” (Cash Money Records / Universal Records)
  • Masta Ace, “Acknowledge” (JCOR Entertainment / Yosumi Records)
  • Master P feat. Weebie, “Ooohhhwee” (The New No Limit Records / Universal Records)
  • MC Chris, “Fett’s Vette” (self-released) (album track)
  • Method Man & Redman, “Part II” (Def Jam Recordings)
  • MF Doom / MF Doom feat. MF Grimm, “I Hear Voices Part 1” / “I Hear Voices Part 2” (Sub Verse Music)
  • Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, “Get Ur Freak On” (The Goldmind, Inc. / Elektra)

  • Mitchy Slick, “Trigeration Station” (Tha Wrongkind Entertainment / Presidential Entertainment) (video)
  • Mobb Deep, “Burn” (Loud Records / Steve Rifkind Company / Columbia)
  • Molemen feat. Aesop Rock, MF Doom & Slug, “Put Your Quarter Up” (Molemen Inc.)
  • Mystikal, “Bouncin’ Back (Bumpin’ Me Against the Wall)” (Jive)
  • Nappy Roots, “Aw Naw” (Atlantic)
  • Nas, “Stillmatic” (internet)
  • Nas, “Got Ur Self A…” (Ill Will Records / Columbia)
  • Nas, “Ether” (Columbia)
  • Nas, “Doo Rags” (Ill Will Records / Columbia)
  • Nelly feat. City Spud, “Ride Wit Me” (Fo’ Reel Entertainment / Universal Records)

  • OutKast feat. Killer Mike & Joi, “The Whole World” (LaFace Records / Arista)
  • Outlawz feat. 2Pac, “Worldwide (Remix)” (Outlawz Recordz / In the Paint / KOCH)
  • The P Brothers, Heavy Bronx Experience Volume 2: Nottingham Bronx (Heavy Bronx Records)
  • P. Diddy, Black Rob & Mark Curry, “Bad Boy for Life” (Bad Boy Entertainment)
  • Pastor Troy, “This Tha City” (Universal Records)
  • Pete Rock feat. The UN, “Nothin’ Lesser” (BBE / Stud!o / Rawkus)
  • Petey Pablo, “Raise Up” (Jive)
  • Prefuse 73 w/Mikah 9, “Life Death” (Warp) (album track)
  • Project Pat, “Cheese and Dope” (Loud Records) (album track)
  • QB Finest feat. Bravehearts & Nas, “Oochie Wally” (Ill Will Records / Columbia)

  • Redman feat. DJ Kool, “Let’s Get Dirty (I Can’t Get In Da Club)” (Def Jam Recordings)
  • Richie Rich, “Ain’t Gon Do” (Tensix Records)
  • Roots Manuva, “Witness (1 Hope)” (Big Dada Recordings)
  • Sage Francis, “Makeshift Patriot” (Anticon)
  • Saul Williams, “Purple Pigeons” (Ozone Music)
  • Shing02, “Luv.sic” (Hydeout Productions)
  • Single Minded Pros feat. J.U.I.C.E., “Session One” (Single Minded Pros)
  • Slum Village, “Tainted” / “Get Live!” (Barak Records / JCOR Entertainment)
  • Snoop Dogg feat. Master P, Nate Dogg, Butch Cassidy & Tha Eastsidaz, “Lay Low” (Doggy Style / No Limit Records / Priority)
  • Snoop Dogg Presents Tha Eastsidaz feat. Kokane, “ILuvIt” (Doggy Style Records / TVT Records)

  • So Solid Crew, “21 Seconds” (Relentless Records)
  • Soulja Slim, “Soulja 4 Lyfe” (No Limit South) (album track)
  • Sticky feat. Ms. Dynamite, “Booo!” (FFRR)
  • The Streets, “Has It Come to This?” (679 / Locked On)
  • Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek: Reflection Eternal, “The Blast” (Rawkus)
  • Techno Animal feat. Rubberoom, “Cruise Mode 101” (Matador) (album track)
  • T.I. feat. Beenie Man, “I’m Serious” (Ghetto-O-Vision Entertainment / Arista)
  • T.I., “Dope Boyz” (Ghetto-O-Vision Entertainment / Arista)
  • Three 6 Mafia feat. La Chat, “Baby Mama” (Universal Records / UMG Soundtracks)
  • Three 6 Mafia, “2 Way Freak” (Loud Records / Steve Rifkind Company / Columbia)

  • Three The… G. Dep, P. Diddy & Black Rob, “Let’s Get It” (Bad Boy Entertainment)
  • Trick Daddy feat. The SNS Express, “Take It to Da House” (Slip-n-Slide Records / Atlantic)
  • Trick Daddy, “I’m a Thug” (Slip-n-Slide Records / Atlantic)
  • 2 Mex, “L.A. (Like…)” (Mean Street)
  • Xzibit, “Get Your Walk On” (Open Bar / Loud Records)

This post has been updated.


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