Missy Elliott - Jeff Reidel

The 125 Best Rap Singles of 2002

While Missy Elliott and the Neptunes dominated 2002, the rise of 50 Cent, Dipset, and Southern rap promised to transform the culture.

If one word could define rap music in the year 2002, it may be “disquiet.”

Perhaps it was due to the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center, and the sense that the United States would soon look for a scapegoat after invading Afghanistan and failing to capture Osama Bin Laden. It could have been the music industry at large, and how revenues buoyed by CD sales slowly tumbled from the effects of online piracy without yet taking a nosedive.

Regardless of the source, it felt as if nothing could satisfy the rap community. In retrospect, the year was a strong if not necessarily remarkable one. Scarface finally got his flowers, so to speak, when he released The Fix, a gem packed with high-wattage cameos and great singles like “My Block” and “Guess Who’s Back.” Critics called it the album of the year, only to quibble that it couldn’t stand against past winners like Jay-Z’s The Blueprint in 2001, or Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP in 2000. Meanwhile, Eminem himself annoyed with his caustic, petulant, and score-settling The Eminem Show, particularly the overwrought “Cleaning Out My Closet,” where he criticized his own mother. He may have been the biggest star in popular music, but his bullying antics drew increasing disdain. Still, when Ja Rule and The Source co-owner Benzino attacked Eminem, the rap industry rallied around him while he scored a hit Hollywood film with 8 Mile and the chart-topping classic, “Lose Yourself.”

Em’s reality-show drama overshadowed worthy rap heroes like Missy Elliott. She was amid a historic run — two classic albums in back-to-back years, 2001’s Miss E: So Intelligent and 2002’s Under Construction — feted for its sonic innovation. But she never achieved the kind of “GOAT” status afforded to the likes of Nas and Jay-Z, whose epic beef from 2001 continued to simmer. Maybe it was because she was a party rocker who glided easily between clubby rap and expensively produced R&B. Or perhaps it was just because she was a woman.

Oddly, questions of gender didn’t affect the underground rap scene, which everyone referred to as “backpacker.” No one called out Definitive Jux and Anticon for not having any women on their rosters, or how Atmosphere rapper Slug indulged in nice-guy misogyny with self-deprecating humor on God Loves Ugly. Instead, detractors pointed to the increasing whiteness of the audience, and how acts like Edan and Jurassic 5 espoused didactic allegiance to a dusty and lyrical ethos that seemed disconnected from post-millennial Black culture. By the end of the year, compilations like The Anti-Backpack Movement emerged. Artists such as Jay Dee, Talib Kweli, and J-Zone took pains to distance themselves from the “backpacker” slur and emphasized that they enjoyed a good club banger like the rest of the normies.

If anyone epitomized the psychological strains of musicians forced to lead conflicted lives riven by (white) pop considerations, socio-political ethics, and a desire to reach the Black mainstream no matter how their artistry shifts and evolves, it was Lauryn Hill. With MTV Unplugged 2.0, she openly struggled with the fame accrued since her days in the Fugees, and press reports speculated about her mental fragility. It proved to be her last collection of new music to date. Ever since, fans have debated the meaning and artistic value of her public implosion, and what it says about the precarious state of Black women in hip-hop culture.

There was much to enjoy throughout 2002. The Neptunes dominated with ruddy synth-and-bass backdrops, whether with Virginia homeboys Clipse or their own skate-rock-inspired project, N*E*R*D. Diddy completed his comeback with the tabloid diorama of “I Need a Girl.” Love Nelly or hate him, he was omnipresent. So was Ja Rule, despite increasing pushback against Murder Inc. producer Irv Gotti’s blandly predictable arrangements. Cash Money was “Still Fly,” to take a cue from the Big Tymers single. Hell, even LL Cool J scored a hit.

But none of it seemed to dispel the notion that the industry was in a malaise despite the glitch-hop of Antipop Consortium, Dabrye, and Prefuse 73, the latter who glided between electronic instrumentals and quirky hip-hop gold like Mos Def & Diverse’s “Wylin’ Out.” It wasn’t until the end of the year that hip-hop as a musical and historical narrative regained clarity with emerging movements that partly defined the rest of the decade.

The first, of course, is 50 Cent. If 2003 belonged to his Get Rich or Die Tryin’, then the final months of 2002 felt like a gathering storm. Eminem fans heard his “Wanksta” on the 8 Mile soundtrack. Kids who wasted hours on Limewire and The Pirate Bay downloaded his G-Unit mixtapes. “Urban” radio listeners rocked to “Realest Niggas,” his collaboration with the ghost of the Notorious B.I.G. As 50 Cent emerged as the next superstar to remake the genre in his image, much was made of how he survived a 2000 shooting by still-unknown assailants. But a brush with death merely added blockbuster luster to 50’s melodic boasts. He rarely indulged in the kind of haunting, conflicted passages crafted by Pac — whose estate continued to remix old demos into radio fare like “Thugz Mansion” — DMX, Scarface, and others.

This sense of rap as kayfabe, the wrestling term for adopting an unreal and hype-driven persona, also animated Cam’ron’s crew The Diplomats. On songs like “Built This City” and “I’m Ready,” Dipset unfurled ridiculous claims that they were like uncontrollable like the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist sect that helped Bin Laden stage the 9/11 attacks. Yet Cam, Juelz Santana, Jim Jones, and Freekey Zekey also swathed themselves in red, white, and blues on their 2003 crew album, Diplomatic Immunity. The conflicting themes — terrorism against the United States and American patriotism — didn’t make logical sense. But they underlined New York rap’s immersion into an ocean of champagne, throwback jerseys, grimy mixtapes, and thugged-out bloat. Dipset’s gleefully charismatic prevarications were in marked contrast to others like Mr. Lif and Paris, who asked more serious questions about the Bush administration’s blooming War on Terror.

Meanwhile, the South was ready to explode, and not just through a handful of topline stars like Ludacris, Outkast, and Trick Daddy. Producer Lil Jon’s inescapable crunk mashers would force fans to rethink how they depicted the rap universe, sparking a reckoning with the region’s maturation from 2 Live Crew’s booty-bass silliness into a dynamic and complex movement. The South and particularly Atlanta’s arrival as an industry power would eventually unsettle hip-hop’s identity in ways fans continue to struggle to comprehend.

The 125 Best Rap Singles of 2002

  • Antipop Consortium, “Ghostlawns” (Warp)
  • Archie, “We Ready” (Phat Boy Records / MCA)
  • Atmosphere, “Modern Man’s Hustle” (Rhymesayers Entertainment / Fat Beats)
  • Atmosphere, “Godlovesugly” (Rhymesayers Entertainment / Fat Beats)
  • Baby AKA The Birdman feat. Clipse, “What Happened to That Boy?” (Cash Money Records / Universal Records)
  • Baby D feat. Archie, Lil Jon & Pastor Troy, “ATL Hoe” (Big Oomp Records)
  • Big Moe, “Purple Stuff” (Wreckshop / Priority Records)
  • Big Tymers, “Still Fly” (Cash Money Records / Universal Records)
  • B-Legit feat. Too $hort, “So International” (Koch Records)
  • Bone Crusher, “Never Scared” / “Grippin Tha Grain” (Break ‘Em Off Records)

  • Busdriver, “Imaginary Places” (Temporary Whatever)
  • Busta Rhymes feat. Puffy & Pharrell, “Pass the Courvoisier Part II” (Flipmode Records / J Records)
  • Cam’ron feat. Juelz Santana, “Oh Boy” (Roc-A-Fella Records)
  • Cam’ron feat. Juelz Santana, Freekey Zekey and Toya, “Hey Ma” (Roc-A-Fella Records)
  • Camu Tao, “Hold the Floor” (Definitive Jux)
  • Chingy, “Right Thurr” (Trak Starz Music)
  • Clipse, “Grindin’” (Star Trak / Arista)
  • Clipse, “When Was the Last Time” (Star Trak / Arista)
  • Cocoa Brovaz, “Tools of the Trade” (Duck Down)
  • Common feat. Mary J. Blige, “Come Close to Me” (MCA Records)

  • Cormega, “Built for This” / “True Meaning” (Legal Hustle / Landspeed Records)
  • Count Bass D feat. MF Doom, “Quite Buttery” (Day by Day Entertainment) (album track)
  • Cunninlynguists feat. Masta Ace / Cunninlynguists, “Seasons” / “Sunrise Sunset” (Freshchest Records)
  • Cyne, Movements: “400 Years” (Botanica del Jibaro)
  • Daedelus, “Experience” (Plug Research) (album track)
  • Danger Mouse & Jemini the Gifted One, “Take Care of Business” / “Don’t Do Drugs” (Lex Records)
  • The Demigodz, “Don’t You Even Go There” (Ill Boogie Records)
  • The Diplomats, “Built This City” (Roc-A-Fella Records)
  • The Diplomats feat. Master P / The Diplomats feat. Cam’ron, Jimmy Jones & Juelz Santana, “Bout It Bout It… Part III” / “I’m Ready” (Roc-A-Fella Records)
  • DJ Jazzy Jeff feat. Baby Blak & Pauly Yamz, “For the Love of the Game” (Rapster Records / BBE)

  • DJ Shadow feat. Mos Def, “Six Days (Remix)” (MCA Records)
  • DMX, “X Gon Give It to Ya” (Ruff Ryders / Def Jam Recordings)
  • DPZ, “Turn Off the Radio” (Holla Black Records)
  • Edan, “Emcees Smoke Crack” (Lewis Recordings)
  • E-40 feat. Fabolous, “Automatic” (Jive)
  • El-P, “Deep Space 9mm” / “Tuned Mass Damper” (Definitive Jux)
  • Electric Company, “Respect Life” (Sun Moon Records)
  • Eminem, “Cleaning Out My Closet” (Shady Records / Aftermath Entertainment / Interscope Records)
  • Eminem feat. Nate Dogg, “Till I Collapse” (Shady Records / Web Entertainment / Aftermath Entertainment / Interscope Records)
  • Eminem, “Bully” (internet)

  • Eminem, “Lose Yourself” (Shady Records / Interscope Records)
  • ESG & Slim Thug, “Getchya Hands Up” (S.E.S. Entertainment)
  • Eve feat. Alicia Keys, “Gangsta Lovin’” (Ruff Ryders / Interscope)
  • Fabolous feat. P. Diddy & Jagged Edge, “Trade It All Part 2” (Epic / Sony Music Soundtrax)
  • Fat Joe feat. Ashanti, “What’s Luv?” (Terror Squad Production / Atlantic)
  • Field Mob, “Sick of Being Lonely” (MCA)
  • 50 Cent, “Wanksta” (Shady Records / Aftermath Entertainment / Interscope Records)
  • 50 Cent, “In Da Club” (Shady Records / Aftermath Entertainment / Interscope Records / G Unit)
  • Freestyle Fellowship, “Shockadoom” (Whig Music)
  • Freeway feat. Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel, “What We Do” (Roc-A-Fella Records)

  • G. Dep feat. Faith Evans, “Everyday (Remix)” (Bad Boy Entertainment)
  • Gang Starr, “Skills” (Virgin)
  • Grits, “Here We Go” (Gotee Records)
  • H.A.W.K., “You Already Know” (Game Face / Ghetto Dreams)
  • Hieroglyphics feat. Goapele, “Soweto” (Hiero Imperium)
  • Irv Gotti Presents The Inc feat. Ja Rule, Ashanti, Charli Baltimore & Vita, “Down 4 U” (Murder Inc. Records)
  • Jay-Z, “Song Cry” (Roc-A-Fella Records)
  • Jay-Z, “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” (Roc-A-Fella Records)
  • Jaz-O & The Immobilarie, “Love Is Gone” (D&D Records / Rancore Records)
  • Jean Grae, “What Would I Do?” / “Love Song” (Third Earth Music)

  • J-Live, “Satisfied?” (Coup D’Etat)
  • Jurassic 5, “What’s Golden” (Interscope Records)
  • Killer Mike, “AKshon (Yeah!)” (Aquemini / Columbia)
  • KRS-One, “Ova Here” (Front Page Entertainment / In the Paint / Koch)
  • Lauryn Hill, “Mystery of Iniquity” (Columbia) (album track)
  • Lil Flip, “The Way We Ball” (Loud Records)
  • Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz, “I Don’t Give a Fuck” (BME Recordings / TVT Records)
  • Linkin Park: Evidence feat. Pharoahe Monch & DJ Babu, “H! VLTG3” (Warner Bros. Records)
  • Little Brother, “Whatever You Say” / “Light It Up” / “Altitudes” (ABB Records)
  • LL Cool J, “Luv U Better” (Def Jam Recordings)

  • Ludacris, “Saturday (Oooh! Oooh!)” (Disturbing the Peace / Def Jam South)
  • Ludacris, “Move Bitch” (Disturbing the Peace / Def Jam South)
  • Mac Dre, “Thizzelle Dance” (Thizz Entertainment) (album track)
  • Mack 10 feat. Ice Cube, WC and Butch Cassidy, “Connected for Life” (Cash Money Records / Universal Records)
  • Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, “Work It” (Goldmind / Elektra)
  • Missy Elliott feat. Ludacris, “Gossip Folks” (Goldmind / Elektra)
  • Mr. Lif, “Home of the Brave” (Definitive Jux)
  • Monsta Island Czars, “Mic Line” (Metal Face Records / Benn-Grimm Entertainment / Rhymesayers Entertainment)
  • Mos Def feat. Faith Evans, “Brown Sugar (Extra Sweet)” (MCA)
  • Mos Def, Diverse, Prefuse 73, “Wylin’ Out” (Chocolate Industries)

  • Murs, “God’s Work” (Definitive Jux)
  • Nappy Roots feat. Anthony Hamilton, “Po’ Folks” (Atlantic)
  • Nas, “One Mic” (Ill Will Records / Columbia)
  • Nas, “Made You Look” (Ill Will Records / Columbia)
  • Nas, “No Idea’s Original” (Ill Will Records / Columbia)
  • Nas, “I Can” (Ill Will Records / Columbia)
  • Nelly, “Hot in Herre” (Fo’ Reel Entertainment / Universal Records)
  • Nelly feat. Kelly Rowland, “Dilemma” (Fo’ Reel Entertainment / Universal Records)
  • N*E*R*D, “Rockstar” (Virgin)
  • Nighthawks, “Cop Hell” / “Count Crackula” (High Times Records)

  • Non Phixion, “Rock Stars” / “The C.I.A. Is Trying to Kill Me” (Uncle Howie Records / Landspeed Records)
  • N.O.R.E., “Nothin’” (Thugged Out Entertainment / Def Jam Recordings)
  • Notorious B.I.G. & 50 Cent, “Realest Niggas” (Bad Boy Entertainment / Universal Records)
  • Obie Trice, “Rap Name” (Shady Records)
  • P. Diddy feat. Usher & Loon, “I Need a Girl (Part One)” (Bad Boy Entertainment)
  • P. Diddy & Ginuwine feat. Loon, Mario Winans & Tammy Ruggeri, “I Need a Girl (Part Two)” (Bad Boy Entertainment)
  • Paris, “What Would You Do” (Guerilla Funk Recordings)
  • Pastor Troy, “Vice Versa” (Universal Records)
  • Paul Wall & Chamillionaire, “N Love With My Money” (Paid in Full Entertainment)
  • People Under the Stairs, “Acid Raindrops” (OM Records)

  • The Prof. Meets The Super Villain, “My Favorite Ladies” / “All Outta Ale” (Nature Sounds)
  • Quasimoto, “Astronaut” (Antidote)
  • Ras Kass, “Goldyn Child” (Priority Records / Capitol)
  • RJD2, “Let the Good Times Roll” / “Counseling” (Definitive Jux)
  • The Roots feat. Musiq, “Break You Off” (MCA)
  • San Quinn / Andre Nickatina, “A Yo” (Million Dollar Dream)
  • Scarface, “On My Block” (Skinny Gangsta Music Corp. / J Prince Entertainment / Def Jam South)
  • Scarface feat. Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel, “Guess Who’s Back” (Skinny Gangsta Music Corp. / J Prince Entertainment / Def Jam South)
  • Shing02, “Luv(sic) Part Two” (Hydeout Productions)
  • Sole, “Salt on Everything” (Anticon)

  • Stahhr Tha F.E.M.C.E.E., “RhymeFluid” (Sub Verse Music)
  • Strange Fruit Project, “Luv Is” / “Ooh Wee” / “Maintain” (Black Son Records)
  • Styles & Pharaohe Monch, “The Life” (Rawkus)
  • Styles, “Good Times” (Ruff Ryders / Interscope)
  • Tech N9ne, “Slacker” (Strange Music)
  • Themselves, “Good People Check” (Anticon) (album track)
  • Trick Daddy feat. Cee-Lo & Big Boi, “In Da Wind” (Slip-N-Slide Records / Atlantic)
  • Trina feat. Tweet, “No Panties” (Slip-N-Slide Records / Atlantic)
  • Trina feat. Ludacris, “B R Right” (Slip-N-Slide Records / Atlantic)
  • Triple 6 Mafia & Fiend Presents Da Headbussaz, “Where They Hang” (Hypnotize Minds / Fiend Entertainment)

  • 2Pac feat. Anthony Hamilton, “Thugz Mansion” (Amaru Entertainment / Tha Row Records / Interscope Records)
  • The Weathermen, “Same As It Never Was” (Definitive Jux)
  • Wiley, “Eskimo” (Wiley Kat Records)
  • The X-ecutioners feat. Mike Shinoda and Mr. Hahn of Linkin Park, “It’s Going Down” (Steve Rifkind Company / Loud Records)
  • Ying Yang Twins, “Say I Yi Yi” (Collipark Records / In the Paint / Koch Records)

Missy Elliott featured photo by Jeff Reidel.
Photo of Jay-Z, Scarface, Beanie Sigel, and DMX by unknown photographer.
Clipse photo by Clay Patrick McBride.
Neptunes photo by unknown photographer.
Music artwork taken from Discogs.


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