50 Cent

The 125 Best Rap Singles of 2003

As the industry slowly crumbled, action figures like 50 Cent and Lil Jon rolled off the assembly line with muscular, eardrum-popping sounds.

On October 13, 2003, the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 consisted of nothing but hip-hop and R&B singles. With a chart topped by Beyoncé featuring Sean Paul’s “Baby Boy,” it was the first all-black Billboard top 10 in history. For a movement that spent decades struggling for acceptance, endured condescension from the same R&B world that now ached to copy its innovations and weathered cultural shifts that too often prioritized violence and conformity over artistic innovation, it must have seemed like an incredible accomplishment. “We’ve obliterated the color line,” an A&M Records executive crowed to the magazine in its October 18, 2003, issue.

The question of how the pop music “color line” has since reasserted itself to the point where no rap acts topped the Hot 100 in 2023 until July 29th — thanks to Latto’s cameo on K-pop singer Jungkook’s “Seven” — is beyond the scope of this essay. Yet even two decades ago, it was clear that a singular achievement in Black music was tempered by growing structural issues in the music industry. Many of the rogue companies that inaugurated the online downloading trade like Napster and Kazaa now sought to make licensing deals with major labels to make money and stave off litigation and criminal indictments. And yet the “illegal” downloads continued, no matter how many lawsuits the RIAA filed.

As the industry slowly crumbled, the rap heroes of 2003 seemed to emerge from a laboratory, a phenomenon 50 Cent parodied in his video for “In Da Club.” The Philip Atwell-directed clip found Eminem and Dr. Dre, clad in lab coats, observing a shirtless, jacked-up Fiddy being rebuilt like The Six Million Dollar Man. He survived being shot nine times (just like 2Pac) and refined his distinctly New York drawl into a smoothly accessible concoction (just like Biggie) while beefing with rival crews (like too many to mention). He paid homage to Southern idioms like Luke’s “It’s Your Birthday” while aligning with Shady/Aftermath, a bi-coastal union that emphasized his universal appeal. He blended it all in Get Rich or Die Tryin’, a mega-hit defined by charismatic braggadocio and untroubled by emotional torment, while building his G-Unit brand with Queens friends Tony Yayo and Lloyd Banks as well as Memphis recruit Young Buck.

50 Cent led a year where all the men preened and swaggered in throwback sports apparel — and were surrounded by bikini-clad video vixens — while comely thug missus dressed in expensive lingerie, ready for a Maxim pinup that could turn on a hard rock’s magic stick. All the big hits rumbled with loud, eardrum-popping sounds. The hot producers of the era, from Timbaland, Swizz Beatz and the Neptunes to Roc-a-Fella specialist Just Blaze and Dipset associates The Heatmakerz, girded their beats with ringing keyboard lines, all the better to shock listeners into submission, while spicing their arrangements with dancehall flavors and disco-funk tones. As evinced by the Billboard charts, the audience seemed to lap it up. But some fans had limits. When Nelly infamously swiped a credit card through a model’s ass in the video for “E.I. (The Tipdrill Remix),” his blatant misogyny generated protests at HBCU campuses.

Then there was Lil Jon, the Atlanta producer who amped up the testosterone and turned dance floors into a cauldron of unbridled energy and thrown elbows. He became the leading symbol of rap’s Southern takeover. The fact that New York talents like Nas and Busta Rhymes clamored to work with him proved the region could no longer be dismissed as a backwater of booty-bass novelty and the occasional star like Ludacris or T.I. It was now a scene — the Dirty States of America — that could yield acclaimed theorists like David Banner as well as unrepentant trappers like Yo Gotti. Plus, much like the West Coast in the 90s, crunk resonated with the millennial pop audience in a way that Dipset simply didn’t, no matter how many Pabst Blue Ribbon-guzzling hipsters adored Cam’ron’s pink outfits. As for the West Coast itself? The region was earning an unwanted reputation for being in a creative slump. It didn’t matter that hyphy was emerging from the Bay Area. All that mattered were the sales numbers a scene could produce.

For years, indie rap served as an aesthetic counterweight to a major-label habitat obsessed with slickly appointed surfaces. But by 2003, a backpack thug ethos had taken hold. Rappers like Cage bragged about riding in limousines and snorting coke. Jedi Mind Tricks highlighted a byzantine “super-scientifical” scene defined by Wu-Tang refugees, Islamic and Five Percenter pretensions, and brutally vivid descriptions of street violence. Even Madlib, the enigmatic producer who once criticized gangsterism on his Quasimoto classic The Unseen, now joined with Jay Dee for the strip-club excursion Champion Sound.

It took Little Brother to re-establish the value of soft tones in an environment that felt too hard and uncompromising. Despite hailing from the South, the North Carolina trio were more in thrall to A Tribe Called Quest and Slum Village’s soulful hip-hop than Lil Jon’s crunk. They also marked the growing impact of Okayplayer, a website/record label/branding company founded by Questlove of The Roots. It became a home for artists seemingly out of place in the mainstream, from backpack stars MF Doom and Jean Grae to languishing veterans De La Soul and Pharoahe Monch, who nevertheless held broader appeal than willfully esoteric iconoclasts like Busdriver.

The success of Little Brother’s The Listening would eventually earn them a major label deal. But it was Kanye West, not them, who uncovered a path to industry success that wasn’t determined by posing as a street-hardened tough or aiming for bland corporate ubiquity like Black Eyed Peas. The producer behind hits like Jay-Z’s “Encore” and Ludacris’ “Stand Up” spent two years trying to convince Roc-A-Fella head Damon Dash to give his debut album a promotional budget. It took a near-fatal car accident, an experience he documented in his single “Through the Wire,” to finally break through.

While West slowly emerged from the studio into the spotlight, OutKast struggled to navigate modern rap in all its contradictions. Their Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was a juggernaut that not only earned an RIAA diamond certification, but also won the 2004 Grammy Award for Album of the Year, the last hip-hop album to do so to date. It found the duo cleaving their sound into opposing sides: Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx of hard funk mashers, and Andre 3000’s The Love Below concept of melancholic funk harmonies. Big Boi epitomized the genre’s club-bound present, while Andre 3000 anticipated its future of melodic rap and Auto-Tuned voices.

Despite being one of the greatest rappers in hip-hop history, Andre 3000 saved his rhymes for The Love Below’s closer, “A Life in the Day of Benjamin André (Incomplete).” Written from the perspective of a letter sent to a former paramour, the same framing device Andre used in 1998’s “Da Art of Storytellin’,” he summarized his Atlanta group’s rise to superstardom, only to abruptly end around the time of Aquemini and his high-profile break-up with Erykah Badu.

“The [Volkswagen] Rabbit that you thought about that whole summer, the next summer, you didn’t want that Rabbit no more,” Andre says in a conversation with an unidentified friend. “So now you want a Cadillac.” Fans puzzled over the song’s meaning. Did he allude to the end of childhood romance and youthful passions? Or did he find himself outgrowing a culture where a stubborn refusal by its followers to mature became its greatest strength and tragic flaw?

The 125 Best Rap Singles of 2003

  • Aceyalone feat. Goapele, “Moonlit Skies” (Project Blowed / Decon)
  • Aesop Rock feat. Camp Lo, “Limelighters” (Definitive Jux)
  • Aesop Rock feat. El-P, “We’re Famous” (Definitive Jux) (album track)
  • Akrobatik, “Remind My Soul” (Coup D’Etat)
  • Andre Nickatina, “Conversation with a Devil” (Fillmoe Coleman Records)
  • Atmosphere, “Trying to Find a Balance” (Rhymesayers Entertainment)
  • Baby Bash feat. Frankie J, “Suga Suga” (Universal Records)
  • Beans, “Phreek the Beat” (Warp)
  • Big Freedia, “Gin in My System” (Money Rules Entertainment) (album track)
  • Big Gipp feat. Sleepy Brown, “Steppin’ Out” (In the Paint / Koch Records)

  • Black Eyed Peas, “Lets Get Retarded” (A&M Records)
  • Boo & Gotti feat. Lil Wayne, “Ain’t It Man” (Cash Money Records / Universal Records)
  • Brother Ali, “Room with a View” (Rhymesayers Entertainment)
  • Bubba Sparxxx, “Jimmy Mathis” (Beatclub / Interscope Records)
  • Bubba Sparxxx, “Deliverance” (Beatclub / Interscope Records)
  • Buck 65, “Wicked and Weird” (WEA)
  • Busdriver & Radioinactive with Daedelus, “Exaggerated Joy” (Mush) (album track)
  • Busta Rhymes feat. Pharrell, “Light Your Ass on Fire” (Star Trak)
  • Busta Rhymes and Mariah Carey feat. The Flipmode Squad, “I Know What You Want” (Flipmode Records / J Records)
  • Cam’ron, “Get Em Girls” (online only)

  • Canibus, “Indibisible” (Babygrande)
  • Cherrywine, “Dazzlement” (DCide)
  • Chingy feat. Ludacris & Snoop Dogg, “Holidae Inn” (Disturbing the Peace / Capitol Records)
  • Clipse feat. Ab-Liva & Rosco P. Coldchain, “Cot Damn” (Star Trak)
  • David Banner feat. Lil Flip, “Like a Pimp” (SRC Street Records Corporation / Universal Records)
  • David Banner, “Cadillac on 22’s” (SRC Street Records Corporation / Universal Records)
  • De La Soul feat. Sean Paul / De La Soul feat. Yummy, “Shoomp” / “Much More” (AOI Records)
  • The Diplomats, “Dipset Anthem” (Roc-a-Fella Records)
  • The Diplomats, “I Really Mean It” (Roc-a-Fella Records) (video only)
  • Dizzee Rascal, “Fix Up, Look Sharp” (XL Recordings)

  • DMX, “Where the Hood At” (Ruff Ryders / Def Jam Recordings)
  • DMX feat. Swizz Beatz, “Get It on the Floor” (Ruff Ryders / Def Jam Recordings)
  • Erykah Badu feat. Angie Stone, Bahamadia & Queen Latifah, “Love of My Life Worldwide” (Motown) (album track)
  • Fabolous feat. Mike Shorey & Lil’ Mo, “Can’t Let You Go” (Desert Storm Records / Elektra)
  • Fabolous feat. Tamia, “Into You” (Desert Storm Records / Elektra)
  • Fannypack, “Cameltoe” (Tommy Boy)
  • Federation feat. E-40, “Hyphy” (Montbello / Virgin)
  • 50 Cent feat. Nate Dogg / 50 Cent, “21 Questions” / “Many Men (Wish Death)” (Shady Records / Aftermath Entertainment / Interscope Records)
  • 50 Cent feat. Snoop Dogg, Lloyd Banks & Young Buck of G-Unit, “P.I.M.P. (Remix)” (Shady Records / Aftermath Entertainment / Interscope Records)
  • Four Tet feat. Guilty Simpson, “As Serious as Your Life (Jay Dee Remix)” (Domino)

  • Freeway feat. Peedi Crakk, “Flipside” (Criminal Background Records / Roc-a-Fella Records)
  • G-Unit, “Stunt 101” (G Unit / Interscope Records)
  • G-Unit feat. Joe, “Wanna Get to Know You” (G Unit / Interscope Records)
  • Gang Starr feat. Jadakiss, “Rite Where You Stand” (Virgin)
  • Ghostface Killah feat. Jadakiss & Comp, “Run” (Def Jam Recordings)
  • Immortal Technique / Immortal Technique feat. Pumpkinhead, Diabolic, Tonedeff, Poison Pen, Loucipher & C-Rayz Walz, “Industrial Revolution” / “Peruvian Cocaine” (Uncle Howie Records)
  • J-Kwon, “Tipsy” (So So Def Records)
  • Ja Rule, “Clap Back” (Murder Inc. Records)
  • Jacki-O, “Nookie (Real Good)” (Poe Boy Entertainment / SoBe Entertainment)
  • Jay Dee, Ruff Draft EP: “Make Em NV” (Mummy Records)

  • Jay-Z, “Excuse Me Miss” (Roc-a-Fella Records)
  • Jay-Z, “La-La-La (Excuse Me Again)” (Bad Boy Entertainment)
  • Jay-Z, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” / “Encore” (Roc-a-Fella Records)
  • Jaylib, “The Red” / “The Official” (Stones Throw)
  • Jean Grae, “Hater’s Anthem” (Babygrande)
  • Jedi Mind Tricks feat. Kool G Rap, “Animal Rap” (Babygrande)
  • Jin, “Learn Chinese” (Ruff Ryders / Virgin Records)
  • Joe Budden, “Pump It Up” (On Top Entertainment / Def Jam Recordings)
  • Juelz Santana feat. Cam’Ron, “Dipset (Santana’s Town)” (Roc-a-Fella Records)
  • Juvenile feat. Mannie Fresh, “In My Life” (Cash Money Records / Universal Records)

  • K-os, “Superstarr Pt. Zero” (Astralwerks / EMI Music Canada)
  • Kanye West / Kanye West feat. Mos Def, Freeway and the Boys Choir of Harlem, “Through the Wire” / “Two Words” (Roc-a-Fella Records)
  • Keak Da Sneak, “T-Shirt Blue Jeans & Nikes” / “Know What Im Talkin Bout ‘Yadamean’?” (Moe Doe Entertainment)
  • Kev Brown / Kev Brown feat. Grap Luva and Phonte, “Allways” / “Can’t Stay Away” (A Touch of Jazz / ABB Records)
  • Killer Mike feat. Big Boi, “A.D.I.D.A.S.” (Aquemini / Columbia)
  • King Geedorah feat. MF DOOM & Mr. Fantastik, “Anti-Matter” (Big Dada Recordings)
  • Knoc-Turn’Al feat. Snoop Dogg, “The Way I Am” (Elektra)
  • Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz feat. Ying Yang Twins, “Get Low” (BME Recordings / TVT Records)
  • Lil’ Kim feat. Mr. Cheeks, “The Jump Off” (Queen Bee Records / Atlantic)
  • Lil’ Kim feat. 50 Cent, “Magic Stick” (Queen Bee Records / Atlantic) (album track)

  • Lil Scrappy, “Head Bussa” (BME Recordings / Warner Bros. Records)
  • Little Brother, “The Way You Do It” / “The Get Up” / “On the Way” (ABB Records)
  • Ludacris feat. Shawnna, “Stand Up” (Disturbing the Peace / Def Jam South)
  • Ludacris, “Splash Waterfalls” (Disturbing the Peace / Def Jam South)
  • Lyrics Born, “Calling Out” (Quannum Projects)
  • Madlib, “Slim’s Return” (Blue Note)
  • Madvillain, “Money Folder” / “America’s Most Blunted” (Stones Throw)
  • The Majesticons feat. Murs & Camacho, “Majestwest Party” (Big Dada Recordings)
  • Mark Ronson feat. Ghostface Killah, Nate Dogg & Trife, “Ooh Wee” (Elektra)
  • Memphis Bleek feat. T.I. & Trick Daddy, “Round Here” (Roc-a-Fella Records)

  • M.I.A., “Galang” (Showbiz Recordings)
  • Micranots, “Glorious” / “Heat” (Rhymesayers)
  • Missy Elliott, “Pass That Dutch” (The Gold Mind / Elektra)
  • Murphy Lee feat. Jermaine Dupri, “Wat Da Hook Gon Be” (Universal Records)
  • Nelly feat. The St. Lunatics, “E.I. (The Tipdrill Remix)” (Universal Records)
  • OutKast feat. Sleepy Brown, “The Way You Move” (Arista)
  • OutKast, “A Life in the Day of Benjamin André (Incomplete)” (Arista) (album track)
  • Panjabi MC feat. Jay-Z, “Beware of the Boys (Mundian To Bach Ke)” (Sequence Records)
  • Petey Pablo, “Freek-a-Leek” (Jive)
  • Pharoahe Monch, “Agent Orange” (Rawkus)

  • Plastic Little, Thug Paradise: “Foil” (aNYthing)
  • RJD2, “The Horror” (Definitive Jux)
  • The Roots feat. Cody ChesnuTT, “The Seed (2.0)” (MCA Music Corporation of America)
  • S.A. Smash, “Illy” (Definitive Jux)
  • Semi.Official / Semi.Official feat. MF Doom, “Crime” / “Songs in the Key of Tryfe” (Rhymesayers Entertainment)
  • Shabazz the Disciple, “Red Hook Day” (Brick)
  • Shawnna feat. Ludacris & Twista, “R.P.M.” (Disturbing the Peace / Def Jam South)
  • Skillz, “2002: The Rap Up” (Rawkus)
  • Snoop Dogg feat. Pharrell & Uncle Charlie Wilson, “Beautiful” (Doggy Style / Priority Records)
  • Soul Position, “Printmatic” (Rhymesayers Entertainment) (album track)

  • Soulja Slim, “Love Me Love Me Not” (KOCH Records)
  • T-Love, “Who Smoked Sunshine?” (Pickaninny Records / Astralwerks / Virgin)
  • Talib Kweli, “Get By” (Blacksmith / Rawkus)
  • T.I., “24’s” (Grand Hustle / Atlantic)
  • T.I., “Be Easy” (Grand Hustle / Atlantic)
  • T.I., “Rubber Band Man” (Grand Hustle / Atlantic)
  • 2Pac feat. Trick Daddy, “Still Ballin’” (Amaru Entertainment / Interscope Records)
  • Three 6 Mafia feat. Lil’ Flip, “Ridin’ Spinners” (Columbia)
  • Three 6 Mafia, “Bin Laden” (Columbia)
  • Too $hort feat. Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz, “Shake That Monkey” (Jive)

  • Trillville, “Neva Eva” (BME Recordings / Warner Bros. Records)
  • Tupac feat. The Notorious B.I.G., “Runnin’ (Dyin’ to Live)” (Amaru Entertainment / Interscope Records / MTV Music Television / Paramount Pictures)
  • Twista feat. Kanye West & Jamie Foxx, “Slow Jamz” (Atlantic)
  • Ty feat. Bembe Segue, “Groovement” (Big Dada Recordings)
  • Viktor Vaughn, “Rae Dawn” (Sound-Ink)
  • The Weathermen, “5 Left in the Clip (RJD2 Remix)” (Eastern Conference Records)
  • Westside Connection feat. Nate Dogg, “Gangsta Nation” (Priority Records)
  • Ying Yang Twins feat. Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz, “Salt Shaker” (TVT Records)
  • Ying Yang Twins, “Naggin” (TVT Records)
  • Yo Gotti feat. Erika Kane & Kia Shine, “Sell My Dope” (TVT Records) (album track)

  • Young Gunz, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” (Roc-a-Fella Records)
  • Young Gunz feat. Rell, “No Better Love” (Roc-a-Fella Records)
  • YoungbloodZ feat. Lil’ Jon, “Damn!” (So So Def Records)
  • Z-Ro, “I Hate U” (Rap-a-Lot 4 Life)
  • Zion-I / Zion-I feat. Goapele, “The Drill” / “Flow” (Raptivism)

50 Cent featured photo by Sacha Waldman.
Jay-Z & Beyoncé photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images.
Photo of “New South” — David Banner, Lil Jon, and Bone Crusher — by Roger Erickson and published in The Source, September 2003.
Little Brother photo by unknown photographer.
OutKast photo by Torkil Gudnason.
Vinyl images taken from Discogs.

This post has been updated.


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