2023 was a transitional year for rap.

After the attention to drill rap subsided, it seemed no one really knew what direction the genre needed to go in. Old sounds stuck around, mainstream singles with obvious samples were made and forgotten, previous scenes splintered, and plenty of rappers minded their business and made the music they would always make.

Its cultural and commercial success may have been on the wane but, like every year, interesting music made it out of the brains of creative people, and rap is still vibrant. Read on for 10 of the best rap songs of 2023.

Warning: The following songs and videos are explicit

Kenzo B – DeadGame

The gun-metal grey of NY drill rap finally played itself out, with its rhythmic skeleton making its way into massive mainstream singles and many rappers who once led the sound either dead or incarcerated.

Even Kenzo B is fed up with the way things are going, using DeadGame as a final farewell to drill and the life from before. Her trademark machine gun flow makes a break for it across a classic-sounding bunny-hopping beat.

TisaKorean – uHhH HuH

TisaKorean’s obsession with the rap scene of his 2000s youth is endlessly endearing, picking up aesthetically from the snap and baller rap of yesteryear. Tisa evokes a vibe from when rap was fun and carefree, modernising the era for his young TikTok audience.

BigXthaPlug – Texas

Rap is essentially a story of places. BigXthaPlug’s ode to Texas twangs away beautifully as he looks back at the state’s legacy. “Used to think Pimp C was a god bеfore he went to Hеaven”, raps BigX, showing UGK legend Pimp C as not some regional deity outside our comprehension but as a fallible human with ideas that resonated.

That Mexican OT – Johnny Dang ft. Paul Wall and Drodi

This year saw another cultural ode to the Dirty South fly up the radar. That Mexican OT, with help from Houston legend Paul Wall, delivers pure Texan diamond district culture. Hip hop media has a long history of favouring East and West Coast acts and refusing to consider other perspectives, so these little viral affirmations for the Third Coast remain important.

billy woods & Kenny Segal – Soundcheck ft Quelle Chris

Being an independent artist in 2023 is hard – your records are made to promote your tours and you end up stuck in the middle of Eastern Europe with no idea where you are because a promoter promised the world and booked the plane ticket. It’s a grind, a hustle.

No one would know better than the independently-minded billy woods and guest Quelle Chris, who have both blessed their raps with forward-thinking ingenuity in the new age. billy woods co-headlined the Armand Hammer album this year and found the time to craft Maps, a superb singular body of work with LA producer Kenny Segal.

Ot7 Quanny & Leaf Ward – Power

Now and then Philadelphia shows up to show how street rap is done. It's hard to match what Meek Mill has done for the city, but Ot7 Quanny and Leaf Ward show that the spirit and hunger that facilitated Meek's rise are still there under the surface.

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The two rappers expose the underbelly of the city over an unnerving, languid choral sample, bleeding out the grit and intensity of a classic street mixtape.

RXKNephew – Yeezy Boots

What’s the best way to tear down a statue? Maybe through the mockery of the pedestal that they’ve built.

That’s how New York absurdist RXKNephew approaches Kanye West, a cocky hip hop legend turned unhinged Hitler-lover. Insults towards Kanye’s ‘dumbass Yeezy boots’ and ‘remember when he had that dumbass haircut?’ fly out left and right like stray bullets, crashing a fandom and mythology that surrounds Kanye down to a more sober reality. It’s the perfect antidote for hip hop’s tendency towards uncritical idolisation.

Baby Keem & Kendrick Lamar – The Hillbillies

It’s almost unfair that Kendrick feels like he must carry the world on his shoulders, because it so rarely gives him space to rap for rap’s enjoyment. The Hillbillies, a collaboration with cousin Baby Keem, is just that, bouncing back and forth between each other with the low stakes of fresh lines and flows. It’s playful and just the breath needed from Kendrick after so much lofty critic-heavy material.

Rio Da Yung OG – Talkin Crazy

Rio Da Yung OG may have been in prison on a gun charge for the last two years, but his unreleased material continues to trickle out and float above the city of Detroit. Talkin Crazy illustrates the vast influence Rio has had on his city, his punched-in flow becoming synonymous with its sound. The material still feels like it belongs, his time away refusing to sour the sound he helped to pioneer.

MIKE, Wiki & The Alchemist – Mayors A Cop

Eric Adams is a former cop, the New York City mayor who declared war on the city’s drill rap scene, and is currently fighting for his political life after a criminal investigation into illegal campaign donations from the Turkish government.

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MIKE and Wiki, aided by production from veteran and generational mentor The Alchemist, take on the new mayor’s heavy-handed policing in the face of the declining communities in front of them: “The mayor's a cop, the blues quadrupled up / The block is hot, shit, this how they chose to use the guap / With this amount of human laws, could've been for schools or parks / Coats in the winter and the summer, something to cool 'em off.”

Mayors A Cop shows rap is still there to address the moment, even when its edges have been worn down by its mass appeal and assimilation into a more docile place.

Spotify playlist of this list and even more 2023 rap: