Who are the smartest rappers of all time? This list draws on a range of sources to showcase ten of the cleverest.
Ranking rappers by intelligence is not a straightforward task, since intelligence takes many forms, and there is no objective way to measure it. This article draws on a range of polls, studies, and forum contributions to pull out those names that come up again and again.
We take into account several factors including public opinion, industry savvy, vocabulary, and formal education. While you might think that other rappers deserve to be on this list (they probably do – but it’s limited to just ten), hopefully everyone will agree that all of those that have been included have proven credentials to rightly be considered amongst the “smartest rappers” of our time.
Unlike other lists, this one also includes female rappers. As the team behind Hip Hop By The Numbers poll found, some polls failed to account for any of the numerous brainiac female rappers on the scene today and in recent years.
Let’s dive in and learn more about the intellectual giants of the rap scene.
Megan Thee Stallion
It takes some savvy to reach the levels of success that Megan Thee Stallion has. Astonishingly, in the midst of her music career, the Texas rapper and singer simultaneously completed a university degree. She graduated from Texas Southern University in 2021, with a Bachelor of Science in Health Administration.
In an interview, she spoke about getting her degree to make her mum proud. She also revealed her aspirations to use her degree to contribute to healthcare, saying, “I’m gonna open an assisted-living facility and use the money that I make from rapping to open it. Then I’m gonna let my classmates run it.”
Megan’s academic success came in parallel with her rapidly accelerating music career, with some of her biggest tracks including ‘34+35’ and ‘WAP’ dropping in 2020.
Donald Glover, also known as Childish Gambino, is widely respected for his talent in both music and film. Something of a polymath, the artist and rapper earned critical acclaim with his 2016 album Awaken, My Love! and its Grammy-winning single ‘Redbone.’
Glover’s 2018 single ‘This Is America’ solidified the artist’s reputation as an artist of monumental cultural significance. The song deals with themes of racism, violence, and US law enforcement. The Billboard-topping single earned four Grammy awards, with its video becoming widely regarded as one of the greatest rap videos of all time.
Glover’s career in the arts was formed in part in the academic world, with the visionary artist graduating in 2006 with a degree in Dramatic Writing from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.
An icon of the world of rap, Lauryn Hill is one of the best-selling female rappers of all time, and is revered to this day for her immense cultural significance.
After initially rising to fame with The Fugees, her solo career saw her continue to stand out as an artistic visionary, with the wisdom and intellect of her rhymes demonstrated most of all in her monumental 1998 album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The classic neo-soul album touched on themes of motherhood, heartbreak, nostalgia, and God.
Hill was arguably not so smart in her financial dealings, landing herself a prison sentence for tax avoidance. But that does not take aware from her legacy, which sees her remain as one of the most culturally important female rappers ever.
J. Cole is one of the most successful rappers of our generation, and without a doubt, one of the smartest, too.
The rapper and producer’s success has been phenomenal, with six Billboard 200-topping albums to his name, five of which are certified platinum.
Lyrically, J. Cole is recognised for his sharpness, with several of his tracks addressing political topics head-on, including his 2020 track ‘Snow on tha Bluff,’ which addresses the murder of George Floyd.
J. Cole is pretty much a talent machine in all areas of his life. A huge basketball fan and competitive player, he has talked about his aspirations to become a professional athlete.
The artist has also proven himself in the academic sphere. After initially enrolling in Computer Science, he switched to Communications, graduating magna cum laude fom St. John’s University.
Lupe Fiasco is well-known in the hip-hop community for his lyricism, which is often poetic and socially conscious. Shunning the misogyny and machismo that characterises a lot of rap lyrics, Lupe has always dealt with more intellectual themes in his lyrics.
Despite having a rough childhood, Lupe was always a big reader. In one interview he explains, “I grew up in the hood around prostitutes, drug dealers, killers, and gangbangers, but I also grew up juxtaposed: on the doorknob outside of our apartment, there was blood from some guy who got shot; but inside, there was National Geographic magazines and encyclopedias and a little library bookshelf situation.”
In his lyrics, he regularly touches on those themes from his childhood, his conscious lyrics addressing topics including prostitution, poverty, and religion.
Missy Elliot clearly deserves a place on this list. Aside from being one of the most successful female rappers of all time, she is rightly revered for her lyrical brilliance, and her music industry savvy.
In her time, Missy Elliot was often referred to as the Queen of Rap, and is widely regarded as the most influential black female rapper of her generation. In her lyrics, she addressed themes including gender equality, body positivity, and sex positivity – making her one of the first hip-hop/R&B artists to do so.
The strength of her intellectual rigour is backed up by her being awarded not just one but two honorary doctorates. She is a ‘double doctor,’ having been honoured by the renowned music school Berklee College of Music in 2019, and by Norfolk State University in 2022.
The famed rapper who forms one half of the legendary rap duo Outkast, André 3000 is revered in the rap community for his sizzlingly smart bars.
While fellower Outkaster Big Boi is sometimes characterised as “the player,” André 3000 is characterised as “the poet” – skilfully touching on eclectic themes, blending in cultural references, comedy, and occasionally politics. His flows are often defined by intricacy and complex wordplay, whilst still being memorable and accessible.
His eloquence and visionary artistry come through in Outkast’s music, in their videos, and in interviews. He was voted the second most intelligent rapper in Hip Hop By The Numbers’ poll, coming in just behind Kendrick Lamar with 6.48% of votes.
Hailing from a family of academics, Talib Kweli rose to fame along with Mos Def as one half of the conscious rap duo Black Star. Talib is well-known in the hip-hop community for his intellectualism, often dealing with political and philosophical themes in his music.
Jay-Z alludes to Talib’s sophisticated lyrical skills in his track ‘Moment of Clarity’ (2003), with the lines, “I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars/they criticized me for it, yet they all yell “holla”/if skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be/lyrically Talib Kweli.”
It’s interesting to note that Jay-Z who “dumbed down” his lyrics rose to become the richest rapper of all time, whilst the intellectual Talib Kweli has focused on social issues.
Aside from his rapping credentials, Talib also holds a strong academic record, having earned a degree in Experimental Theatre from New York University.
Aesop Rock is well-known to be amongst the smartest rappers to have walked the earth, and there is data to prove it.
Now, vocabulary isn’t everything but it goes a long way – vocabulary is what allows a rapper, or any type of songwriter, to express themselves through language. An extensive study of rapper’s vocabularies found that Aesop Rock used more words than any other rapper. In fact, he came out on top by a significant margin, with Busdriver being the only other rapper to even come close.
Often noted for his insightful and thoughtful lyrics, Aesop was also voted number six in the Hip Hop By The Numbers poll.
Few would object that Kendrick Lamar is one of the sharpest, most intellectually astute rappers of our time. He was voted the number one most intelligent rapper in a poll by Hip Hop By The Numbers, and with good reason.
The legendary artist, who is one of the best-known names in rap today, has demonstrated his wide-ranging intellect by demonstrating savvy within the music industry, incisive political vision, and boundary-pushing artistic brilliance.
Success in school is obviously only one very narrow measure of intelligence, but it’s interesting to note that Kendrick was also a straight-A student before he set off on his stunning music career.
Whether or not you would place his number one on this list, it’s difficult to disagree that Kendrick Lamar should be considered amongst the most intelligent rappers of our generation, and of all time.
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