When we debuted our April/May double covers of Kendrick Lamar and Miguel yesterday on these here Internets, there was much excitement about the pairing of hip-hop and R&B’s leaders of the new cool. But there was also some chatter about what exactly comprises a “List Issue” and ready-to-go debates on the cover line pitting R. Kelly’s musical brilliance against Kanye West’s 20/20 artistic vision. That’s where this definitive list comes in, anchoring the issue and highlighting the 20 minds that have provided the greatest push to music since ’93.
Determined to spark deep thought and emerge with definitive rankings, VIBE’s debate squad brainstormed an entire feature well of lists and spent a sweatshop worth of hours in a war room, strapped with 20 years of facts and verbal PowerPoints. We defined “genius” as infinitely creative artists and producers (no executives) able to alter the course of music, and we posed scenarios like: If we plopped that genius in a studio solo, would he/she resurface with something radical?
Click through to see our definitive selections, along with commentary from their contemporaries or successors. We think we’re doing pretty good, as far as geniuses go…
CLICK HERE FOR THE TOP 10 MUSICAL GENIUSES SINCE 1993
20. LIL WAYNE
By: Maurice Garland
An example of Lil Wayne’s brain being extraterrestrial came on December 16, 2010, when his comeback single “6 Foot 7 Foot” left rap heads in a collective stupor with: “Bitch, real Gs move in silence like lasagna.” There was confusion, followed by a-ha’s, followed by dictionaries dusted off to confirm if the “g” in “lasagna” is in fact silent (confirmed).
It’s this sharp inventiveness that’s elevated Dwayne Carter from Cash Money minor to lyrical miracle. He’s a real-life rap goblin whose home is the recording booth—a living, breathing, codeine-sipping case study for Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory. Music simply pours from Weezy’s pores, whether punch line jabbing (“Go DJ”), Auto-Tune crooning (“Lollipop”) or rock invading (Rebirth). Meanwhile, Wayne’s Martian eyes and ears have helped him scope out his own young brilliance, seeing Drake’s and Nicki Minaj’s visions perhaps before they’d seen their own. Clearly, the “g” in this genius is not silent.
Bun B, rapper and collaborator says:
“I always thought Lil Wayne had a good approach to rhyme. I was mainly impressed by his vocabulary. Early in his career, his mother didn’t allow him to curse on records, so he had to work very hard to get his point across. That helped contribute to his lyrical dexterity in the long run. When Wayne was younger, Baby would ask how Wayne could have a career with longevity and respect: How do we make him great? My answer was to let him live in the studio. The more time he spends there, the more everything else feels foreign. He’s stuck to that.”
19. DAFT PUNK
By: Shanel Odum
With fist-pumping trancy tracks like “Da Funk,” “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” and “Technologic,” French dance duo Daft Punk (Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter) fused house, funk, electro, and disco-derived techno to create its own brand of retro-futuristic robo rock. With a visual presentation (pulsing laser pyramid, robot costumes, Lite-Brite backdrop) as iconic now as the music it illuminated, DP produced some of the most memorable videos and tours of all time. Their strobe-like anthems are more than universal rave fuel; they helped shepherd house music from warehouse parties to the pinnacle of the pop charts. By the new millennium, both mainstream artists and the masses were embracing EDM’s arcade effects and spacey synths. Even more, Daft Punk revved up the Auto-Tune revolution and found its way onto countless hip-hop hits—from Busta’s “Touch It” to Kanye’s “Stronger” to N.E.R.D.’s “Hypnotize You.” Now that’s good aural.
Afrojack, DJ, says:
“Daft Punk is basically considered the birth of EDM. They were the first artists to go on full production tours, taking electronic music to the next level. They have truly inspired the current generation of EDM producers, including myself, in the widest form of the genre. Daft Punk has proven that electronic music can be integrated into multiple forms of entertainment, going above and beyond to break the mold of our music genre. As they continue to create tracks that blow audiences away, they’ll also continue being a driving force and legend behind not just EDM, but electronic music as a whole.”
18. TUPAC SHAKUR
By: N. Jamiyla Chisholm
Tupac Shakur, the world’s most controversial and beloved MC was as much an enigma as he was a Renaissance man (activist, thespian, poet). His writing was as brash, bold and brutally honest as he was. Never afraid to hit ‘em up, Shakur repped the disenfranchised (“Pour Out a Little Liquor”), broke down the love of a son aware of his mother’s strengths and weaknesses (“Dear Mama”), and advocated social consciousness with stark realism (“Brenda’s Got a Baby”).
‘Pac got women to love his thug passion, and men to embrace his Thug Life. It was this universal love that allowed him to not only become the first rapper to release a full-length double disc (All Eyez on Me), but sell five-times platinum in two months. His body of work united and transcended generations across the globe, rippling from the favelas of Brazil to the MARTa Museum in Germany, where his statue stands. The Black Panther Party never made as great an impact.
Scarface, rapper and friend of Tupac says:
“I would be in the studio all day, all night. [Pac] would come in like ‘C’mon nigga, let’s go.’ And I’d be like ‘Pac I’m not going no where with you. I’m working on my shit.’ And he would get so furious because it took me so long to make my songs. He’d say, ‘You taking too motherfucking long ’cause you’re trying to find singles. Just make records and the single would come.’ He’d say, ‘Brad, you got to get across to these bitches without offending them. And the niggas want what the bitches want.’ Pac had the perfect combination. He was a phenom; and he never really died.”
By: John Kennedy
Eminem’s introduction seemed friendly enough—“Hi, My Name Is”—with its cheap shots at pop stars and resentful digs at Momma Mathers. Yet his debut album’s “Guilty Conscience” more accurately carved out Slim Shady’s appeal: that trailer-park-bred mini devil hovering above either shoulder, whispering weenie jokes and ex-wife murder plots via manic flows and maniacal puns.
The damage control of Vanilla Ice’s Caucasian credibility void was impossible without an MC of Em’s surgical syllable play and deep-end imagination. But Marshall’s stanzas are too hilariously audacious, too masterful, to discount. He’s beloved when playing underdog (i.e. “Lose Yourself,” rap’s new millennium Rocky theme), yet when the 8 Mile spitter owns his position as rap’s most polarizing figure since Tupac, he thrives (“Stan” and “The Way I Am” are both jarring explorations of Mathers’ afflictions with superstardom). Building on the tradition of Luther Campbell and Eazy-E with 24K bars, Em has become a once-every-generation antagonist. And that takes serious brainpower.
Yelawolf, Shady Records recording artist says:
“Marshall’s studio is littered with comic books. And I think that has a great deal to do with how he approaches lyrics: He’s focused on doing the impossible. He makes the most simple things sound complex. He takes everyday words and knows how to rhyme every single syllable. Anyone could do that and have it sound like gibberish. But to say something specific about a particular subject and add in punch lines and metaphors,
it’s impressive. He has inhuman capabilities. When I was in a cipher with him and Slaughterhouse [at the 2011 BET Hip-Hop Awards], he was robotic, almost. He has pure what-the-fuck moments.”
16. ERYKAH BADU
By: Jayson Rodriguez
When Erica Wright of Dallas, Texas, introduced herself to the world as Erykah Badu with her debut album, Baduizm, and assortment of ankhs, head wraps and incense, she was improperly cast as neosoul trailblazer. She was certainly fresh, but hardly new. Her voice channeled Billie Holiday, her artistic sensibility rivaled Ma Rainey’s and her sound was thrift shop (sorry, Macklemore) compared to Diddy’s shiny suit.
Ms. Badu wasn’t a relic, by any means. One call to “Tyrone” would confirm that. Yet as the self-proclaimed analog girl in a digital world, the soultress not only eschewed Auto-Tune for pitch effect, she refused to hide behind a celebrity veneer. Her personal relationships (Andre 3000, Common, Jay Electronica) played out in public, she admitted to a bout of writer’s block (The Frustrated Artist tour) and her art—from Mama’s Gun to her New Ameryka series—was all the better for it. MILF’ing ain’t easy.
Gary Clark Jr., Rock ‘n soul singer/guitarist and fellow Texan
“I don’t really know where to start when it comes to the lovely Erykah Badu. I don’t think anyone could have ever felt we needed to look to the sky to find an extraterrestrial source for holding listeners grounded into the soul of this earth. She is the Godmother of Soul these days, a neighbor and family. The way she has been able to hold it down in such a genuine way is something I’ve always looked up to. [My] entire crew has mad respect for her.”
By: John Kennedy
Let’s just get this out of the way: Nas’ debut album Illmatic was not only a flawless, stark portrait of life in New York City PJ’s, it was one of the most important albums ever. Unprecedented since Rakim eight years prior, the artist formerly known as Nasty Nas taught rap how to rap. He’s danced for the streets (“Made You Look”), backpackers (“Sly Fox”) and pop charts (“I Can”) with a ballerina’s grace, writes songs from unchartered perspectives that are greater than average rapper’s entire LPs (“I Gave You Power”) and shares thug tales via intricate innovation, whether with reverse chronology (“Rewind”) or shots of adrenaline (“One Mic”). Yet the unpackaging of those lyrical gifts are half the fun. The masterful writings of Nasir Jones offer metaphor, foreshadowing, visuals, outer and inner conflict, irony and sobering social analysis about the plight of brown people across the globe.
Common, rapper and collaborator says:
“I recognized Nas being genius when I heard him rap over some Large Professor beats on Stretch [Armstrong] and Bobbito [Garcia’s] show; some ended up being on Illmatic. The imagery he created with words put me in the mind-set of a James Baldwin or Maya Angelou, poets that I’d read to get inspired by. His storytelling is phenomenal. I’ve never heard anyone capture the essence of the ghetto and bring elevation and intelligence, and make it sound great. He led a generation of rappers that weren’t rapping like that until they heard him—including me.”
By: Maurice Garland
OutKast is the embodiment of a clash with conformity. Big Boi and Andre 3000’s collective name doubles as a mission statement, explaining why the Atlanta duo’s Southern-fried classics hover miles away from anything on the FM dial. They play hopscotch with genre boxes—colliding drum ‘n’ bass with a gospel choir on “B.O.B.,” injecting ho-down harmonica into “Rosa Parks,” lifting Patti LaBelle with mammoth bass on “Ghetto Musick” (nearly a decade before Avicii and Flo Rida made Etta James’ vocals fist-pump appropriate).
Yet ’Kast’s true brilliance lies in its dichotomy. Big ’s pimp juice purees smoothly with Andre’s Mars bars and courageous melodies (Kanye’s fully crooned 808s & Heartbreak is a direct descendent of 3 Stacks’ The Love Below), forming a rich synergy that goes down as easy as Susie Screw. While the group has grown apart internally, the gap will never be as wide as the distance it created outpacing contemporaries.
Big K.R.I.T., southern rapper says:
“They weren’t willing to be put into a box. They experimented in a time when funk and psychedelic music might not have been cool; that made me proud to be Southern, to do whatever I want creatively. Big Boi was more of the player, while Andre was the revolutionary. But they were able to talk about whatever they wanted to. Lyrically, they’re so in-tune with society; they made music for the people, dropping their own jewels of knowledge. And their wordplay was so clever that it never got old to listen to. That’s what makes them two of the top lyricists ever.”
13. RICK RUBIN
By: Keith Murphy
With his Woolly beard and eccentric mannerisms, Rick Rubin may resemble a cult leader. But the veteran producer and American Recordings label head is really a music deity whose studio reach extends to hip-hop, heavy metal, country, rock, and beyond. As if the New York native’s groundbreaking ’80s run as founder of rap’s most influential label Def Jam wasn’t enough to secure his legacy, the man who supplied Run-DMC’s signature guitar-fueled bigbeat and signed endless game-changing MC’s, starting with LL Cool J, clearly desired more.
By 1991, Rubin switched it up, producing the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ commercial breakthrough Blood Sugar Sex Magik and 1994’s Grammy-winning comeback album by the Man in Black himself Johnny Cash. Nine years later the mercurial mind would supply Jay-Z with the throwback rock-rap mash-up “99 Problems,” then produce on 2012’s best-selling album, Adele’s 21, nine years after that. None of this should come as a surprise.
DJ Premier, producer and DJ, one half of Gang Starr says:
“Rick Rubin’s range is genius. To be a white guy stepping into a black man’s world of ghetto music at that time was really unheard of unless you were an executive. But Rick was more than that. He was a guy in an [NYU] dorm room who believed that this new hip-hop sound was going to go places. [Then Rubin] stepping out of hip-hop and messing with Johnny Cash to Red Hot Chili Peppers to the Dixie Chicks is a no-brainer for him because he understands that there are no boundaries in music.”
By: Bonsu Thompson
It can be said that the genius of Michael D’Angelo Archer began at age 3 when he was discovered tickling the family piano. Decades later, Virginia’s sugar man played and arranged his own percussion, keyboard, guitar and, of course, piano to introduce himself (with blunt between ear and cornrow) via one of the finest opuses ever. The music was such a higher power that competition remained off the radar. D would satellite hip-hop–the all-consuming “Lady (Remix)” with DJ Premier and AZ, GZA’s icey “Cold World”—and then, like many of history’s great music minds, vanish. Once reappeared, though, whether to elevate a Common or Snoop track, or deliver his own Grammy-acclaimed LP, the results were always extraterrestrial.
It can also be said that D’Angelo was at his most genius when honoring genius. While in front of Paul Hunter’s lens, wailing like Prince, D put some skin in the game. His simplest decision ended up his smartest.
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, bandleader of the Roots, producer, DJ, percussionist and collaborator says:
“D’Angelo’s a true artist at heart. No matter how much I try to bash him in the head with records, every day the conversation is, ‘How did you let me make 13 albums to your one album?’ But that’s him. He doesn’t create music unless he’s totally moved and motivated to. Like I’m a machine, I’m a worker, but music is a spiritual thing to him. He can’t be forced to make it come before its time. I’m not suffering like the rest of the world ’cause I know what the [upcoming album] will sound like. But I will say, it’s truly a work of art.”
By: Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
It was inevitable that the sci-fi loving jazz nerd from Virginia Beach would propel hip-hop into a gravity-free zone. With Timbaland having led the sound of production into the future, The Neptunes took it to space, with Pharrell beaming in refined synth melodies that launched the careers of The Clipse and Kelis. But Pha-Real’s the whole package—his songwriting and masterminding is a product of his school-band past. His indelible falsetto melodies could seduce a nun into a series of bad habits, his rock-band acumen imbued funkiness into Fred Durst-inspired projects, his Don-Draper-aloof raps even made Snoop sound enthused. And he’s kept his cool the entire time. Always on the edge between uptown and downtown, Skateboard P bridges genres as effortlessly as his fashion style combines high art and street smarts. No wonder Jay-Z has called no other “genius” more than he has this N.E.R.D.
Miguel, singer, songwriter, collaborator says:
“What’s crazy about Pharrell is his ability to take what he loves—jazz music—and incorporate it. “Grindin” is his only beat that didn’t have some remnants of jazz progres- sion or chord structure, but still, he has the ability to really assimilate a lot of diligence on his programming. He’s one of those artists that always walked the line of commercial relatability without compromising artistic integrity. He’ll give you substance but make it palatable and desirable. That’s a shoe mark of genius: the ability to put a steak inside of a Happy Meal box. I love his shit.”
10. MISSY ELLIOTT
By: Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
From the first funky bent notes of her solo introduction “The Rain,” where a garbage bag-clad Missy Elliott declares that she’s “Supa dupa fly,” you knew she was special. Her arrival marked the coming turn of the century: Missy’s and Timbaland’s dominance was synonymous with the avant-garde production in popular music, new sounds for a new millennium. But of course, her output wasn’t limited to her own: She wrote, produced, and sang on some of rap’s and R&B’s biggest releases, and would help craft Aaliyah’s whole steez. Shifting boundaries was her second nature: Inching ever left across boundaries until they were obliterated, she brought electro back to hip-hop, put house into R&B, and paid homage to Michael Jackson while producing music in a fashion more like his mentor Quincy Jones. The prolific Miss E will forever be known as one of pop music’s most experimental. If it’s got next, Missy’s already on.
M.I.A., rapper, says:
“Missy changed the way we thought about female musicians. She was refreshing because she was confident in her music. Listening to her music made you feel sexy, but she didn’t sell sex in a bikini. And she was the only female producer/rapper/visionary doing that. Obviously, to me the Missy-Timbaland era was the most progressive and positive in terms of what you got out of it. When they made music, it just felt good. It made people happy, and cool shit happened. It didn’t seem forced or calculated; it just came from the right place. She is an icon, because there is no one like her. Even now.”
By: Chris Yuscavage
If the only thing RZA ever accomplished was injecting kung fu movie and soul samples into Wu-Tang Clan’s classic debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), there’s a good chance he would still be considered one of the best hip-hop producers ever. But the Clan’s Abbot didn’t stop there. In addition to producing a majority of the tracks on four more Wu-Tang albums, RZA also handled all production duties on classic Wu-Tang solo projects like Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… and Ghostface Killah’s Ironman.
Over the years, he also helped score a handful of films, including Kill Bill Volume 1, and, most recently, for his directorial debut, The Man With the Iron Fists. But, it’s his work on 36 Chambers that remains the pillar of his legacy, especially since Kanye West copped to copying RZA’s sonic style back in 2007. “The style I use,” Kanye West told MTV, “RZA has been doing that.” Beautiful minds think alike.
GZA, Wu-Tang Clan recording artist, says:
“RZA’s capacity for learning and his broad range of knowledge on many subjects make him rare. His ability to apply that knowledge to music is a beautiful thing. On 36 Chambers, he rewrote the scripture by combining kung fu, mathematics, Eastern philosophy, science, soul music, chess, love, peace, happiness, and struggle on one album. On [my 1995 solo debut] Liquid Swords, his production was like a tailor-made suit specifically designed for the lyrics. While mastering the album, RZA sent an engineer to get a VHS tape of the movie Shogun Assassin, which became the album’s theme. He brings more to the table than just music.”
8. THOM YORKE
By: Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Radiohead’s odd and iconoclastic leader embodies chilly alienation; his haunted falsetto building on already lonely lyrics. Through the late 1990s, he positioned himself less rage-filled and more anomic than Kurt Cobain—much stranger, though. In his singularity was the spark of a star. As the years wore on, Yorke’s band became even more inventive with him at the helm, toying with elaborate song structures and unexpected electronics, while he proved himself a master storyteller with a huge heart that seemed to constantly break.
He used his platform to be more creative (collaborating with the likes of Flying Lotus, MF Doom, Björk and DJ Shadow), yet still held discontent for his influence. The vulnerability in his voice inspires a kind of trust, and he always seems to be hitting the exact cultural nerve. His brilliance lies in a paradox: His entire repertoire is about being an outcast, yet he’s become the most relatable frontman in the world.
Bilal, soul singer, says:
“Thom is just a soulful cat. Radiohead has no boundaries in their music. You can tell that they really come with a soulful edge, not just completely rock. Especially that In Rainbows album… It really created a cold vibe. I remember putting it on and [it] making me feel a certain way, like the start of a movie kind of feeling. Amnesiac, the way they flipped the beats, there was a bit of everything in there—hip-hop, soul, jazz, definitely wild future, Squarepusher, all of that. The way Thom Yorke thinks outside of the box and his approach… I just think he’s the fuckin’ dude, top to bottom.”
By: John Kennedy
The world is Timbaland’s mega mixing board. Virginia’s mad scientist can draw quirky-but-catchy inspiration from anywhere: a baby crying, croaking frog, his own beatboxing. His arrival in ’96 flipped R&B on its noggin, injecting a punch of naked energy and synthetic sexuality on records like Ginuwine’s pulsating “Pony,” while he and soul mate Missy Elliott’s hip-hop invasion was embodied by the fluorescent yet overbearing balance of the Godzillian “Sock It 2 Me.”
Tim’s vibrant compositions, with those Tourette’s drums, elevated his angelic muse Aaliyah to new celestial heights and even made Magoo’s raps tolerable. His arsenal is genre-deaf, allowing him to bounce between Ludacris, Nelly Furtado, Björk and Justin Timberlake. The latter, another (blue-eyed) soul mate, couldn’t bring sexy back for the first time on FutureSex/LoveSounds or beam the music world into another dimension again on the amazing The 20/20 Experience without Timbo’s vision copiloting. In short, Timbaland doesn’t just create music, he gives it new life.
Marcella Araica, Timbaland’s recording and mixing engineer, says:
“One thing I always found amazing was how Timbaland could hear anything from the water dripping in the faucet to someone’s foot pounding the floor and immediately run with it. There would be times when he’d run into the studio from the car and just jump on his keyboard to start mimicking whatever he heard. He has no fear in his approach. He doesn’t go in with a kind of thought like, I need 16 bars here or this here. He just goes with it; and that’s what makes it fresh. I’ve never seen a producer that does it like him.”
By: John Kennedy
At this point, Jay-Z’s mythical Rain Man recording process seems secondary. His greatest skill has been his ability to simultaneously be everything to everyone: He’s lyrical without zipping over your head too often, progressive without leaving you too far behind, flamboyant without leaving you depressed (thug aspiration 101). Jay has narrated his life and times so candidly that there’s a bar tailored for every life situation (adultery is for adults). On a larger scale, Hov knows a hit. That he’d lift Annie’s beautiful struggle for his own breakout anthem (“Hard Knock Life [Ghetto Anthem]”) is a testament to the New York King’s platinum-plated ear, the same lobes that helped the Neptunes, Kanye West and Just Blaze become household names.
A godfather of East Coast trap rap, Jay’s raps burrowed into the intricacies, ironic addiction and loneliness of a hustler’s psyche all the way to the top of Barack’s speed dial. Just imagine if he started writing this stuff down.
Mike Shinoda, Linkin Park rapper/guitarist and Jay-z collaborator, says:
“Jay has a sensibility about him [ beyond] rap music. It’s probably from age—you use the tools you pick up along the way, and he has experience from working with Linkin Park, Coldplay, Rick Rubin. While we were recording Collision Course, Jay rolled the beat for ‘Numb/Encore’ and spit for eight minutes, all album-quality material. When most people freestyle, there’s an obvious moment when they leave the written and jump into stuff off the top; with Jay there was no telling where that began and ended. It was fucking crazy. I haven’t heard anybody do anything like that.”
5. THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.
By: Bonsu Thompson
The easiest qualification for Big’s genius is noting that he penned the greatest rap album of the VIBE era, the double disc on which his masterful devil-in-the-details storytelling became today’s unreachable bar. But deeper analysis finds Biggie’s brilliance residing between the worlds of psychology and sorcery. His inner-visions convinced brains to change eyesight—with an impeccable flow of clever observation, creative violence, and delicious humor (i.e. the Knicks game got rained out), Christopher Wallace eclipsed everyone’s original image of fat, nasty motherfucker with Big Poppa (for the ladies) and King of New York (for them niggas).
Rap’s version of Quentin Tarantino had so many styles that he was a group (Junior M.A.F.I.A.), and a lady MC (Lil’ Kim). So in the interest of accuracy, the easiest qualification for Big’s genius is highlighting that he authored both the illest rap album by a male and female (since ’93). Consider us corrected.
Jadakiss, rapper and former Bad Boy label mate says:
“Big’s work ethic was crazy but he never made it look like work. Ninety percent of his studio sessions were like parties, and after the party’s over, when everybody’s wasted, he would go in and lay some magical, historical shit at like 6-7 in the morning. That was incredible to me. What’s even crazier is he did most of Life After Death sitting down, cause his leg was broke. I never even came up with a whole verse sitting down, ’cause you want to keep a certain energy when recording. Can you imagine coming up with those kinds of bars, those types of flows sitting in a chair?”
4. SEAN “PUFF DADDY” COMBS
By: Jayson Rodriguez
That Diddy is a success is unremarkable. His backstory is well known: flashy Uptown Records A&R kid helps usher in hip-hop soul (Jodeci, Mary J. Blige), gets fired, only to rebound by launching one of rap’s most successful labels (Bad Boy) and lyricists (Biggie). Genius, right? What’s truly remarkable, though, is that Combs continued to push culture forward, introducing new acts (112, Shyne, MGK), new brands (Sean John, Cîroc) and new platforms (Revolt TV) to hip-hop as often as he reintroduced himself (Puffy, Puff Daddy, Diddy). Combs not only diversified his portfolio, he branded his holdings as a lifestyle long before lifestyle was a marketing concept. Shawn Carter’s “All Black Everything” (black cards, black cars) wouldn’t exist without Sean Combs’ “All White Everything” (white parties, white yachts). His timeless ability to forecast and mind trends has earned him accolades and Forbes’ prediction that he’ll be hip-hop’s first billionaire. Genius? Right.
Mark Pitts; President, RCA Urban Music and Diddy’s first assistant says:
“The most important thing I got from him was my hustle, because he never slept. Being with him all the time… He got in at 4 a.m.—I can’t go to sleep after him—and got up at 8 a.m. So I can’t get up after him. I lived through that: that hustle and that drive. It made me understand lifestyle and he sold lifestyle. He had his own rules and vision and he stayed true to it. There wasn’t a blueprint for how the next man did it. He was the first in his time.”
3. DR. DRE
By: Chris Yuscavage
You could disregard all the classic material Dr. Dre has produced before the beginning of the “VIBE era”—including his work with N.W.A—and his résumé is still unmatched. Dre has remained the nucleus for the best West Coast rap has to offer; he’s produced hits for everyone from Death Row label mates Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac to Game and Kendrick Lamar. He’s mined new talent like Eminem and 50 Cent into legends. He delivered his second classic solo album (1999’s 2001) in the same decade as his first and has somehow kept the anticipation for his third album, Detox alive for 10-plus years. Cap off the icon’s rap sheet with him using his über successful Beats By Dre line to upgrade the way fans hear music and you’ll understand how he catapulted to the top of the Forbes “Cash Kings” list. Who knew that selling chronic could be so lucrative?
Kendrick Lamar, rapper and Aftermath artist, says:
“I watched Dre start on a beat with nothing, just drums, maybe a snare hitting and just vibe out to it, come back an hour later and sonically, it feels like it’s 3-D; you’re actually seeing the music. That’s how sonically clear it is. I’ve been in the booth with him and he heard zones that I wasn’t even aware I was capable of doing. But when we found that and went in to explore that, he pulled those things out of me—certain cadences, deliveries. And for him to hear that, that’s genius. I’ve never worked with anybody to this day that can match that ear.”
2. KANYE WEST
By: Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
As Kanye West’s music has grown in scope, so has his outsized personality: He’s one of the world’s most admired—and controversial—pop stars because even when writing his wrongs he refuses to be penned in. Years before he left jaws ajar with his game-changing debut, The College Dropout, when his penchant for wedding soul-raising hooks with trunk-rattling beats landed him in the liner notes for some of rap’s most illustrious, it was clear West was bigger than the MPC. But he may have even surprised himself with his remarkable evolution into Auto-Tuned love songs, neon-lit dance tracks, dark twisted fantasies and greatest-to-have-ever-done-it conversations. With a 360-degree vision, half the excitement of Yeezy’s forays into fashion, fine art, and freaky videography is seeing where he’ll take himself (and us) next. He’s already relocated the heir to rap’s throne to Chicago.
Pete Rock, producer, says:
“I think Kanye took inspiration from how to dress as a man and applied it to music: He’s dressing music in a way where it’s creative and undeniable. You never know what to expect from him; he’s displayed an ear for hip-hop, R&B and pop, then mixed all three together. That’s pure talent. He’s at the top of his MC game, as well. He actually asked me to rhyme on “The Joy,” but I knew I’d have to step my game up tremendously. What he brought to the table was something to admire. He definitely put the battery back in my back.”
1. R. KELLY
By: Keith Murphy
The genius of 46-year-old singer/songwriter/producer Robert Sylvester Kelly is in his otherworldly ambition. “I’ve really been writing a lot of country songs,” says the Chicago native. He’s serious. “I used to get criticized for doing a ‘Bump & Grind’ then turning around and doing a gospel song. But the truth is I’m glad I have a gift that allows me to switch lanes.” Kelly embracing his inner Johnny Cash should not be taken as some Snoop Lion switch up. Who is willing to place a bet against the man who struggled with reading only to become one of the greatest writers of his generation?
Kelly’s money has always been on his talent. He had designs of penning his own brand of rhythm and blues: devilish admittances via gospel vocals (12 Play). and that should have been the end of the story, except we’d be stuck in 1993. Over the next two decades, Kelly would total nearly 40 million albums sold as a soloist, birthing some of the best R&B ever heard (ex. 1998’s R, 2001’s TP-2.com, and 2003’s Chocolate Factory).
But world-beating stats do not make a genius. It’s breaking outside your comfort zone as the modern-day king of sex-drenched bedroom instruction to become an evolved studio visionary (Aaliyah, Changing Faces, Isley Brothers). It’s pulling off a seamless segue into the pop realm delivering monstrous hits for icons like Michael Jackson and Celine Dion; all while remaining a staple in the hip-hop sphere (his multitude of collaborations with Jay-Z and Biggie). Even when Kelly is at his most ridiculous—study the ‘hood-musical-meets-soap-opera saga “Trapped in the Closet”—it somehow works.
The greatest musical mind of the VIBE era took time out to discuss his genius process, surviving pornography charges in 2002 and why his next album Black Panties will reclaim his freak flag.
CLICK HERE TO READ KEITH MURPHY’S EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH THE ELUSIVE GENIUS, R. KELLY