At the 1995 Source Awards, André 3000 issued a proclamation, or a prophecy: "The South got something to say." Inspired by his words, this list represents some of the most impactful songs, albums and mixtapes by Southern rappers. It was assembled by a team, led by Briana Younger, of Southern critics, scholars and writers representing the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana and Virginia.
We offer this list not as an authoritative canon but as an enthusiastic celebration that recenters the South's role as a creative center of hip-hop and presents the region for all that it has been and given to us.
Big Freedia, "Azz Everywhere"
To see someone New Orleans bounce is to witness a miracle of physics — the way the booty seems to dislocate from the body is pure poetry in motion. Every miracle (if you follow the gospel anyway) needs a song that testifies to it, and so we have Big Freedia's "Azz Everywhere," the raunchy anthem that's become a staple of the subgenre. Its construction is that of traditional bounce music: Samples abound, as do call-and-response-style lines that sound improvised even in their recorded forms. Forget an earworm; try sitting still when those drums kick in. To quote the queen herself, "it will pull asses of the masses together."
Standing on the shoulders of Katey Red, a drag artist who began queering bounce music in the '90s, Freedia is the style's most visible proponent. Their vibrant, buoyant world is one where binaries go to die; gender constructs are a suggestion at best, as asses, the great unifier, come to the front (and the top). "Azz Everywhere" embodies the liberative, singular spirit that makes this music capable of filling dance floors in and outside of New Orleans. Note that Freedia isn't just talk either — as she fires off demands of "toot it up" and "hands on your ankles," know that she, too, can bounce with the best of them. —Briana Younger
Big K.R.I.T., K.R.I.T. Wuz Here
Cinematic Music Group/Nature Sounds
K.R.I.T. Wuz Here found me as I was preparing my materials for tenure at Vassar College. My unhealthy plan was to spend the entire week writing, listening to Al Green and only drinking water. I'd heard from one of my friends back home that there was a dude named Big K.R.I.T. from Meridian, which was right down the highway from Grandmama's house in Forest, who sounded like a more lyrical Pimp C. Friends in New York kept asking me why K.R.I.T. sounded so mad. I could maybe hear anger in "Viktorious," but more than that, I heard a precise acceptance and proclamation of Mississippi's might. For five days, "Hometown Hero," "Children of the World," "Viktorious," "Voices," and especially "Something" got me over. Those songs helped me reconcile what Baldwin called my "first acts" as a child growing up in Mississippi to my "first acts" growing up as a young professor in the northeast. Both acts were shrouded in shame, majesty, abuse and bruised possibilities. Just like K.R.I.T. Wuz Here.
K.R.I.T.'s deployment of stunted confessionals around Al Green's repetition of "something" "got a hold on me" "keeps bothering me" "whatever it is" and "I can't leave it alone" was the album's centerpiece. "Whatever it is, I gotta pay for it / Sometimes happiness the only thing I pray for" was the most simplistically brilliant deployment of dread, debt and hope I'd ever felt. K.R.I.T. Wuz Here did more than announce to the world a new old Southern sound; K.R.I.T. was talking to David Banner and Kamikaze, and he was saying thank you for carrying a deeply underappreciated tradition of witnessing and music-making in our state. But I got this here.
And I'm finna do it a little bit different. —Kiese Makeba Laymon
Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
Big Boi's official solo debut is about proving his stamina. He and OutKast's label Jive stood off for two years over how marketable a solo Big Boi effort could possibly be, without his own version of "bubblegum radio music" like Lil Wayne's "Lollipop," as he told Creative Loafing Atlanta. As Sir Lucious Left Foot makes clear, once it finally arrived in 2010 after he left Jive altogether, Big Boi's gripe isn't over how sprawling the Southern rap scene has become. After all, Gucci Mane sounds at home in the soulful victory lap of "Shine Blockas," even as critics were still debating the trap star's artistic merits. (In an ideal world, perhaps listeners would have been more focused on how he obsesses over his revving sex drive — "Tangerine," where he declares love for "her throat action with a passion," reminds of how he was featured in Kilo Ali's "Love In Ya Mouth" 13 years prior.) It's with players in this rap game occupying space with nothing to prove, compared to his own boundless energy. Big Boi coaxes the unexpected out of even his most storied collaborators, like pounding, throwback electro-funk from Scott Storch ("Shutterbugg"), or psychedelic soul featuring Jamie Foxx and Lil Jon ("Hustle Blood"). This album whizzes and whirs with ideas and fat synths, as Big Boi's voice tap-dances over whatever comes his way. As he warns in "Night Night," "Stay sharp as broken glass, get busted on the smash / when your ass cross paths with this half of the 'Kast." Or, in one unspooling verse on "Fo' Yo Sorrows," featuring George Clinton and one-time Atlanta resident Too $hort, "My recitals are vital and may be needed for survival / Like the Bible, or any other good book that you read." Big Boi reinforces what Jive refused to see: The player can be the poet, too. —Christina Lee
Rick Ross's beef with 50 Cent (and the revelation that he was a prison guard) haunts the whole of Teflon Don. Ross had already gotten some flack for appropriating his name from the infamous Los Angeles drug dealer, so getting spotted on the wrong side of the thin blue line should have been a blow to his credibility. Instead, Ross pushed through the controversy to drop some of the most compelling music of his career. From the title of the album itself — which cribs yet another name, this one from John Gotti, the Italian gangster who fended off charge after charge in federal court — to Ross's opening lines ("I'm not a star? Somebody lied") an air of defiance pervades.
To that end, there are a couple of typically smooth tracks, "Maybach Music III" and "Aston Martin Music," courtesy of the opulent synergy he'd cultivated with Florida production team J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, but the album's flashpoint is the production of Lex Luger, fresh off the success of Waka Flocka Flame's "Hard in da Paint." Lex contributed two seminal tracks: "MC Hammer" with Gucci Mane and "B.M.F. (Blowin' Money Fast)" with Styles P, a particularly brazen piece of narco-fiction that has Ross impersonating Demetrius "Big Meech" Flenory of the Black Mafia Family. (The climax of the latter is about halfway through, when the beat drops out and Ross booms "These m************ mad that I'm icy / Stunt so hard, make 'em come indict me!") The two songs crackle with an energy that created a new sonic lane for the Miami rapper, a bombast that he would revisit on subsequent projects, and all but ensured he was not going away. —Melvin Backman
Waka Flocka Flame, Flockaveli
Think of Waka Flocka Flame's arrival like the high school s***-starter who shows up to the party uninvited — you know, the guy who brings an entourage, is the loudest one in the room and flexes his machismo before simultaneously starting a fight and leaving with the prom queen. And the crazy part? You don't even hate him for it. If that dude had a soundtrack, it would be Flockaveli. Musically, Waka Flocka was all of these things when he released his debut album in 2010. The Gucci Mane protege was already touting his Brick Squad crew, did a lot of yelling and lyrical flexing and had a penchant for party anthems. Hip-hop purists hated him, and critics even compared him to the rap version of the Tea Party. Frankly, they all missed the point.
To his credit, Waka Flocka always made it abundantly clear he never aspired to be a lyricist. Like its creator's approach to music, Flockaveli was an exercise in Waka Flocka having fun by any means, breaking the rules, challenging authority and throwing elbows to the face of anyone standing in the way. In many ways, singles like "Hard in Da Paint" and "Grove St. Party" are continuations of a crunk-rap tradition passed down by forefathers like Lil' Jon and the Eastside Boyz and Three 6 Mafia, and the chart-topping monster that was "No Hands" only sealed Waka Flocka's star turn. The album also helped him carve out a path beyond simply being known as the guy in the background of Gucci Mane videos.
It's easy to overlook the breadcrumbs this hip-hop ad-lib king left for folks like Chief Keef and Migos, but it's hard to not see the next generation of Southern rappers and fans continuing the party that Flockaveli started. —Gavin Godfrey
J. Cole, Friday Night Lights
Claiming J. Cole can feel akin to unrequited love. There's no denying he's from North Carolina, but traces of proud Southern DNA in his music are few and far between; on Born Sinner, he proclaims himself a "southern n**** with a New York mind." To reject Cole, however, is to affirm the elitism that fuels his myth and the essentialism that suggests the ideals he pours into his music — his commitment to just being a relatable dude living a regular life who happens to rap well — and his preference for lush instrumentation to muddy 808s are diametrically opposed to that of the South. Both are simply untrue. His conflict, which has long scanned as a crisis of identity, is rooted in the kind of no-name, small town anxiety that couldn't come from anywhere but a place like Fayetteville.
On Friday Night Lights,he calls on his city often. It's the point of pride that fuels "Back To The Topic (Freestyle)," ("I'm armed and I'm Fayettenam's finest, Carolina's savior"), the backbone of his ambition on "Villematic" ("Nobody touching Nas n****, it's more like Villematic / These Fayettenam tales be paying off well") and the restless quality of "Before I'm Gone." It's also in the quiet soulful intones in the closing moments of "2Face" and those triumphant horns of "The Autograph." But mostly it's in his rearview. "Home for the Holidays" explicitly illuminates the familiar ways in which college student Cole associated New York City with opportunity and his hometown with a trap.
Of late, though, his legacy — beyond "going platinum with no features" with his reclamation album 2014 Forest Hills Drive — is bending increasingly back towards the South. He's building his Dreamville label with acts from the region (J.I.D., Earthgang, Lute, Ari Lennox), and Revenge of the Dreamers III was nothing if not a bridging of the gap between Cole and a new generation of proud Southerners; opener and standout "Under The Sun," which featured Lute and a phenomenal verse from DaBaby, brought North Carolina's finest together. Looking back, Friday Night Lights is built on the tension of geography (in the physical sense but also in the signifying) as a prism for success and failure; his earnest attempts to figure out how to be honest to both home and self, to his origins and to his vision, may just be the most Southern thing of all. —Briana Younger
If rap's online mixtape era is typified, on one hand, by the genre's boldest names — its Lil Waynes and Gucci Manes — turning on the spigot, the concurrent "blog" era created a world where smaller but equally prolific artists were able to eke out a living without the support of labels or traditional music publications in a post-recession, Internet-media free-for-all. Curren$y, who was a 2009 XXL Freshman despite signing his first deal in 2002, is a New Orleans journeyman who spent time on the rosters of both No Limit (as a member of the 504 Boyz) and Cash Money/Young Money before striking out on his own, hitting a groove as his loyal fanbases's dutiful supplier of weed, car and pickup artist raps.
On Pilot Talk II, in contrast to his old labels, Curren$y presents another side of New Orleans rap that leans on the city's jazz roots. Like any gifted rapper, he's always used his voice as an instrument, but the album's ensemble feel underscores the artistry behind that skill. On "Montreux" — a nod to the Swiss jazz festival — he touts his "knife work on the track" with Ski Beatz's Senseis, the "killer band" that makes many of the tracks feel like a live session. (The effect is compounded by the saxophone that the MonstaBeatz team lays down on the next track, "Famous.")
Spitta does the nimble work of an artist comfortable with himself and his place in the industry, even if it could have been a more prominent one. As he declares on "Flight Briefing": "Dozens of songs locked away and rotten in a vault / No one to blame it was solely my fault / No salt thrown, just boss game long / Right now I'm not trippin pimpin you can pay me for it when you get it." —Melvin Backman
Jay Electronica, "Exhibit C"
Jay Electronica's story is the Great Migration in miniature. Born and raised in the Magnolia projects, the New Orleans rapper left home seeking success up North and found both prosperity and hardship. "Exhibit C" turns his journey into scripture, evoking all the roadblocks and milestones he encountered during his odyssey. As he invokes the names of streets from the cities he's lived in, compares himself to figureheads he admires and narrates bleak vignettes from his days as a homeless vagrant, his memories swell into a prophecy. A strong sense of deliverance runs through the breathless song, which is one verse punctuated with pauses, as if Electronica is giving the listener a moment to catch up. Just Blaze's propulsive and soulful beat, which artfully samples Billy Stewart's "Cross My Heart," adds grandeur to Electronica's heartfelt testament. While the boom-bap percussion, the twinkly piano keys and the soul sample follow an East Coast rap template, the thrill of the song is that it embraces every place where Electronica has set foot, from Detroit to London to Baton Rouge. Jay Electronica may have left the South, but he didn't abandon it; he just took it on the road. —Stephen Kearse
Travis Porter, "Make It Rain"
Strip clubs like metro Atlanta's Strokers were tossing out customers who tried to "Make It Rain" before Travis Porter's breakout hit brought the phrase to the mainstream. Once the song charted in 2011, even Billboard felt obligated to spell out its "urban parlance." Yet in barely four minutes, Travis Porter does more to explain modern strip club culture than anyone else could. The group's members weren't even 21 by the time "Make It Rain" was released, and that fact is audibly clear, hinting at how a visit to a strip club is a rite of passage. In the South, that same visit is also a smart business move: one mixtape version shouts out Coalition DJs, the same conglomerate that later used the strip club as a testing ground for YC's "Racks" and Ca$h Out's "Cashin' Out." But even beyond these context clues, there's that insistent hook—"You wanna see some ass? I wanna see some cash / Keep them dollars coming, and that's gon' make me dance." That's singer Ashley Hill voicing the dancer in this scenario, turning this otherwise straightforward transaction into a party chant for the ages. —Christina Lee
Don Trip & Starlito, Step Brothers
Positioned within a long lineage of rap duos, the interplay between Don Trip and Starlito is on par with the greats that preceded them. Their alliance is naturally harmonious: Don Trip from Memphis, Lito from Nashville, two sides of the same Southern coin. The region's greatest trick, best played through trap music, is turning pain into a party and struggle into glamour, and on Step Brothers Don Trip and Starlito toe the line of that dynamic in a masterful display of balance and agility. The intentionality of their process — recording in person instead of emailing their parts back and forth — comes out in the vibrancy of the music, as the two trade verses like they're sparring.
Opening track "Boats N Hoes" thrusts the ear into a thunderous new world: brief clips from the namesake video and the Step Brothers film (which appear throughout the mixtape), Don Trip's nasally high pitch and Starlito's own pinched drawl bounce across a rattling beat courtesy of Mike Will. The real highlight is the layers upon layers of ad-libbed onamonapias so whimsical that the last word is Lito declaring "Aw man, I wanted to do some more ad-libs." The next few minutes follow suit with the pair engaging in a lighthearted bravado face off, but "5th Song" pivots to the kind of introspection that truly makes them a force. Over whining production, they take stock of the collateral damage left in the wake of the drug trade — death, incarceration, addicts losing their livelihoods and families in the name of a fix, as dealers do their best to rebuild their own broken homes on the shards of another's. It's powerfully devastating in its ability to see the humanity of all parties involved. That back-and-forth continues as the mixtape unfolds, anchoring rapping for the sake of rapping, as on songs like the playful "Hot Potato" and the 15-minute jackin-for-beats marathon closer "Out Takes," with the gravity of truth. Songs like "Hate You 2" and "Pray For Me" explicitly reveal the root of this music to be paranoia and a desperate hunger to not only survive but thrive; make no mistake, whether in humor or in solemnity, this is life or death music. Over time, they've only refined and polished their formula — Step Brothers THREE is a staggering triumph — but the freewheeling energy of their collaborative debut, the spontaneous combustions of their synergy igniting in real time, makes it essential listening. —Briana Younger
Yo Gotti, "I Got Dat Sack"
Flooding the streets has long proven an effective method for building an audience; vast amounts of output increase the probability of finding eyes and ears. Though rarely mentioned among his peers, Yo Gotti has quietly been one of the South's most prolific rappers for the better part of two decades, and his commitment and consistency has been rewarded with a handful of measurable hits — among them, "5 Star," "Women Lie, Men Lie," "I Know," "Down in the DM," "Put A Date On It" and his biggest to date, "Rake It Up." Most feature the Memphis rapper venturing outside of his usual fare, but trap music has always been where he shines brightest.
"I Got Dat Sack" (now renamed "Got Dem Racks"), from his January 10th mixtape, is Gotti at his best. Drumma Drama's terrifically percussive production — filled with stuttering hi hats, crisp kicks and thunderous 808s — coupled with the distorted effect on Gotti's voice make for a hypnotic treat. Whether in indulgence or in menace ("I sell dope, I f*** hoes and make songs 'bout the shit / I rob n***** for their work and don't feel wrong about the shit"), his rolling matter-of-fact flow sounds as though he's unfazed by any of it. With "I Got Dat Sack," glorious display of bravado that it is, he traverses the increasingly short distance between the trap and the club with ease. —Briana Younger
Trinidad James, "All Gold Everything"
In the last few years, we've seen a conscious rebridging of the Black diaspora in music, film and popular culture as a whole. These conversations have always occurred on some level, but have since progressed to mainstream visibility. In 2012, when Trinidad James' released his breakout single "All Gold Everything," he laid rich ground for many of his contemporaries to later examine the inherent connection between diasporic experiences in both their visual presentation and music. James, in an almost serpentine fashion, glides over a calculatedly bare-bones beat, professing his love of gold right alongside his love for the city of Atlanta, name checking everything from the strip club Onyx to Spelman College.
The video, which depicts James bedecked in gold accessories and draped in a Trinidad & Tobago flag, only reinforces the heart of what makes the song so special: It feels like a testament to Black people's shared sense of pageantry (even in the face of lacking resources). The song's massive success is also of course due to its innate catchiness, but the underpinning theme that frames self-decoration as a necessity of joy manifests far beyond just hip-hop. Even before Ferg's hat tip, many could only picture Shabba Ranks with his signature gold chains. Ghanaian rappers like Mr. Eazi and Sarkodie as well as more global crossovers like Nigerian rapper Burna Boy have all shot videos in traditional dress, much of which features elaborate gold accessories. So while "All Gold Everything" is uncompromisingly Southern in its soundscape, in hindsight its attitude somehow feels culturally universal.—Stephanie Smith-Strickland
Lil Ronny MothaF, "Circle" (Featuring MykFresh and Yung Nation)
"Throw that ass in a circle" is a Southern altar call. By the track's third repetition, the body's erratic movements are similar to the bewitchment of a church revival, where the individual's body operates as a vessel for a higher purpose. In Lil Ronny MothaF's gospel, his messaging encourages bodies to toot it up and shake that ass through the enchantment of his charismatic voice. Uplifted by social media, the track's organic traction resulted in its quick classification as a staple in the Southern club scene until Beyoncé's headlining performance at Made In America in 2015, which sampled "Circle" during a choreographed dance break, rocketed it and the Dallas rapper to national prominence. —Taylor Crumpton
The flow that launched a thousand debates, Migos' signature triplets have become the de facto default mode in the years since they first burst through the ether of the Internet. It was easy to write the group off in those early days — the buzz that surrounded it was so constant and so hyperbolic it became a distraction. (The line between meme-ing, trolling and belittling is a thin one.) But away from the puffery, Migos' music spoke for itself, and their mixtape Y.R.N. (Yung Rich N*****) was its initiation.
Quavo, the limber swaggy one; Offset, the lyrical no-nonsense one; and Takeoff, the sleeper with the impeccable flow — together, they are a Hydra of glam, trap and party. But their most popular songs from Y.R.N. are also some of their most divisive. The titular and incessant phrases on the hooks of "Hannah Montana" and "Versace" become void of meaning after three minutes, but in between are some of the most slick and fun cadences of the era. In Migos' world, every syllable explodes into its own note; Takeoff's nearly a capella verse on "Cook It Up" makes clear how the dynamism of the triplets is percussive in its own right. Even their adlibs by themselves — the chirps, "skrts" and "baows" on "China Town" or "Chirpin" — deserve distinction and have only grown more conspicuous as their career goes on.
2013 was the year the rappers of Migos pulled everything and everyone into their orbit. Their often-imitated, rarely-duplicated style spread like wildfire, and for whatever skepticism surrounded their ascent, they have been redeemed by time. The weight of their potential wouldn't be fully realized until 2017's Culture, arguably their masterpiece, but in those important early days of YRN (and the equally outstanding No Label II) Migos laid not just the foundation of their own empire but that of contemporary rap as a whole. —Briana Younger
Isaiah Rashad, Cilvia Demo
Isaiah Rashad's debut album, Cilvia Demo, is a patiently dedicated tribute to all things Southern. A quick scan of the project's tracklist will tell you as much: the second track, "Webbie Flow (U Like)," name drops Louisiana's resident party starter; "R.I.P. Kevin Miller" is a hat-tip to the late brother of No Limit label boss Master P; "West Savannah" mirrors OutKast's Aquemini track of the same name; and "Brad Jordan" is titled after the government name of deeply revered Houston MC Scarface. Rashad, born and raised in Chattanooga, Tenn., doesn't stop there with his adoration of the South — if anything, he runs full speed toward it. As a signee of one of the most visible and respected labels, TDE, Rashad flies the flag of the region (and its lyricism) with pride. On "Modest," he coyly mentions both mainstream and underground artists in a creative spin on a situation that Black men too often find themselves in: "Players from my city rarely make it to a poster / 'Less you got a warrant, 'What you got in that Corolla?' / 'Oh officer, just Boosie Boo and DG Yola's.'" He further embeds himself in the habits of Southerners, inquiring above on the gospel-adjacent "Heavenly Father" and wrapping himself in soul samples on the brooding "Banana." At times, Rashad's energetic delivery is dichotomously placed against the downplayed production that extends throughout the album; "Shot You Down" plays like he would sooner run out of breath than give up getting his point across. But more often than not, he's sitting right in his pocket, cruising alongside the beat at the exact pace he needs to. —Kiana Fitzgerald
Big K.R.I.T., "Mt. Olympus"
While folks frenzied over Kendrick Lamar's boisterous call-out of hip-hop favorites on Big Sean's 2013 "Control" track, Big K.R.I.T. used the moment to address hip-hop's regional biases with equal fervor and Mississippi-drawled flair on "Mt. Olympus." K.R.I.T. spent half a bar on "Control," shrugging off Lamar's diss as a distraction and instead calling out how hip-hop needs to stop sleeping on the fire coming out the South. The metaphor, the home of the Greek gods, took on a different meaning in the South, with Olympus running parallel to the more familiar "mountaintop" associated with the Civil Rights rhetoric of Dr. Martin Luther King. Not only was K.R.I.T. speaking to us from the biblical and civil rights metaphoric mountaintop, he was speaking to hip-hop from its summit and daring anyone to try and kick him off. Perhaps most striking about the track is the chorus, where people debated if K.R.I.T. was saying "Miley" or "Molly" and "Drake" or "Drank." It would come out later that K.R.I.T.'s heavy Mississippi accent was saying the latter, but it was fun and dare I say delicious to think K.R.I.T. was coming for Miley Cyrus and rapper Drake — both at the height of their popularity — as a reminder that they, like many of their peers, were visitors to this country s***.—Regina N. Bradley, Ph.D.
Rich Gang, "Lifestyle" (Featuring Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan)
In 2014, Rich Gang's jubilant single "Lifestyle" spawned a cottage industry of knee-jerk mockery. Complex recorded a goofy man-on-the-street segment in which random New Yorkers unsuccessfully tried to translate the song's lyrics. Vibe, working with a flawed transcription, quizzed a sample of "non-hip-hop professionals," all of them netting poor scores. Actress Tracee Ellis Ross dedicated three separate videos to deciphering the song, never cracking its code. Despite Southern cadences being the lingua franca of rap for over a decade, "Lifestyle" was treated like an alien transmission; astute listeners knew that Rich Gang came in peace. By design, "Lifestyle" is a glitter bomb of sounds and ideas. Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan are unbounded as they rap, sing, squawk and hum in celebration of their success. Instead of a linear, rags-to-riches ascent, Rich Gang's story of triumph is a zig-zag patchwork of eye-popping boasts and images. Young Thug's swag is so otherworldly a genie could not replicate it. Rich Homie Quan pounds his chest like former Zoo Atlanta gorilla Willie B in the jungle — that is, before he was captured. Producer London On Da Track's bright keys, crisp snaps and bouncy bass buoy the flexes, making them feel like toasts rather than taunts. Rich Gang lives an exclusive lifestyle, but their relief is universal — the people who couldn't relate didn't want to. —Stephen Kearse