The 14 best hip-hop songs of the decade

© Maria Jose Govea
By Sarah Cifuentes
We talked to artists, producers and creatives from across Canada about the significant tracks that shaped the hip-hop sounds of the 2010’s.
A lot can change in 10 years, and the hip-hop landscape and the artists that mold and influence its direction, is no different. Hip-hop remains one of the genres that dominates the charts and most importantly evolves, as it continues to be blended into other genres of music. Pioneers like Dr.Dre, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown and Nate Dogg paved the way for newcomers and continue to influence the sounds we hear today. Some would argue that what makes an artist or a song influential is how quickly they dominate the internet, nightclubs or the messages they spread. To others, it’s measured by the impact they have on the development of the style of music overall.
So, which artists and songs have significantly influenced how hip-hop evolved since 2010? We asked artists, producers, DJs and creatives the tough question and discover what tracks they think were the pivotal moments from the last 10 years. Featuring artists such as Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Azealia Banks and a whole lot of Drake, check out their list of the best 14 hip-hop songs of the decade...

212 - Azealia Banks (2012)

Chosen by: Betty Mulat aka Venetta - Co-founder of NuZi Collective, producer, DJ, visual artist, and event organizer (Vancouver, BC).
This song is without a doubt, one of the most, if not THE most iconic track of the decade. It's straight up a bad bitch anthem. It's raw, raunchy and filled with attitude. Considering the track dropped back in 2012, her hardcore and raunchy vocals offered an intimate, and refreshing perspective. The Belgian house beat serves as the perfect backdrop for her endless punches of attitude. I was a teen when the track came out and remember being enamored by her charming personality, sex appeal, and decision to unapologetically embrace her sexuality. I loved her hustler mentality and could see a lot of parallels between us. I could relate to being broke with expensive taste and working in the hospitality industry just like her, who would rap about working at Starbucks to fund her Rapunzel weave, she and I were the same!
Azealia is everyone's problematic fave. Artistically she's absolutely brilliant but it's unfortunate she hasn't gotten the recognition she deserves because her online controversy continues to overshadow her musical talent. Sometimes she has some great points and some very valid criticisms, but a lot of her points could be delivered differently. However, black women have been told to censor themselves all throughout history, so I'm still rooting for her.

This is America - Childish Gambino (2018) & Poetic Justice - Kendrick Lamar (ft. Drake) (2013)

Chosen by: Christina Cheng - Creative Entrepreneur (Scarborough/Toronto, ON).
This was such a hard question and I couldn't choose just one.
Childish Gambino - This is America (2018): I don't even know where to start with this one. The messaging and visuals for this track is so deep, so heavy, so important; and still so relevant. Directed by Atlanta's Hiro Murai, there's so much to unpack. “This Is America” is compact with allusions to American history and pop culture. From American gun violence and its youth and communities (the choir), to the' Jim Crow' pose, and the many background distractions with poignant meaning. More storytelling through music and videos like this can shift perspective today, especially in a "culture" time of smoke and mirrors.
Kendrick Lamar - Poetic Justice (ft. Drake) (2013): I'm an old school R&B head so when Kendrick Lamar sampled Janet Jackson's 1993 "Anytime, Any Place" song on "Poetic Justice", I died. Plus, the 1993 "Poetic Justice" movie starring Janet Jackson and (the late) Tupac Shakur is one of my favourite movies of all time. I could get deep and say I love how he referenced parts of the movie and played around with it in this track. For instance, in the film, Justice (Janet Jackson) writes poetry to deal with the pain of her loss. In this track, Kendrick writes this poem to appreciate this woman, to know he sees her (perhaps playing around Lucky's (Tupac Shakur) role/perspective).
I know it's not just me... I found myself blushing thinking Kendrick was writing to me in this song. He wrote everything a woman wants to hear. He says the right things to make a woman feel special like she's the only one in the room he sees. He gets her feeling herself. He also wrote things women go through (like calling girlfriend's up to vent about a dude then wanting to wild out and party; or when guys try and run weak game on us). He was definitely slick in this track. LOL.
Other tracks of choice:
Humble - Kendrick Lamar (2017)
Dark Fantasy - Kanye West (2010)
Pound Cake / Paris Morton Music 2 - Drake (ft. Jay Z) (2013)

Versace - Migos (2013)

Chosen by: Frank Dukes - Producer (Toronto, ON).
This song birthed a whole new style of rapping that everyone jumped on in the 2010's.
Frank Dukes
Frank Dukes

Kendrick Lamar - Backseat Freestyle (2012)

Chosen by: Freeza Chin - Co-Founder of Bare Selection, ISO Radio, Founder of Genesis Sound Inc (Toronto, ON).
IMO Kendrick is hands down the best rapper of the last 10 years in every aspect: skills, songwriting, performance, pushing/changing the definition of the genre and definitely influence. When good kid, m.A.A.d city came out I instantly thought it was a masterpiece - there was NOTHING that sounded like it.
"Backseat Freestyle" was one of the earliest songs that took elements of the 'new school' trap sound and melded it into modern rap: a crushing 808 bass, very in-your-face drums and a fairly simple bell/percussion loop as a melody - everything about it hit HARD. All things that have become staples in rap music as we know it. I remember when he was touring the album and came to Toronto, Tre Mission was the opening act and I am Tre's touring/performance DJ. The show was at Sound Academy (now Rebel) and when Kendrick performed Backseat Freestyle it felt like the entire fucking venue was going to cave in. This was probably the last time I was in a mosh pit as I quickly realized I can't hang with kids 2/3 my age in there.
Freeza Chin
Freeza Chin

Pretty much anything of Drake’s

Chosen by: Jessie Reyez - Singer, Songwriter (Toronto, ON).
Drake’s impact on music and hip-hop has undoubtedly reverberated over the last 10 years. Also, having been born in Toronto myself, I obviously feel a patriotic biased - but I don’t business. So many songs to choose from though - One dance? Gods plan? Headlines? Drake essentially changed the game and made it “culturally acceptable” for rappers to sing and rap. Made it a norm. I know Nate Dogg had been doing this from time, but Drake made it global, Drake made it pop.
Jessie Reyez
Jessie Reyez

2 B’s (Danny Glover) – Young Thug (2014)

Chosen by: Josephine Cruz - Co-Founder Bare Selection, ISO Radio (Toronto, ON).
My pick for most influential hip-hop song is Young Thug's "Danny Glover." To me, that song represents a real moment of change in hip-hop culture for a number of reasons. First of all, I learned about the song on Instagram, which might seem totally normal in 2019/2020 but back then it still felt kind of new to discover music that way.
That was probably the height of my Kanye fandom (just after Yeezus came out). I remember seeing a video of Kanye on Instagram dancing to "Danny Glover" at Paris Fashion Week and I remember thinking, "what IS this!?" As soon as I found it, I became obsessed with it and with Thugger. I couldn't get over his weird, warbled, high-pitched vocals and it just really sounded like something from the future. I think I read somewhere that it only took him eight minutes to record that song. If you look at any number of rappers who are out nowadays you can see his influence everywhere, from their style and how they flow to even how they ad-lib. To this day "Danny Glover" still rings off crazy at parties if you play it at the right moment.
Josephine Cruz
Josephine Cruz

Miss Me - Drake ft. Lil Wayne (2010)

Chosen by: Matthew Burnett - Co-owner of Golden Child Inc. Producer / Manager (Daniel Caesar, Charlotte Day Wilson and Sean Leon) (Toronto, ON).
I’ll preface my explanation by saying that this is an impossible task, as there are so many songs that have significantly contributed to how hip-hop has evolved over the past decade. However, I have to pick one of them, so I chose this one because to me, what constitutes a song being influential is not necessarily how massive it was, but rather how big of an impact it had on the progression of the style of music itself and what can be traced back to it. Drake has been one of, if not the most prevalent artist of the past decade because he popularized a style of hip-hop that has been adapted throughout it’s progression; sung/rap verses combined with a singing hook and a tasteful amount of vulnerability and intimacy (both lyrically and musically).
“Miss Me” is a great example of all of these things. From Drake and Weezy (who’s also responsible for the impact of this song) getting their bars off in the verses, to bringing the mood down and singing the choruses on top of an ambient, atmospheric beat switch-up matching the transparency of the lyrics, I think it’s safe to say this song contributed to a long lasting lineage of music that utilized parts of its DNA to evolve and push hip-hop music forward.
Matthew Burnett
Matthew Burnett

New Slaves - Kanye West (2013)

Chosen by: My Best Friend Jacob - Producer (Dartmouth, Nova Scotia).
When I saw that video projected on walls across the world and heard those lyrics, it changed the way I thought about the medium of hip-hop and the message it could spread. Looking at the landscape today, I see how Kanye's courage to address racism and social standards allowed other artists to fully express their blackness. I'm not sure we would have got an album like "To Pimp A Butterfly" without someone starting to change the dialogue and get listeners like myself consciously thinking about the world we live in as people of color.
The sparse, and at times, off-putting, high and low end in "New Slaves" and throughout Yeezus also tells a story of not being heard. The synths remind me a lot of the screeching horns that dominated Public Enemy's "Fear Of A Black Planet". The production feels like it’s screaming at you - which is how a lot of black people feel after not being listened to for so long.
In the early 2010's I feel like we had lost an integral part of what hip-hop was all about. Giving people without a voice a chance to have one. To me, "New Slaves", as off putting as it was to some, sparked a moment wherein the following years we started addressing these real problems in hip-hop again.
My Best Friend Jacob
My Best Friend Jacob

Alright - Kendrick Lamar (2015)

Chosen by: Erin Lowers - Hip-Hop Editor at Exclaim! Magazine (Toronto, ON).
This track represents a definitive moment in a decade filled with social and political strife, trauma and pain, particularly with regards to the everyday lives of Black Americans. Though the roaring anthem fell in line with the bass-heavy production on To Pimp A Butterfly, as well as its predecessors to the likes of Jay-Z and Kanye West's "Watch the Throne", the 2015 track opened up the floodgates for a new generation of rappers to express their fears and frustrations in a digestible way for all walks of life.
Whether played in a mosh pit or at a political rally, "Alright" is a powerful song that has allowed us to feel pain while celebrating freedom, too.

Yonkers - Tyler, The Creator (2011)

Chosen by: Nino Brown - DJ and Organizer (Toronto, ON).
What an impossible question for a Libra DJ… Something about this song - the beat, the flow, the character, the charisma, the anxiety - I was hooked (pun intended) from jump. Little did I know it was helping fertilize this marriage, for better or worse, of call-out culture and trolling.
Nino Brown
Nino Brown

Hot N*gga - Bobby Schmurda (2014)

Chosen by: Prado - Singer, Songwriter (Vancouver, BC).
I remember the day I saw the viral video, I was in the school cafeteria logged onto my iPod touch Twitter app to see this fresh faced teenage boy wilding out in the streets. Throwing his fresh snapback into the air and everyone wondering where it went. There was no such thing as a viral meme on Twitter combining both music and pop culture through this frame. “About a week agoooo” was all I heard in the hallways of my school for weeks to come.
Coming out of an era of designer fashion, hip-hop pride and obscurity was pioneered by the likes of Kanye West, A$AP Mob, and many other mainstream rappers. A young rapper from Brooklyn, New York was creating music and internet history in its purest form. Not even for the gram or the hype, that video was Bobby. It was his life as a young black teen in America. Years later we saw an explosion of police brutality and violence towards black people, publicized on Twitter. The unapologetic (almost stupid) influence Bobby’s EP had to black culture and hip-hop culture in the 2010s is something that is so special, unique and unparalleled. With the upcoming release of Bobby Schmurda in 2020, we are eager for his career, in the same way we are looking for something creative, new, and broad in the “hip-hop to come” in the new decade.

Hotline Bling - Drake (2016)

Chosen by: Jonathan Ramos - Director at Rapseason/Ink Entertainment (Toronto, ON).
It could be any one of three or four songs but they all have one thing in common; Drake. If I have to choose (and it's a difficult choice) I'd pick Hotline Bling. Being from Toronto I felt the song had a moment unto itself. Originally released as a loosie, it had even more significance for me because it was produced by Nineteen85 (huge fan) and then there was the meme-machine of a video by Director X (I'm a friend and a fan) - a Toronto trifecta.
From the day it dropped and for months after you couldn't go anywhere without hearing it; clubs, stores, cars, online - everywhere. Like much of what Drake does, seeing its success globally made me proud (what's now a common feeling); Grammy's, AMA's and countless awards just kept it going and just when it seemed to die down it showed up as a bonus track on Views.
Jonathan Ramos
Jonathan Ramos

Runaway - Kanye West (2010)

Chosen by: Zach Macklovitch - Partner in Saintwoods (Montreal, Quebec).
I’ll never forget the time Kanye West premiered Runaway at the VMAs. I grew up a huge Kanye fan, my cousin had been his DJ for years and I’d been following him since College Dropout. After the stunner-shade phase, Kanye came out with 808s & Heartbreaks and it was kind of his "Dylan going Electric” moment; people weren’t fully on board and he kind of went into hiding until he started coming out with the G.O.O.D. Friday singles which eventually lead to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
All this to say when he stepped onto that VMA stage in that all red suit, the red Louis sneakers and with nothing but a drum machine and a mic we all knew something was up. The roll-out of the Runaway single and that whole album set the stage for the way artists and brands move today; you tie that in with the fashion, the music video, and the growth of everyone who was working with him at that time… there’s no question that it has to be one of hip-hop’s most pivotal moments in the past decade.
Zach Macklovitch
Zach Macklovitch