Love is a well documented topic in hip-hop. It’s the essence of soul music which has heavily influenced rap and hip-hop, with many modern hits taking cues from ‘60s and ‘70s soul classics. And over the years, the theme of love has helped rappers to crossover into the mainstream and reach radio friendly audiences.
Back in the early days, it was the norm for rappers such as LL Cool J to perform solely on a track, expressing their adoration for a love interest. In the mid ‘90s a bridge was formed between R&B and hip-hop, with R&B singers performing the sensual hooks on romantically leaning rap tracks and MCs jumping on R&B records. These days, the lines are increasingly blurred when artists such as Drake muddy the waters between rap and R&B.
Without love songs, rap probably wouldn't be as exciting. Reading this list below, you’ll find that the lines between rap and R&B were much more visible and that within the last decade or so artists have married the two genre.
1. Slick Rick – Teenage Love (1988)
There are few storytellers in rap history as vivid and imaginative as Rick The Ruler, and Teenage Love just happens to be one of his signature songs that reflects this. Released in 1988 on Def Jam at the time when hip-hop was still fairly new, it was the epitome of the innocent but sweet rap love song. It was the kind of song you’d record on your tapedeck and put on a mixtape for the boy or girl next door.
Romantic rhymes: “The feeling are the same, and you receive a notion / To reveal your inner thoughts and deeply hid emotions”
2. Biz Markie – Just A Friend (1989)
Not all love stories have a happy ending and Biz Markie’s classic Just A Friend is one of them. Coming across as fairly pathetic, the track was well received due to Biz Markie’s honesty and self-deprecating humour in the way he delivered it. A lot of millennials will be familiar with the song through a sample that was used by Mario on Just A Friend 2002.
Romantic rhymes: “Spendin' a lot of time so we can build up / A relationship or some understanding / How it's gonna be in the future we was plannin’”
3. Heavy D & The Boyz – Now That We Found Love (1991)
Now That We Found Love was one of Heavy D’s more popular records and its production by Teddy Riley in ‘91 made it a New Jack classic. The song itself is a cover of Ohio group The O’Jays – rap reworks of vintage tracks like this were the norm back then (check out Mary J. Blige’s Sweet Thing, a cover of Chaka Khan and A Tribe Called Quest’s Stressed Out – which features a sample of Anita Baker’s Good Love – for two examples of how rap continued the line of soul music). In some ways, it ended up being an informal collaboration with members of R&B group Guy, as the song featured vocals from Aaron Hall as well as Riley on the pads.
Romantic rhymes: "I'm not quite sure as to what is going down / But I'm feelin' hunky–dory about this thing I found"
4. MC Lyte - Ruffneck (1993)
A rap love song list without MC Lyte’s track Ruffneck would be criminal, as she flipped the script in a game dominated by men. Released in ‘93, the single reached No.1 on the rap charts which also resulted in a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Solo Performance the following year. “I need a ruffneck / I need a man that's quick and swift / To put out the spliff and get stiff,” Lyte spits. You can also hear where Adina Howard got her inspiration for the lyrics on her classic, Freak Like Me.
Romantic rhymes: “Actin' like he don't care / But all I gotta do is beep him 911 and he'll be there"
5. LL Cool J – Hey Lover ft. Boyz II Men (1995)
Before his 2003 hit Paradise, LL Cool J’s single Luv U Better and the All I Have collaboration with Jennifer Lopez had established his mark as a love rap hitmaker. Although Hey Lover is actually a dirty macking anthem, it was the perfect display of what the Hollis native was always known for since his I Need Love days — which is his ability to show why he's the better option.
Romantic rhymes: "I was layin' in the coupe with my hat turned back / We caught eyes for a moment, and that was that"
6. Notorious B.I.G – One More Chance ft. Faith Evans (1995)
As one of the most explicit tracks on his 1994 debut album Ready to Die, the original album version of the One More Chance wasn’t conventionally romantic. But the smoother, more R&B focused radio version with Faith Evans became a popular single. And given the personal relationship and marriage between both artists, the chemistry was authentic. It's ironic though that Faith was the one singing the hook, as it was Biggie who often cheated while they were together — or so the story goes.
Romantic rhymes: "We can cruise the world with pearls, gator boots for girls / The envy of all women, crushed linen / Cartier wrist-wear with diamonds in 'em"
7. Method Man and Mary J Blige – I'll Be There for You/You're All I Need to Get By (1995)
This is another one of those rap songs that flipped a classic soul sample – this time Aretha Franklin’s You're All I Need to Get By – for a modern audience. It’s also worth noting that a rawer and grittier version appeared on Method Man’s RZA-produced debut LP Tical. The video itself became iconic for the matching denim Mary and Meth were both wearing on a New York rooftop (which the latter went onto recreate with Teyana Taylor in the video for the remix of her 2018 single, Gonna Love Me, also featuring Wu-Tang members Ghostface Killah and Raekwon.) It was the ultimate ride or die anthem and if there were was any singer to call on at the time, it was the Queen of R&B – Mary J Blige. And it's also pretty clear that Method Man wrote this for his wife, who he’s been with since the mid-90s.
Romantic rhymes: “Back when I was nothing, You made a brother feel like he was something / That’s why I'm with you to this day boo no fronting”
8. Foxy Brown ft. Blackstreet – Get Me Home (1996)
This time the memorable sample is from Eugene Wilde’s ‘84 single Gotta Get You Home Tonight. Foxy was only in her teens at the time of recording but the success of it proved she was more than ready for rap stardom. As a love song, it followed in the footsteps of hits like Ruffneck and showed that female rappers could also want someone to ride or die.
Romantic rhymes: “‘Cross the room throwin' signals, I'm throwin' 'em back / Flirtin’ 'cause I digs you like that”
9. Mase ft. Total - What You Want (1997)
This song was peak Bad Boy era, considering the chokehold the label had on the rap and R&B charts. Harlem’s Ma$e — who once ran with Cam’Ron and Big L in the group Children of the Corn — probably never had a better hit than this and much of that was because of Kim, Keisha and Pam of the group Total and the seductive hook. It's one of those rap songs that became a fan favourite and we have the lazy Bad Boy flow to thank for that.
Romantic rhymes: “Girl, in my eyes you the baddest / The reason why I love you, you don't like me cuz my status”
10. DMX – How It’s Going Down (1998)
Dark Man might seem like an unusual inclusion on this list as there's a belief that he was always an aggressive rapper, but in fact he was multifaceted and complex. There were many moments throughout his career where DMX was expressive and open, How It's Going Down happens to be one of those songs. It was also proof that DMX was one of the rappers in the ‘90s flowing in melody, a trend often attributed to contemporary artists today.
Romantic rhymes: “I'm gon' be fair, tryin' to be there, we gon' see then / Hit me with the question, boo, that answer gon' be 'yeah'"
11. The Roots ft. Erykah Badu and Eve – You Got Me (1999)
You Got Me was a distinct song in its own right because of its neo-soul vibe. It appeared on The Roots’ classic album Things Fall Apart and the single represented the musicality the group was aiming for in their sound. The Roots were first and foremost a hip-hop band — unlike other groups and rap crews — which focused on instrumentation. Which made the Erykah Badu collab all the more apt, considering her jazz roots. What made this a unique love song was that it wasn’t a classic love affair, it had its complications with Erykah Badu reassuring Black Thought that she has his back. Jill Scott originally wrote the hook and was meant to appear instead of Badu –– at the time the former was a mentee of Questlove’s in their native town of Philly.
Romantic rhymes: "She said she loved my show in Paris at Elysee Montmartre / And that I stepped off the stage and took a piece of her heart”
12. Mya ft. Jay Z - Best Of Me Part 2 (2000)
Technically this is an R&B song, but the production and Jay Z’s verses automatically made it a rap crossover hit. The blue aesthetic in the video with the matching Tarheel jerseys was peak 2000, however things behind scenes weren't as rosy as they were on screen. Neither artist found the recording process smooth sailing and Jay Z apparently once called Mya “a spoiled brat.” Regardless of what happened behind the scenes, the Trackmasters-produced song was still a favourite at the time.
Romantic rhymes: “Lips are telling me yes / While you're kissing on my neck”
13. Outkast – Ms Jackson (2000)
There are probably other Outkast songs you could choose for the list instead of their biggest international hit. Nevertheless, not all love is pretty and it can sometimes leave a bitter taste. Ms Jackson was exactly that. In a VH1 documentary on the Atlanta duo, it was said that they wrote the song for the women in their lives at the time –– Erykah Badu being one of them. But considering the success of the song, there's no doubt they got over the stress of those situations very quickly.
Romantic rhymes: "Me and your daughter got a special thing goin' on / You say it's puppy love, we say it's full-grown"
14. Ja Rule – Always On Time ft. Ashanti (2001)
Despite 50 Cent once saying that Ja Rule sounded like the Cookie Monster when he rapped, the former Murder Inc rapper was prolific with the R&B friendly hits. Brandy was originally meant to appear on the record but instead Ashanti made the cut, which was far from coincidental as she would release her debut self-titled album months later.
Romantic rhymes: "You and I got a special bond together / We go back like bombers, boo, in the coldest weather"
15. Drake – Marvin’s Room (2011)
In the summer of 2011, few songs spawned a slew of remixes and covers quite like Marvin’s Room. Drunk, regrettable texting one’s ex and the embarrassment that comes with it was the song’s key theme and it was popularity grew because of that honesty. Again, it was one of those moments were love wasn't always so rosy.
Romantic Rhymes: "Talk to me, please, don't have much to believe in I need you right now / Are you down to listen to me?"
16. Kanye West – White Dress (2012)
Originally appearing the soundtrack album for the RZA-directed martial arts film The Man With The Iron Fists, this 2012 release saw Kanye return to the soul-inspired rap beats he was known for creating in his early career. At the time, Kanye had just proposed to Kim Kardashian and the song is littered with references to one day walking down the aisle with her. It's also a pretty good use of a vocal sample from Mario, arguably the defining quality of the song.
Romantic rhymes: "Wedding in June, what could be better? / Let's fly to Euro, make this the best summer ever"
17. Future – I Be You (2014)
Future’s break-up with Ciara marked a turning point in his career – he diverted from his pop star aspirations for a more uncompromising sound, and from the Monster mixtape to the present day, much of his material has been explored the darker aspects of his post-heartbreak hedonism. Appearing on his 2014 album Honest, I Be You pre-dates that, with the loved-up ATLient capturing the tender and intimate details of his relationship with Ciara, who was his then-fiancé.
Romantic rhymes: “Your spirit, my spirit illuminates through our bodies / I feel we whole / Eye contact exchanging favours, I guess it's better you know me”
18. Jay Z – Family Feud (2017)
No rapper shown as much as artistic evolution and development like Hov, and his position as elder statesman of rap was further strengthened with the release of 4:44. Family Feud was Jay Z admitting his flaws as a man, father and husband when for so long, he presented himself as was near untouchable as an artist and businessman.
Romantic rhymes: "A man that don't take care his family can't be rich / I'll watch Godfather, I miss that whole shit"
19. Kendrick Lamar – LOVE ft. Zacari (2017)
As DAMN was a journey through the many emotions and moods of Kendrick, it was no surprise that the track titled LOVE would end up being as memorable as it is. It may not go down as one of Kendrick’s best hits, but as far as a love song attempt, it avoided the pitfalls of corniness.
Romantic rhymes: "Am I in the way? / I don't wan' pressure you none / I want your blessing today"
20. Meek Mill – Dangerous ft. Jeremih and PnBRock (2018)
Contrary to being known as a ‘shouty’ rapper, Meek Mill has been known to craft a smooth hit or two with last summer’s Dangerous being one of them. Jeremih has positioned himself as one of the best hook specialists the game in in recent years, and his crooning on Dangerous, gave it that smoothness Meek needed for the track.
Romantic rhymes: "You feel the vibe, it's contagious / Look in your eyes, shit is dangerous / Grateful I had all the patience"
Listen to our contemporary rap playlist Pass The Aux