Hip-hop lends itself to an acting career. You might even say all great rappers have to be at least good actors. Hip-hop requires narratives, theatrics, and recounting good stories with a lot of drama. Think of NWA’s “Fuck The Police” and Jay Z’s “99 Problems,” both of which recount run-ins with the law that involve multiple characters, rising action and dynamic motives. Think of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, which Kendrick rightly subtitled “a short film” and contained dozens of loosely autobiographical scenes from his Compton childhood. It’s possible to be a great actor without being a great rapper (let the record show), but it’s hard to think of too many great rappers who weren’t at least capable actors when they gave it a shot.
Which leads us to this list. In order to be placed, you need to be a rapper with at least two major film roles, (alas, this rules out Eminem, whose only major film role was in 8 Mile) and you need to be a rapper who got into acting, not the other way around (sorry Donald Glover). Everyone in the Gradient office gave each rapper/actor two scores on a scale of 1-10: one for rapping, one for acting. Those scores were added, and here are the definitive results.
23. Bow Wow
Well, he had to go somewhere. The mastermind behind such illustrious hits as “Pole in My Basement” and the star of beloved box office champs such as Like Mike is both a rapper and an actor, as the dictionary defines the words.
22. 50 Cent
It’s a shame to rank him this low because few rappers have tried harder to break into the acting game than 50 Cent. He even has his own film production studio. Alas, that mantra we had in the intro about good rappers almost always being good actors? 50’s the exception to the rule.
21. Busta Rhymes
Liking Busta is complicated. On the one hand, the guy has flow. No two ways about it. On the other hand, well, “Woo Hah!! Got You All In Check.” MTV once called him one of hip-hop’s “great visual artists” and that might be a fair assessment, although it’d have to be a long list and he’d be towards the bottom. As an actor, he’s stuck with action roles and the occasional horror movie. He wasn’t great in any of them, but Halloween: Resurrection doesn’t exactly demand greatness.
It’s a shame Ice-T is more well-known for his longstanding stint on Law and Order: SVU than his former career as an emcee, because he could really rap. Like most of Law and Order‘s cast, his role there is pretty perfunctory. Ice-T knows what he’s doing isn’t exactly rocket science, but he also knows 7.3 million weekly viewers can’t all be wrong.
For a minute, it looked like DMX showed enough acting prowess in movies like Romeo Must Die and Cradle 2 the Grave to escape from the “that rapper in some movies” billing to really make a full-fledged film career. It hasn’t happened yet but, hey, we’ll always have “X Gon’ Give It to Ya.”
TI started out as a rapper, but a few fire singles aside (“Whatever You Like” is still a banger), his acting career has gone a lot smoother than his musical one. His screen performances on movies like Ant-Man, Furious 7 and, best of all, American Gangster have been memorable. His last album, Paperwork? Not so much.
What’s that? You didn’t know Eve was a pretty solid actor? Well, let me blow your mind. You must have missed her in Whip It, Glee or her other surprisingly low-key onscreen turns. Eve is a good actor waiting for a great role, and Hollywood owes her a better shot than she’s gotten so far.
OK, let’s talk about what Luda has not done. He has not been able to get to the point in his acting career where he walks onscreen, and you don’t think “Oh, Ludacris is in this.” Ludacris is more functional than revelatory as an actor, delivering the needed one-liners and swagger in Crash (the worst Best Picture movie of all time) and the Fast and Furious franchise (the best bad movies of all time). Plenty of seasoned actors would kill for an IMDB page like Ludacris’.
15. Nicki Minaj
Let’s not mince words here: Nicki Minaj is one of our great rappers. This is beyond question. Her acting chops are a little tougher to navigate, as she’s mostly been given voice acting roles (Minions, Ice Age 3). She played a secretary in The Other Woman as well, which is a terrible movie — but going back, Minaj made something special out of a role that must have been pretty lifeless on paper. Given the right opportunity, it’s not hard to see her becoming something pretty special onscreen.
14. Mark Wahlberg
If we were going purely off acting chops, Wahlberg would be near the top. If we were just judging rap skill, he’d be near the bottom. As it stands, he’s near the middle, which seems fitting enough. Now if we were to factor in workout video quality? He’d be the uncontested champion.
13. Sean Combs
If you’ve seen Diddy act, you’ve probably seen him in movies like Get Him to the Greek and Made, which are both good. But his most interesting work has been in lesser seen movies like A Raisin in the Sun and Monster’s Ball, where he’s quietly held his own with actors like Halle Berry and Audra McDonald. Combs is still more famous for his excellent music career — a career that casts a shadow so long, it almost gets in the way of his film aspirations. That’s a shame, because he’s got what it takes to be a terrific actor.
RZA is one of the hardest working emcees on the planet; a prodigious talent who has refused to rest on his sterling legacy. He was on My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy and Doris, which is more work than can be said for any other member of Wu-Tang since 2011 (if you don’t count A Better Tomorrow, and we don’t). As an actor, RZA’s showed up in populist fare like G.I. Joe: Retaliation and American Gangster, but also quieter, more understated movies like Funny People and Brick Mansions. His acting work hasn’t been wildly noteworthy in either, but when it comes to choosing interesting film roles, RZA has proven surprisingly savvy.
11. Snoop Dogg
Snoop doesn’t get enough credit. Too many people know him today for his work in marijuana legalization, brief cameos in bad movies and Katy Perry (none of which, it must be said, are bad things.) And that’s a shame because even if you don’t count Doggystyle (unquestionably his finest hour), Snoop’s discography is still awesome. Now as an actor, Snoop’s oeuvre is a little more circumspect but, hey, he’s got Baby Boy. If you haven’t seen it, you should.
10. Will Smith
OK, yes. The past few years of Will Smith’s career have not exactly been enviable. But let’s be honest: Do you really care? Do you care that movies like Focus and Concussion were sort of average? Of course not, because this is Will Smith we’re talking about: Perhaps the most likable cuss on the entire planet. And even if he wasn’t, Smith’s acting ability is beyond contention, as you might have been reminded if you took the time to watch his excellent, Oscar-nominated performance in Ali in the past few days. As a rapper, well, there’s a reason the Men In Black movie got three sequels (going on four) and Smith’s rap career is pretty much limited to NOW Compilations and Fresh Prince re-runs.
9. LL Cool J
Okay, let’s remember what this is not a list of. This is not a list of the best award show hosts of all time or a list of who wears the best hats. LL would probably not crack the top 100 on either of those. This is a list of rappers turned actors, and LL can hold his head high around here, no matter how many times he tosses it to a commercial break. For rap? The flow on “Momma Said Knock You Out” and “I Need Love” holds up exquisitely. For acting? Just the greatest chase scene in cinematic history.
8. Ms. Lauryn Hill
Forget for a moment about Hill’s legendarily complicated relationship with the public eye and the bullshit American society demands from their young, black, famous women. Instead, focus on the art. If all we had was The Score, it’d be enough. But we’ve also got Miseducation, one of the greatest albums of the ’90s. You tie that in with Hill’s career making work in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (if you haven’t seen it lately, please do. You’ll see why Fugees founder Pras Michel wanted her to join his band).
7. Queen Latifah
Queen Latifah has been making waves since 1989, when All Hail the Queen turned the world upside down. We’d say it’s a shame that she’s more known today for her film career than her music, except for the fact that her film career is excellent. She has a Grammy, an Emmy, a Golden Globe, two SAG Awards and an Oscar nom, making her the most awarded person on this list. Bow down to the original queen, bitches.
6. Method Man
Method Man is a great actor. We need to lead with that because people forget about it. He doesn’t command the screen, he just appears on it like a natural. His brief turns in movies like Trainwreck, How High and, of course, Garden State showcase an easy talent and an interesting way of making bizarre characters seem approachable. It’s in stark contrast to his dynamic, hypnotic flow. Method Man contains multitudes, every last one of them, one of the most gifted entertainers in his generation.
Common is not the best rapper-turned-actor, but he might be the most consistent rapper-turned-actor. His film pedigree is as good as any in Hollywood, dotted with crowd-pleasers (Suicide Squad, Date Night) award fare (Selma, American Gangster) and, well, Happy Feet Two. For a while, his music career was in danger of being overshadowed by his film career, but then he and John Legend brought the house down at the 87th Academy Awards with their performance of “Glory,” reminding everyone of what a rare and marvelous talent we have in Common.
4. Ice Cube
Who would have thought? Who would have picked O’Shea Jackson to be just not one of the great emcees of all time (or, if you ask Snoop, the very greatest) and the maybe gangsta rap’s finest lyricist, but also one of American culture’s most compulsively entertaining personalities? After years in the spotlight, Cube has honed an exquisite onscreen presence — imposing but affable, streetwise and silver-tongued. It was a character who would be immortalized in movies like Three Kings and The Players Club, but his finest acting hour was unquestionably the movie he wrote: Friday, a movie still spawning memes some 20 years after its release. In acting, like in almost every other venture he’s ever put his mind to, Cube was years ahead of his time.
3. Mos Def
Where to even begin with Yasiin Bey. Onscreen, he’s a revelation, churning out one instantly memorable performance after another. The closest he’s come to a lead role was alongside Jack Black in Michel Gondry’s hugely underrated Be Kind Rewind. But as a supporting character, he’s a delight, displaying a keen sense of comedic timing (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and a knack for physically demanding action scenes (The Italian Job). That’s an enviable resume, but we haven’t even gotten to hip-hop yet. He formed Black Star. He released Black on Both Sides. He’s rapped alongside Kanye and the Roots. Mos Def is one of the few celebrities who’s become a household name and is still underrated.
2. Andre 3000
Where to even begin? Where do you even start to quantify the unique life and talents of Andre Benjamin? As a rapper, he’s as good as there’s ever been. As an actor, All Is By My Side was not the biopic that Hendrix deserved, but Andre’s performance was worthy of his subject, and that is no mean feat. Easily bored, Andre 3000’s attention has swiveled from rap to acting to pop music to civil rights to fashion and back again almost too fast for culture to keep up, but anywhere he goes, he excels.
Is it better to burn out or fade away? If Tupac had lived, he almost certainly would have told you the former. In fact, he famously quoted his mother as saying, “If you can’t find something to live for, you best find something to die for.” Pac found both, and the ripple effect caused by his shocking and tragic murder ten years ago is only magnified by the incredible 25 years he spent alive. You got the sense he had only just begun — that the masterpieces he’d created were only the tip of the iceberg. Poetic Justice and Juice showcased a keen gift and a fluid personality that could slip into an incredible range of characters like magic. “The reason why I could get into acting was because it takes nothing to get out of who I am and into somebody else,” and there’s many an aspiring actor who should pin that quote to their bathroom mirror. He was in film what he was in life: Tough, tender, introspective, and the smartest person in whatever room he found himself. If there was a Mount Rushmore of rap, he’d be on it. If he was alive today, he’d be as famous for his acting as he was for his music. If there is an argument to be made for the necessity of more rappers being offered roles in film, then it begins and ends with Tupac Shakur.