There’s no one thing about rap that makes it fascinating. From great beats and innovative production, to in-depth and biting lyrics. With the mainstream staying power of hip-hop has been almost entirely restricted to the States, it’s time to dive into the frozen tundra of Canadian hip-hop and discover which MC’s are tearing it up in the Great White North. Here are some of the best, from Vancouver to Nova Scotia, who are making themselves impossible to ignore. These are five of the most prolific and talented rappers that the country has to offer.
Easily the most commercially successful Canadian rapper of all time, with his last album Views hitting 1.4 million copies sold and spent 13 weeks atop Billboard’s Top 100. He continues to pump out hit singles and albums years after been originally picked up by Lil Wayne and his “Cash Money” label. The self-titled “6 God” is an undeniable figure in not only Canadian rap, but worldwide. His mix of moody, self-absorbed, and often corny persona have somehow manifested into him becoming one of the most sought after and well known artists of the decade. Obviously, the money and fame is not all that matters in music, especially in a genre like hip-hop in which so much of an artist’s credibility comes with staying “real” always. Drake treads this line carefully. His music fills that middle ground for fans of both pop and rap. He’s kind of like a “hip-hop lite” and his easily digestible for mainstream audiences who might not listen to hip-hop regularly, with a distinct style of almost “rap singing”. Drake’s blend of atmospheric singing and rapping give fans of both pop and rap something to enjoy. With lyrics effortlessly switching between ridiculously boastful (“Drinking every night because we drink to my accomplishments”) and revealing, often self-deprecating, he paved the way for a new, more emotional type of hip-hop along the same path that artists like Kanye West began years ago. Even in the face of being accused of using ghostwriters, he even released one of his best songs ever, “Back to Back”, a diss track directed at Meek Mill who had begun the rumours. The song was even nominated for a Grammy for god’s sake. His presence shows that there is a place for Canadian rappers in the mainstream, and the emergence of his record label, October’s Very Own, have already produced some other mainstream hits, most notably with The Weeknd. Drake is a polarizing figure in hip-hop, without many unable to see past his corny side, but Drake can still deliver some certified great songs, whether it be “Hotline Bling”, a dumb, fun club song that was the beginning of Drake’s recent reinvention, or “One Dance”, the whiskey-filled pleadings of a guy looking for one last dance with that pretty girl in the club. The man’s commercial appeal and consistency over multiple albums make him the undeniable face of hip-hop today.
An older member in the game of Canadian hip-hop, the grizzled veteran doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Halifax isn’t exactly what you would call a mecca for hip hop music, but Classified has been one of the consistent rappers over the past 20 years, releasing a new project about every two or three years. Aside from Drake, Classified is one of the Northern rappers with the most recognition stateside. On his last album Greatful, he brings in some heavyweights to join him, with the likes of Snoop Dogg and DJ Premier. No small feat. Even more impressive is that he is never outshined by these two, or anything else for that matter. Unlike many others who attempt to hide their Canadian heritage because it’s not a traditional market for hip hop artists and doesn’t garner enough street cred (cough Drake cough), Classified embraces it. The 38 year old Nova Scotian has provided many a song about the country, including some classics like “The Maritimes” (The beat has bagpipes in it of course, and he discusses everything from spliffs to Anne of Green Gables) and “Oh…Canada”, a giant middle finger to those who brush off Canadians as serious artists and an ode to his Canadian roots that became one of the unofficial anthems of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Both are great tributes to his background. Ever since his debut all the way back in 1995, Classified has been quietly one of the best rappers, Canadian or otherwise. His collaborations with Shady Records have only improved an already rugged, tough, East Coast flow. The influence can be heard on songs like “That Ain’t Classy”, with a beat that sounds like it could’ve come right off the latest Eminem record, The Marshall Mathers LP 2. In the same that Son Real is reinventing the genre with fresh and innovative music, Classified is the epitome of a man who has mastered and re-invented a style. The 90’s hip-hop influences has never sounded so good. That being said, he has never shied away from new sounds, with his new album, he explores more mainstream music without losing track of his roots, something that is essential with hip-hop, but even more in Canada. With a talent to make some catchy tunes, accompanied with astounding charisma and presence on the mic. After 15 albums, Classified continues to never backs down and continues to be the gold standard for Canadian rappers.
Buck 65 is the most enigmatic figure in all of Canadian music in any genre. A true poet, his experimental, weird, fantastic and abstract take on the genre can be difficult to digest, but given time to grow, his talent is undeniable. Funny enough, the Buck 65 song “Secret Splendor” appears on the show Degrassi: The Next Generation. A show that featured Aubrey Graham, otherwise known as Drake. So there’s a nice little piece of Canadian music trivia that you can use for game night. Buck 65 is such a difficult artist to describe, because his music pushes the boundary of hip-hop to such an extreme. It’s easier to define him as a poet, who uses the medium to tell the stories of his life. With bizarre beats and a dense, raspy voice, his emphasis on storytelling. He exposes himself completely, almost to a fault. His last album Neverlove, he explores his many faults, his divorce and his past relationships. That being said, being open is not the same as being honest, and he has coming under fire recently for fabricating stories in his memoir titled “Wicked and Weird: The True Tales of Buck 65”. This may not be a popular opinion, but I frankly don’t care. His music is a bizarre blend of rap and folk-rock, and he somehow manages to make the mix coherent and enjoyable. The incredible effort he goes into painting such a descriptive world is where he excels. On the 2003 album “Wicked and Weird” every song takes us through Buck’s struggles. With “Tired Out”, where he opens the song by flat out telling the listening that he cheated on his partner, he displays that sense of realness that has become a staple of his music. The vividness and realism of his lyrics are best demonstrated with his song “50 Gallon Drum” where he describes his version of heaven, including things like “A home run would get boring after a while / I hope I never forget how to bleed.” He has also been upgrading his style and substance over the years, from his low-fi underground days, to a more polished approach with later albums, Buck 65 has never lost touch with what has made him one of the rappers in Canadian history; His ability to be vulnerable, to be human.
SonReal, the Vancouver based rapper, is the new kid in class when it comes to Canadian hip-hop. He’s the upcomer in the genre. With an almost intimidatingly amount of raw talent, SonReal (real name Aaron Hoffman) can swap from a goofy, witty, quick lyricists like on his breakout hit song “Everywhere I Go” to taking on more mature subject such as depression, like with the song “Believe” off of his 2014 project One Long Day, where he struggles with his obsession to be the best in the genre and to live up to the expectations of his fans. The evolution of SonReal has come at an unforeseen pace. In the span of about 3 years, the improvements to his style, lyrics and overall content are unseen. In any genre, but especially with hip-hop, it’s easy to fall into a rhythm. SonReal has defined himself but never being satisfied and continuously pushing himself. He is constantly switching up his flow and style. With The Name, he takes a unique approach to soul and funk on many of the tracks. The top notch production and polished vocals are a key aspect of SonReal’s appeal, and even on his newest album, he progresses his sound to be even more unique. Even his singing voice is endearing, and surprisingly genuine. Not constrained to be simply defined as a rapper, SonReal’s background as a producer works to his favour. The production (especially on The Name) is distinct, but not completely unfamiliar. With songs like “Soho” he accompanies his rapid fire approach to rap with glistening choral background vocals, the beats ebbs and flows perfectly to match SonReal’s tone. Everything he does sets him apart from the crowd, from the beats, to his voice, to his offbeat and quirky music videos. A refreshing part of his persona is his sense of humour from telling his mother that “she’s the shit” for not letting him get a neck tattoo, to openly mocking listeners who are criticizing his evolution as an artist. The energy SonReal brings to every song is addicting, and his talent seems to be unlimited. The run-and-gun style of rapping and easygoing attitude make him the most entertaining artist in the genre on either side of the border. It’s nice to see him beginning to get the attention he deserves, with three Juno nominations and a successful, massive North American tour.
Pitchfork called him the “first post-Drake” rapper from Toronto. In some cases, this is true. He compliments Drake’s moody, laid back version of the city, with a grimier, darker and more realistic representation of the 6. Jazz also proves that Toronto rappers can grow without OVO. He even describes himself as the “Prince of the city” on Talk of the Town, off his album Hotel Paranoia. The production on all of his albums are all top notch and are sometimes the best part of a song. This can be seen with songs like “100 Roses” with a beat that hits, and could be considered a traditional instrumental, but the inclusion of horns shows that Cartier wants to separate himself from the rest of his competition. That same song uses the beat, along with the 22 year old’s yelling, culminates into a unstoppable crescendo into the chorus. Unlike the normal formula of trap music, Cartier seems to have more of an eye for aesthetics then his peers. His albums feel larger then life, and producer Michael Lantz describes it as “cinematic trap”. Unlike say, rappers who appeared on XXL Magazine’s freshmen edition like Kodak Black and Desiigner, Cartier knows how to ride a beat, doing so like an expert. Cartier’s vocal performances, especially on his debut album Marauding in Paradise, could be confused for that of a veteran rapper, which is not the case. His use of the Future-inspired autotuned singing is used nicely in many of his songs. It also helps that he sounds like he cares compared to some of the other rappers in the genre. Even his new single, “Tempted” is a perfect introduction into Cartier’s music, with a great mood of a laid back club hit, similar to Drake’s earlier material, but delivered with a more commanding tone and with better production then Drake has ever had. Even though he’s just burst onto the scene, Jazz Cartier is taking not only Toronto, but the world by storm. He was even travelling to collaborate with producer Mike Will-Made-It. Everything about him screams ambition and dedication to his craft. In a interview with Now Toronto, he’s even said that he might “not be friends with many rappers” because of his focus on “legacy”, instead of on materialistic desire. The work ethic to push out two albums of this quality, this close together, is remarkable to say the least. He seems poised to be not only the next breakout star from Toronto, but he might also be capable of wrestling Drake down as its king.
Raised in Calgary, I’ve recently moved out to Montreal in order to study journalism at Concordia University. I have been doing album reviews and writing about music since 2015 for publications such as BeatRoute, The Concordian and now Canadian Beats. I’m a huge fan of alt-rock, folk-rock, hip-hop and country.