The 20 Best Freestyles Of 2016. Thought You KNEW (Video)

In Hip-Hop, there are few things more exciting than when an MC delivers a vicious verse that’s never been heard before, on the spot. It is the equivalent 0f a monster dunk in an NBA game, a one-punch knockout in a fight or an end zone to end zone run in a football game. In many ways, the term “freestyle” has come full circle, going from a rhyme (written or not) that was “free of style,” to a verse believed to be created “off the top” of the head, to something encompassing all of the above. One thing that has not changed, however, is the feeling freestyles elicit when done well. When MCs dispense with the frills and get back to rhyming like their lives depend on it, their awe-inspiring talent can induce chills.

In 2016, there were plenty of freestyles that sent shockwaves through the culture, and they took on many forms. Some were from veterans, like Black Thought, LL Cool J and Eminem, who have nothing left to prove but still serve up reminders of just how nice with the mic they are. Others were from relative newcomers, like Joey Bada$$ and Vic Mensa, who attached serious messages to their music. Some of the most surprising verses came from people who were not professional MCs. Lin-Manuel Miranda showed the Hip-Hop he infused in breakaway Broadway hit, Hamilton, was much more than a plot device for him, as he delivered an amazing and historical off the top lyrical display for the President of the United States, at the White House. Shia LeBeouf transformed from an actor to burgeoning battle rapper itching for a scratch. And, Wayne Brady, who has shown off his MC chops for years, stepped up again, stealing the limelight from Action Bronson and Meyhem Lauren in a good old-fashioned cypher.

Whether because of the context and narrative they conveyed, or just the raw, brute skill they showcased, here’s a look back at the 20 finest freestyles of the year.

Vic Mensa’s Bars Cause Sway To Destroy His Studio

In June, Vic Mensa showed There’s Alot Going On inside his head, as he smashed a “5 Fingers of Death” freestyle that featured political and social-minded bars and prompted Sway Calloway to slap the microphone off the table, and back his chair through the canvased wall.

Remy Ma & Papoose Prove To Be 2016’s Most Lethal Lyrical Couple

Remy Ma had a banner 2016. From hit records to Grammy nominations (for the first time in a decade), the Bronx bomber made great. Her husband, Papoose, had bars too though…Together, appearing on Funkmaster Flex’s freestyle series (which launched this year) this “Bonnie & Clyde” couple proved to pack a Tommy gun of bars. Both stayed true to form, but sounded astounding together.

Chris Rivers, Oswin Benjamin, and Denzil Porter Turn A Cypher Into An All-Out Battle

Three of the most exciting unsigned MCs in Hip-Hop hit the Team Backpack stage in mid-summer to show off. Heads were surprised at 6:10 in the cypher, when the three MCs start battling one another to show out. Oswin (who works with Rivers regularly) pulled no punches in mentioning Rivers’ father, Big Pun. Three rappers who love the sport have a field day, leaving the masses entertained.

Joey Bada$$ Makes His 5 Fingers of Death A Fist Aimed At Troy Ave

Many artists have used Sway’s “5 Fingers of Death” to make highlight moments in their careers. Joey Bada$$’s March 2016 appearance appeared to be the death blow knock out to fellow Brooklyn, New Yorker Troy Ave. After Ave made light of Pro Era’s Capital STEEZ’s 2012 suicide, Badmon had all those offended laughing at Troy’s album sales, marketing gimmicks, and other ’16 missteps.

The Game Battles His Alleged Ghostwriter Head-On

Right as Game was preparing to release 1992, he was accused of using a ghostwriter. The deja vu of what happened with Drake/Quentin Miller in 2015 (thanks to Meek Mill) was just bubbling upwards, when Game did his absolute best to take the air out of those reports. On the HOT 97 morning show (25:18), Jayceon Taylor and Marcus Black went at it over Dr. Dre’s “What’s The Difference?” instrumental. Game answered that question, as he out-shined his affiliate, showing the world who is master and who is student.

Stro Rips Through 7 Minutes of Classic Hip-Hop Instrumentals

In addition to a steady stream of songs and videos, Brooklyn’s Stro uses freestyles as a his calling card. The MC who regularly flashes back to the early 1990s in his lyrics and visuals hit Statik Selektah’s ShowOff Radio Show to impress his style upon beats by A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, Nas, KRS-One, and Mobb Deep. Astro hit the sacred sounds with class and confidence.

Black Thought Spits The Verse Of His Lifetime, Literally

Appearing at Harvard’s Innovation Lab, The Roots’ Black Thought freestyled an autobiographical rhyme that not only explained his incredible story, but why he does what he does in a way that no others can. With clarity and a slowed down style, Tariq Trotter may have dropped the freestyle of the year. To those paying attention, some of his bars would re-surface as part of The Roots “My Shot (Rise Up Remix)” from the Hamilton mixtape, but the extended verse Though dropped at Harvard was a dissertation in MC’ing.

Taylor Bennett Doubles Up For 10 Fingers of Death—A Sway First

Chicago, Illinois’ Taylor Bennett will live in no shadows. Sure, he is Chance The Rapper’s younger brother. However, as the MC asks DJ Wonder for a double dose of beats for “10 Fingers of Death,” it is crystal clear that the rapper will not be boxed in.

Token Gets His Shot, And Freestyles Like His Life Depends On It

Well before releasing Eraser Shavings, Token appeared on Sway In The Morning’s Friday Fire Cypher and left an indelible impression. The Salem, Massachusetts MC commands a six minute freestyle that is as animated as any this year. The 17 year-old (at the time) wanted to stand among the greats, and used this moment with everything he had to kick in the door for himself, crossing the same threshold that’s helped the careers of Eminem, Kxng Crooked, and Canibus.

LL Cool J Proves He’s The O.G. (Original G.O.A.T.) Over A Blistering Dre Beat

While many new artists use freestyles to get their name up, one of Hip-Hop’s first and longest lasting superstars did the same in ’16. In early March, Uncle L appeared on Dr. Dre’s The Pharmacy radio show to weave in some classic lines with some fresh ones, and re-stake his claim as the everlasting G.O.A.T. for 31 years and counting. From Radio to Beats 1, LL Cool J excites Hip-Hop, and did so with an incredible Dre beat that hinted at some action to come.

Wayne Brady Freestyles With Action Bronson & Meyhem Lauren. He Steals The Show

Is Wayne Brady gonna have to choke a beat? Yes. The traditionally PG comedian, game show host, and multi-talented Whose Line Is It Anyway? made Heads question whose freestyle it was, as his deft impromptu bars snatched a spotlight from Action Bronson and Meyhem Lauren—who are both prone to upstaging, themselves. This appeared in March on DJ Whoo Kid’s radio special on Shade 45.

GQ Cements 2016’s First Great Freestyle From A Sidewalk

Jamla artist and 9th Wonder protege GQ started the year off on a high note. The Oakland, California native hit the Grand Avenue sidewalk with a lot on his mind, and a sharp tongue to wax poetic. In a year where GQ did not drop an album, this one stuck to our ribs for the next 12 months.

Mistah F.A.B. Slum Dunks A Freestyle Like A True Golden State Warrior

Just as the NBA playoffs were heating up, Mistah F.A.B. made his first of several 2016 Sway In The Morning appearances. The Oaktown native who is regularly court-side at Warriors games showed his love of spit, with his love of Bay area hoops history in a “5 Fingers Of Death” that was a freestyle finger-roll. This was the perfect set-up to Fabby’s exceptional S.O.A.P. 2, which released the same week

Shia LaBeouf’s First Sway In The Morning Freestyle Is A Blockbuster Movie

Those paying attention knew that former Disney TV star turned X-Men leading man Shia LaBeouf loves hardcore Hip-Hop. However, the enigmatic actor showed and proved during his first appearance on Sway In The Morning. Despite the slew of headlines and fallout that followed, this moment was one for the annals of non-Rap folks proving that they could, in fact, really well. Oswin Benjamin appears too, to do his damn thing on the side.

Joe Budden Reminds All He Built His Career On BARS Not Beef

One of the major story lines that marked Hip-Hop in 2016 undoubtedly was the feud that erupted between Joe Budden and Drake. After Budden was openly critical of Drake’s album, Views, Drake sent some subliminal shots his way, on record and, from there, it was ON. Budden went back-to-back-to-back-to-back, releasing 4 tracks aimed at the Toronto MC, during the months of June and July. As things died down, however, the Slaughterhouse MC guested on Funkmaster Flex’s freestyle series to focus the attention back on his verses, not his versus.

Wyclef Jean Freestyles In 5 Different Languages At Once

For more than 20 years, Wyclef Jean has showed that he’s a multi-lingual talent on solo and Fugees records. On the “5 Fingers Of Death” spot in March, the Newark, New Jersey veteran switches up tongues and busts bars in English, Spanish, French, German and Japanese, all off the noggin.

Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda Takes The Art Of Freestyle To The White House Lawn

In 2016, freestyles largely lived on radio show platforms like Sway In The Morning, ShowOff Radio, or HOT 97. Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda brought improvisational, on-the-spot form of rhyming to one of the nation’s most hallowed grounds. Joining President Barack Obama, Lin kicked some rhymes on the lawn of the White House, touching on some of the issues that our Commander-in-Chief had to deal with over the course of the year.

Kxng Crooked Needs No Beats As He Terrifies With An Acapella Freestyle

In late January, the MC formerly known as Crooked I hit Tony Touch’s Toca Tuesdays radio show. There, the Long Beach, California delegate of Slaughterhouse punctuated silence with a series of rhymes that wears the crown to a crooked slant. This ferocious freestyle shows that Kxng Crooked can put fear in the hearts of mic devices as he lashes out, in promotion of his severely slept-on Statik Kxng EP with Statik Selektah.

Mickey Factz Puts Down What Sway Calls A Top 10 All-Time Sway In The Morning Freestyle

Mickey Factz has used the freestyle to fuel a career that does not tell its full story in album releases. While the Nottz-produced The Achievement: circa ’82 rang some bells, the five-minute, pop culture-drenched freestyle on Sway In The Morning in October is another strong reminder that the Bronx, New Yorker had one of the best years of his career. Sway himself put this moment (which begins at 1:45) in his show’s Top 10 best, all-time. Santos also spits in this Friday Fire Cypher segment.

Eminem Campaigns To Be A Presidential MC With His Cabinet Of Slick Political Rhymes

Marshall Mathers did not make 2016 a prolific year. However, less than a month before November’s Presidential election, he suddenly released “Campaign Speech.” The highly-topical series of rhymes lasted nearly eight minutes, and to Hip-Hop Heads, was a cold reminder that Em’ watches everything, and maintains his mischievous songwriting from those “Slim Shady” days. With an album looming, the first 100 Days of 2017 may be interesting to Eminem Heads.