Disclaimer: this is not an objective ranking. This list centers around the tracks to which I had the most fun listening, and the reasons they were so fun to hear.
The legendary “Dead Presidents” instrumental, produced by Ski, has been tackled by several artists over the years. While I don’t think there has ever been a weak verse over this beat, necessarily, some stand out above the others. To me, these five are the best of the best:
Drake’s President freestyle is cleanliness manifest, for better or for worse. The flow is polished, unblemished, and even, in a sense, antiseptic. This verse is more of an exhibition of Drake’s ability to turn on the faucet and flow effortlessly than anything else. In immediate contrast to Nas’ or Cole’s President freestyles, Drake’s bars aren’t too substantive. As a standalone, though, it has all the confidence, wit, and delivery for which Drake has come to be known.
See my role models roll with models
And switch gold bottles holding more dough than the whole lotto
So while you clowns making toasts in the chic bar
The whole ATF make mimosas with the Clicquot
4. Lil Wayne
I didn’t know that Lil Wayne had a “Dead Presidents” freestyle before today. If someone had told me about it, I probably would have assumed it was wack without even listening to it. So, for those of you doing that right now, I get it. But you should really check it out. This track was on Wayne’s 2008 Da Drought 3 mixtape, and those who remember that time also remember that Wayne was spilling ether everywhere he went. This flow is a nice reminder of the reason for his popularity.
And I can get up in the car and drive
And if the record ain’t a smash, I can still survive
Yeah, money ain’t a thing but everything to me
Shit, I gotta make them C-notes sing to me
3. Jay Z
This is classic. JAy-Z’s “Dead Presidents” dropped in ’96, and, had I not known that, I probably could’ve guessed it from the sound and feel of the record. Hov gets tricky with wordplay all throughout this track. Both content and substance wise, there’s a level of professionalism here with which very few emcees can contend. Bar after bar, Jay sounds so calm and calculated that it’s easy to see how this track became a hip hop staple.
Watch how I’m walking ’cause even the thoroughest of niggas be narkin’
Tryin’ to strike a bargain hoping that they might get pardoned
Shit I’m involved with got me pins and needles
And my cerebral breeds the wickedest evil thoughts that this sport’ll feed you
2. J. Cole
Cole rarely sounds hungrier than he does on his initial rendition of “Dead Presidents.” He also rarely sounds younger. However, his cadence still brings the sound that Cole fans love. This beats Jay Z’s version because there’s the same amount of heart, but better wordplay. What his flow loses in calculation it makes up for with fluidity and effortlessness.
I brush it off like, “fuck it, it’s motivation,”
Some niggas gotta walk through life, some niggas roller skating,
Some niggas bypassing steps, some niggas chose to take ’em
And for that fortune, man, some niggas sold their soul to Satan.
Nas brings a masterful balance of delivery and content in these verses. When this track came out in ’94, it was still perfectly acceptable to drop songs with elementary flow so long as the content and overall energy/feel was present. Because of this climate, what really set both Nas and Jay Z apart during this time was their abilities to meld good substance with evolved flow. The words fit together like the products of true wordsmithing and the overall feel is classic, nothing more, nothing less.