With any job or passion, there are high points and lows. A career slump or simply having to take a break for a while for personal reasons can lead to the latter. When it’s time to make a comeback in hip-hop and make a presence felt far and wide, a solid single or return from a hiatus can make or break how fans feel about their favorite rapper. Throughout hip-hop’s history, some of the genre’s biggest and most respected artists were in a situation they either needed to bounce back from or they simply needed to put fans and peers on notice that they never fell off after a break. Here, XXL highlights some of the biggest songs that either made a rapper hot again or reminded everyone how talented they truly are.
In addition to having plenty of legendary rappers, the West Coast also has some of the most famous comeback songs ever created. This wouldn’t be a proper history of songs that got artists back on track if the runaway hit that was Tupac Shakur‘s 1999 song “California Love” featuring Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman wasn’t included. There are plenty of great songs about The Golden State, but none mark the return of ’Pac like this one. The memorable track finds ’Pac rapping like he never missed a beat during his prison time.
“Still D.R.E.,” another West Coast banger, is Dr. Dre’s first single after a seven-year break between 1992’s The Chronic album and 1999’s 2001. The record still holds up today with the support of the undeniable chemistry between Snoop Dogg and Dre, the Hype Williams-directed video and that immediately recognizable beat. Dre did it all right.
As for Snoop, he also experienced his own career song reinvigoration. He would deliver with with his 2002 hit track “Beautiful” featuring Pharrell Williams, a late career single that made it all the way to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.
But it’s not all about the West. New York rappers had some big songs that turned their buzz back up, too. LL Cool J, the hip-hop legend out of Queens, N.Y. dropped the boisterous “Mama Said Knock You Out” in 1990, just when fans started to question if he still had it. Jay-Z came out of retirement with “Show Me What You Got,” rhyming over a Just Blaze beat like the good old days while still sounding fresh and sharp. French Montana caught the biggest hit of his career so far with “Unforgettable” alongside Swae Lee, a song that borrows from the Afrobeat sound to craft a record that got spins all over the world.
Check out more songs that reinvigorated rappers’ careers, and see if your favorites made the cut below
Throughout the 1990s, Common built a reputation as a skilled Chicago lyricist but went into a different creative direction with his 2002 fifth album, Electric Circus. Filled with pop and rock influences mixed in with hip-hop, it was nothing like Common’s traditional sound from previous years. Three years later, Common released the 2005 track “The Corner,” the big single from his all Kanye West-produced comeback album, Be.
The subject matter (centered on the reality of underserved minority neighborhoods) and the beat (a heavily looped soul sample) was a return to form for Com. Plus, it earned him a nomination for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group at the 2006 Grammy Awards. Be, also nominated for Best Rap Album at the 2006 Grammy Awards, went gold and was a reset of sorts for Common; he never truly lost the magic.
After Suge Knight bailed Tupac Shakur out of prison in 1995, after being locked up on a sexual assault charge, Tupac came back to hip-hop with the biggest single of his career in 1996. “California Love” featuring Dr. Dre and Zapp’s Roger Troutman is one of the songs synonymous with ’Pac.
From the unforgettable piano keys to the verses and hooks, the track further proved he was unstoppable with “that bomb beat from Dre.” The song simply celebrates the most famous state on the West Coast while also marking the return of Tupac. The song was a hit too, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 the year it was released.
By 2017, the year “Unforgettable” was released, French Montana had multiple hits to his name, but was in a bit of a dry spell. After the successes of his 2016 collab “Lockjaw” with Kodak Black and the Drake-assisted “No Shopping” that same year, French was on a string of singles from his mixtape, MC4, that didn’t crack the Billboard Hot 100 top 20. All of that changed on April 7, 2017, when his Swae Lee collab “Unforgettable” dropped.
Borrowing from both Afrobeat and dancehall, the sound of the song was different for French, and Swae’s hook was flawless. This was the track that gave French a megahit in his hands. “Unforgettable” is now eight-times platinum and it propelled French’s album, Jungle Rules, to No. 3 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.
In the 2000s, Snoop Dogg was at a point of rebirth in his already legendary career. Coming off the release of his final album on Master P’s No Limit Records, 2000’s The Last Meal, Snoop was now a Priority Records artist. He kicked off his new label deal with The Neptunes as a result of their production on “From tha Chuuuch to da Palace” and “Beautiful,” the first two singles on his 2002 album, Paid tha Cost to Be da Bo$$.
“Beautiful” quickly became one of Snoop’s most popular songs to date and a departure from his usual sound. A gangsta rapper making such a sweet and bright-sounding single about being enchanted by a woman paired with Pharrell singing his heart out was very new at the time. The well-received track peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, and added another timeless classic to Snoop’s catalog.
“Turn Down for What”
DJ Snake and Lil Jon
By 2013, Lil Jon had already made hit dance songs like “Snap Yo Fingers” back in 2006, but none of them had the massive cultural impact of “Turn Down for What,” his 2013 song collab with DJ Snake. Before he united with DJ Snake, Jon had a similar turn-up anthem with LMFAO’s 2009 hit “Shots,” which he was featured on. But by the “Turn Down for What” arrived, it had been nearly eight years since he had a top 10 song of the Billboard Hot 100 chart as a lead act.
“Turn Down for What” was a perfect match with DJ Snake’s crazy, horn-filled production and Lil Jon’s party-starter vocals and straight-from-Atlanta drums. The phrase “Turn down for what!” became mainstream America’s go-to for a good time. Due to its’ impact, “Turn Down for What” rose to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, and was certified six-times platinum. After the song’s success, Lil Jon’s stature in the world of EDM continued to expand, and he spread his reach into other ventures, into rap production.
After Kanye West adopted a more dark, brooding persona following the death of his mother in 2007, expressed his inner turmoil on his 2008 album, 808s & Heartbreak, and stormed the MTV Video Music Awards stage during Taylor Swifts acceptance speech for Best Female Video in 2009, the rapper’s next move was a mystery. All that changed when ’Ye came out of the gate in 2010 with “Power,” which was as much a statement as it was an evolution.
The song, produced by Yeezy, S1, Jeff Bhasker, Mike Dean and Andrew Dawson, is haunting with an almost military march energy to it. ’Ye is as forceful as ever on the the track, too, reclaiming how strong he is as both a man and a musical artist. “Power” began the lead-up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the album many rap fans consider to be ’Ye’s magnum opus. The lauded track has since gone two-times platinum.
“Mama Said Knock You Out”
LL Cool J
“Mama Said Knock You Out” is the song that multiple generations of hip-hop fans consider the definitive LL Cool J ode. The track, a single off his 1990 album of the same name, is LL at his finest, using lyricism and anger in a way he hadn’t before. By the time “Mama Said Knock You Out” was released, LL had been in the game for a good six years, dropping his first official song “I Need a Beat” in 1984, and his debut album, Radio, in 1985. Walking with a Panther, the LP he dropped prior to his Mama Said Knock You Out album, was considered subpar by a notable sect of fans, so he used the title track as a reminder of who he was—a man not to be messed with. And it sure did put everyone on notice, as “Mama Said Knock You Out went gold, won a Grammy and peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“Show Me What You Got”
Back in 2003, Jay-Z decided he was retiring with The Black Album set as his final project and the nationally released documentary Fade to Black in 2004, solidifying his run as a G.O.A.T. gracefully. Turns out, Jay couldn’t leave the game alone, returning in 2006, with his album, Kingdom Come. The LP was led by the huge single “Show Me What You Got,” which peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song reunites Jay and vital Roc-A-Fella Records producer Just Blaze; the track itself just sounds “big,” with that big band flourishing and drums knocking. Jay works his charisma, sounds happy to be back in the game and delivers impeccable rhymes.
Ma$e retired from hip-hop in 1999, seeking to build a closer relationship with God. He returned to the game five years later after becoming a minister. His return song was “Welcome Back,” a light, well-meaning ode centered on Ma$e’s comeback being received with open arms. The feel-good song record peaked at No. 32 on the Billboard Hot 100, but more importantly, normalized something most fans didn’t foresee: Mase remaining true to his religious growth while still embracing his rapping roots. The album of the same name also sold 188,000 units in its debut week, and went gold, proving hip-hop was down to support “a bad boy gone clean.”
Coming off his sixth studio album, Last of a Dying Breed, Scarface was already critically respected and loved as an MC in 2000. However, that album sold somewhat less than usual in comparison to his previous efforts, but his next single in promotion of his 2002 LP, The Fix, would change all that. The piano-driven track “My Block” finds Scarface being the same clear-eyed street narrator he always was, but this time, he finds a way to be both light-hearted and honest about the things going on in his neighborhood. The Fix turned out to be one of ’Face’s most successful projects to date, as it sold 160,000 copies out of the gate.
After taking a seven-year break between albums The Chronic (1992) and 2001 (1999), Dr. Dre knew that whatever his next single was, it had to be great to mark his return. The lauded rapper-producer delivered on all levels with the Snoop Dogg-assisted track “Still D.R.E.,” which Dre produced with Scott Storch and Mel-Man. The beat is a classic with those haunting piano keys laying the foundation for Dre’s sharp bars, which Jay-Z ghostwrote at the time. And Snoop’s addition proved this rap duo was perfect in every way. The pressure was on Dre, considering his first album was deemed a classic The Chronic. “Still D.R.E.” was huge, but the 2001 album it lived on was a monster, as it went on to go six-times platinum.
To be fair, in the early 2000s, Eminem certainly didn’t need to “reinvigorate” his career, as he was already one of the most popular rappers out. But his 2002 single “Without Me” was a return to prominence, back in a time when rappers let years pass between albums (his last was 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP).”Without Me,” the lead single off his 2002 album, The Eminem Show, is a playful song on which Em addresses both his detractors and position in hip-hop. As expected, the single was a hit, and became the No. 2 song on the Billboard Hot 100 at the time.