The 30 Best Movie Performances by Rappers

From DMX in Belly to A$AP Rocky in Dope, these are the roles that proved rappers could be movie stars, too.
Images by Marina Kozak

In the 1996 hood-flick parody Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, Shawn Wayans as Ashtray tells a Black child that they both belong to an “endangered species.” The kid asks, “Why, because we’re Black males?” and Ashtray snaps back, “No, because rappers are taking all the good acting jobs.” That joke was probably from a place of bitterness but it was partially true: By the mid 1990s, plenty of rappers had parlayed the charisma that their music careers demanded into big-screen stardom.

If one role signaled the arrival of the rapper-as-movie-star, it was Ice Cube in John Singleton’s 1991 classic Boyz N the Hood. The few films that featured rappers previously tended to use them as musical cameos or easy signifiers of street authenticity. And while Singleton’s decision to cast one of the gangsta rappers as his protagonist Doughboy could be seen as a shortcut to establishing the character’s bona fides, the movie fiddles with your expectations for Doughboy by giving him vulnerability and emotional stakes—making him more than just a tough-guy prop.

Over the next 30-plus years, many of the greatest rapper performances have been similarly rooted in an awareness of the audience’s perceptions of their work, either playing them up or actively subverting them. Think of 2Pac’s unexpected softness in Poetic Justice, or Diddy doubling down on his livewire Making the Band persona in Get Him to the Greek. Maybe that’s why rappers haven’t always gotten the respect they deserve as actors. It’s easy to argue that they’re usually playing variations of themselves, as if other actors don’t do that all the time.

Of course, certain performances fall flat, and others seem designed only to boost attention for a movie. But the best roles involve the same qualities that make a great rapper: Magnetism, explosive energy, the ability to be funny and serious at the same time, and the fact that words just sound better coming out of their mouths. The following performances by rappers, ranked from 30 to one, are the best of the bunch.

30. A$AP Rocky in Dope (2015)

In director Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, A$AP Rocky plays a drug dealer named Dom who bullies a bunch of nerds into selling Molly for him. The geek at the center is Malcolm, a Harvard-bound high schooler from Inglewood who freaks out after Dom plants drugs in his backpack at a party, setting off a chain of events that culminates in Bitcoin somehow coming to the rescue. Rocky’s pretty-boy-on-the-block persona and Cheshire-cat smile translate effortlessly onscreen: He’s supposed to be the bad guy here, but he’s primarily around as a foil who gets a kick out of clowning Malcolm and his friends. You get the sense that Rocky is smack-talking with his boys, and there just happens to be a camera around. –Clover Hope

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29. Dru Down in Original Gangstas (1996)

Every now and then in the ’90s, a movie would just clear out and let a rapper wreak havoc for a while. Larry Cohen’s Original Gangstas gives that honor to Dru Down, the Bay Area MC with a few pimp-rap all-timers in his bag. Dru plays “Kayo with the yayo,” a drug lord’s henchman who is terrorizing the hardworking folks of Gary, Indiana. Kayo and the gang’s exploits include robbing a Colt 45 delivery man and pulling up to a mom-and-pop clothing store and burning their suits for no real reason other than that they can. Then there’s Dru’s standout scene in a local restaurant, where he barges in and orders his crew to whoop the patrons’ asses. He shifts his focus to a couple of guys at the jukebox—played by Yukmouth and Numskull of the rap duo Luniz—pointing a gun in their faces and making them shit their pants. Dru’s performance is so damn funny it has made an otherwise forgettable movie live on. –Alphonse Pierre

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28. Big Daddy Kane in Posse (1993)

In Mario Van Peebles’ revisionist western Posse, Big Daddy Kane (as the gambler Father Time) joins a crew of calvarymen-turned-outlaws who are being hunted through the American South and West by a racist colonel (a hokey Billy Zane). As the unit undergoes various hardships, Father Time is smooth and composed, his suit hardly ever ruffled. When face-to-face with the armed colonel for the first time, he jumps out of a second-story window and lands in a perfect combat roll. While the other men are scared shitless, hiding out in the prairie, Father Time just puffs on his cigar. Hoop earring in, hat always impossibly neat, you almost forget that fate is on his heels. –Alphonse Pierre

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27. Fredro Starr in Sunset Park (1996)

Sunset Park is a highlight in the canon of films about wayward kids finding salvation in a caring mentor. P.E. teacher Phyllis is hired as Sunset Park High School’s new head basketball coach, despite being clueless about the sport, and Fredro Starr is the team’s star baller on probation; naturally, he becomes her confidante. Though Starr’s stint as a movie lead was short-lived—he also appeared in Spike Lee’s Clockers and as Brandy’s hardcore crush who struggled to crack a smile on Moesha—he has a hardened yet sensitive aura that makes Sunset Park work. –Clover Hope

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26. Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Canibus, Charli Baltimore, MC Serch, and more in Bamboozled (2000)

Spike Lee’s 2000 satire stars Damon Wayans as a television executive who rises in the company by organizing a hit minstrel show. During the hilarious audition scene, we meet a so-called pro-Black rap group called the Mau Maus, consisting of characters played by Mos Def, Charli Baltimore, Canibus, MC Serch, and others. Their frontman is Big Blak Africa (Mos Def), who is aware that the show is going to make a joke of Black people, but auditions anyway. In the performance of a song called “Blak Iz Blak,” their militancy is obviously performative, and made especially ridiculous when a white rapper who calls himself Mr. 1/16th (MC Serch) lays down punchlines about blue eyes and colonialism. All of the characters butcher slang throughout the movie, and all but Mr. 1/16th eventually die in a shootout with the police. “Why didn’t you kill me?” he screams as they take him away. –Alphonse Pierre

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25. Eve in Barbershop: The Next Cut (2016)

Some of the most iconic movie performances by rappers are when they’re just being themselves in a low-stakes comedy. Enter Eve as Terri in the Barbershop franchise. After anchoring a short-lived eponymous sitcom, Eve starred in Barbershop alongside Ice Cube, who managed to eke out several successful sequels and spinoffs that touch on important issues like family burdens, gentrification, and who stole Eve’s apple juice. Eve’s character is a bit of a trope: the around-the-way girl who’s surrounded by knuckleheads. She plays the fed-up everywoman to a tee, wearing the pissed-off-ness on her face. Her performance in the third film deserves mention for the apple juice scene alone: Everyone has had that moment where all you want is one thing, and that thing isn’t where it was supposed to be, and it puts you in a bad mood for the rest of the day. –Clover Hope

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24. Cardi B in Hustlers (2019)

Most of the release-time praise for the scammer drama Hustlers went to Jennifer Lopez, but Cardi B steals the spotlight in her limited screen time. Two scenes in particular capture the overpowering force of the Bronx rapper’s charisma. One is in the strip club dressing room, where Cardi announces that she has a boyfriend before pulling a pink vibrator out of her bag. “He don’t bother me, he don’t get jealous,” she says, sticking out her tongue like she does and swinging the device in the air. The next is when she’s teaching Constance Wu’s Dorothy the art of the lap dance. “Drain the clock not the cock” is the message as she grinds faster and slower on J.Lo’s lap as an example. You can see why all the stockbroker bros keep coming back. –Alphonse Pierre

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23. Diddy in Get Him to the Greek (2010)

It’s not a stretch for a drama king like Diddy to portray a stony record executive, but it is fun to see the producer-mogul act out his schadenfreude at various underlings with the same deadpan seriousness we’ve seen on TV. In this music-business satire from the Forgetting Sarah Marshall universe, Diddy plays a version of himself—label head Sergio—alongside Russell Brand’s unhinged rock star Aldous Snow and Jonah Hill as the poor lackey tasked with catching Snow. Diddy’s performance hinges on a certain disarming self-awareness: He could have ad-libbed his entire script from personal experience. (It’s possible he really does “own 21 Koo Koo Roos.”) –Clover Hope

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22. André 3000 in Four Brothers (2005)

In John Singleton’s Detroit-set action-drama, André 3000 plays Jeremiah, one of the titular adopted siblings, who are out to avenge their mother’s murder. André finds the right balance between being cool and fiery, particularly in an explosive moment when the brothers confront Jeremiah over a life insurance payout that they believe could link him to the killing. Whether André is grinning or dead serious onscreen, he always exudes a certain warmth. –Clover Hope

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21. Busta Rhymes in Higher Learning (1995)

Busta Rhymes’ livewire energy perfectly complements John Singleton’s Higher Learning, a film about a college campus where racial tensions rise to the boiling point. Playing the student Dreads, Busta is an extremely physical actor, a quality that the film uses both for comic relief and to escalate the plot’s fast-rising anxiety. The close-up of his scream before a slo-mo brawl with a gang of skinheads is the mark of the school reaching a point of no return. –Alphonse Pierre

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20. Ice-T in Surviving the Game (1994)

Ernest Dickerson is a treasure: The director and cinematographer grabbed a script for a modern adaptation of the classic short story The Most Dangerous Game and decided that Ice-T needed to be the star. Thank God! A troop of middle-aged rich men, played by a who’s who of character actors (Rutger Hauer, Gary Busey, Charles S. Dutton, etc.), gather in a remote cabin in the woods to play a violent game. Ice-T, in a frightening dread wig, is a suicidal Seattle homeless man who belives that he’s been given a financial lifeline when he’s hired as their tour guide. Turns out they just want to set him free in the woods and hunt him down as part of their friendly competition. Once Ice-T realizes their intentions, he has to fend off these rich dudes Die Hard-style. It’s so much cooler than it has any right to be, with Ice-T coming off like a real-deal action star. It’s a shame that Hollywood didn’t give him a shot at some B versions of Wesley Snipes movies. –Alphonse Pierre

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19. Bow Wow in Roll Bounce (2005)

Bow Wow is naturally charismatic and funny when he reins in his tryhard Disney Channel side, like he does in Roll Bounce, a 1970s-set coming-of-age tale about grief under the guise of roller skating. Sporting a mini-fro and an array of bell bottoms, Bow Wow plays the 16-year-old protagonist Xavier. All he wants is to win a skating contest and woo a crush (Meagan Good), but he’s also coping with the loss of his mother. He particularly shines in a scene where Xavier has a spat with his dad (Curtis Smith), who’s been lying to cover up his own despair over his wife’s death. “You hang out with that car more than you hang out with your own son,” Xavier tells his dad, then storms off and takes a bat to the car. Bow Wow captures the resentment of a grieving teen without coming across as excessively cheesy, and rare moments like this highlight his restraint as a performer. –Clover Hope

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18. 50 Cent in Den of Thieves (2018)

Even among the outlandish characters and scenarios of Den of Thieves—Gerard Butler as a crooked cop who gets into an altercation at a Benihana, Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr. getting the Keyser Soze treatment—50 Cent still manages to shine. But is he even really acting? All he has to do is be jacked and mumble menacing one-liners, which is what he’s been doing in the real world since the days of 50 Cent is the Future. One scene in particular becomes something more: 50 Cent and his crew of ex-marine bank robbers are chilling in his garage lifting weights—as ex-marine bank robbers do—when his teenage daughter’s prom date arrives to pick her up. 50 brings the kid into the garage, where he and his boys proceed to scare him shitless. The scene has no purpose other than to be both mean and funny as hell. That might sound like a slight, but it’s not; that’s also the energy behind my favorite 50 Cent songs. –Alphonse Pierre

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17. Jamal “Gravy” Woodard in Notorious (2009)

Jamal Woolard, aka Gravy, had primarily attracted notice as a rapper for being shot outside of New York’s Hot 97 radio station before he was cast as the lead in this Notorious B.I.G. biopic. As the story goes, Gravy was in a casting call for the role when Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace (played by Angela Bassett in the movie), walked into the room, heard him flirting with an intern, and said, “That’s my son.” Gravy landed the biggest project of his career and took it seriously, gaining 120 pounds and working with acting coaches to nail specific Biggie-isms, from the late rap legend’s molasses cadence to his bearish walk. Biggie’s milestones get the motion picture treatment, including his Bad Boy signing, 2Pac beef, and affair with Lil’ Kim. And as a rapper with no previous acting experience, Gravy performs the part with surprising charisma and faithfulness to a legendary subject. –Clover Hope

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16. Queen Latifah in Last Holiday (2006)

Every single person Queen Latifah runs into in Last Holiday eventually falls for her. She’s just extremely likable as she stumbles through her journey to find herself—so much so that when LL Cool J flies from New Orleans to the Czech Republic to declare his love for her, what should be inexplicable is completely understood. The material isn‘t even that good: Queen Latifah’s presence alone elevates a barebones script fit for a Lifetime flick into something more like an Ernst Lubitsch film. Like Miriam Hopkins in Design for Living or Greta Garbo in Ninotchka, Latifah draws the viewer so thoroughly into her charms that all of the hijinks—from ledgeside confessions to Emeril Lagasse cameos—just make sense. –Alphonse Pierre

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15. Method Man and Redman in How High (2001)

Method Man and Redman’s How High, like many stoner-bro classics before and since, is low on story and high on antics. Directed by Bob Dylan’s son Jesse Dylan, Meth and Red smoke a magic batch of weed that gives them all the answers to a college admissions test and gets them scholarships to Harvard. From there, the premise is basically, “What if Meth and Red had to hang out with a bunch of stuffy, rich academics?” The stars are two of the most charismatic rappers of all time, and they sell all of the ridiculous bits. Red goes full Winklevoss and joins the crew team. And when their magic weed runs out, they come up with a scheme to smoke the remains of John Quincy Adams to pass their midterms. –Alphonse Pierre

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14. Big Boi in ATL (2006)

Big Boi first appears on screen in ATL like the villain in an Anthony Mann western—but instead of riding into town on horseback, he’s driving a pickup with 28-inch rims. As the neighborhood drug kingpin Marcus, he attempts to recruit the young Ant (Evan Ross) into his web, much to the chagrin of Ant’s older brother Rashad (T.I.). When Marcus first meets Ant, he has a cocky smile and an oversized polo more colorful than a pack of Jolly Ranchers, switching between menace and Southern charm. The role is supposed to be darker than it really is, with Marcus and Rashad fighting over Ant’s path into adulthood. But Big Boi just gets funnier the eviler he becomes: from his comically timed sips of cognac to his delivery of the line “I know that ain’t who I think it is,” later immortalized in meme form. –Alphonse Pierre

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13. Ludacris in Fast Five (2011)

Every ensemble action franchise needs a character like Ludacris’s Tej, whose ingenuity and wit save the Fast & Furious saga from being a straight-up speed racer competition. Luda got his first acting break in the second installment, 2 Fast, 2 Furious, and appears in six of the nine as the droll hacker whose technical prowess gets Brian (Paul Walker), Dominic (Vin Diesel), and their extended family out of dangerous pickles. In the Rio de Janeiro-set Fast Five, the crew’s mission hinges on a complicated heist, in which Luda isn’t just a utility character but a critical sixth man. And he looks like he’s savoring every second of it. –Clover Hope

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12. Will Smith in I Am Legend (2007)

It is said that great actors shine when you put them in a room alone. In this case, it’s Will Smith in I Am Legend, a post-apocalyptic flick with subject matter that has since become the stuff of real-life paranoia. The film casts Smith as Robert Neville, seemingly the lone survivor of a deadly infection, stuck wandering a desolate New York City with only his dog and a lifetime of soliloquies. With few co-stars in his way, Smith has free rein to project every emotion imaginable on screen: He’s seething, hopeful, naive, calm, strange, and hilarious, fighting off lions and talking to mannequins to maintain a sense of normalcy. He’s one of the few big-screen actors, let alone rappers, with the chops to pull it off. –Clover Hope

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11. Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) in Brown Sugar (2002)

Crafting a love story with hip-hop as the main character could be the greatest or corniest concept ever. Director Rick Famuyiwa does it stylishly in Brown Sugar. Sanaa Lathan (Sidney) and Taye Diggs (Andre) are childhood friends who spend their lives in denial that they’re obvious soulmates, drawn together by their love of hip-hop. Yasiin Bey is Dre’s sidekick Chris, aka Cav, a rapper and cab driver whom Dre, an A&R exec, wants to recruit to his fledgling label. Cav is a proxy for every ’90s rap purist, rhapsodizing about real lyricism over gimmicks. The role is fitting for an industry-averse rapper like Bey, who plays the character more matter-of-factly than over the top, delivering lines with subtlety, dryness, and his trademark sly smirk. –Clover Hope

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10. 2Pac in Poetic Justice (1993)

Tupac is a master of lusty gazes in John Singleton’s tender follow-up to Boyz N the Hood. Janet Jackson, in her breakout lead movie role, plays the film’s quiet storm: Justice, a poet and hair stylist who’s turned cold in the aftermath of seeing her boyfriend (played by Q-Tip) shot to death next to her at a drive-in theater. Paired with Jackson, Tupac gets to soften a little as blue-collar heartthrob Lucky, a postal worker with flashes of misogyny, raising a daughter whose mother is addicted to crack. Ice Cube has said he initially turned down the role, but it’s almost absurd to imagine him playing it now because Pac and Jackson have such easy chemistry: bantering like high-school sweethearts, matching each other’s stubbornness and sensuality. It’s a touching depiction of a pair of traumatized twentysomethings who are trying to avoid becoming products of their pasts. The role brings Pac’s constantly warring personas—lover and hothead—into full view. – Clover Hope

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9. Ms. Lauryn Hill in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993)

A year before the Fugees released their debut album, Ms. Lauryn Hill starred with Whoopi Goldberg in this comedy about misbehaving nuns and choir kids. Hill is the glue of the group as Rita, a talented vocalist whose mom is only there to crush her daughter’s music dreams. The sequel is duller than the original by yards, but if you view it as a showcase for Hill’s exceptional vocal skills from before most people knew her name, it’s great. Seeing her freestyle and bust through gospel classics like “Joyful, Joyful” and “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” is like watching a prequel of Lauryn Hill becoming Lauryn Hill. –Clover Hope

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8. Ice-T in New Jack City (1991)

Within the first five minutes of New Jack City, Ice-T’s cop character, Scotty Appleton, is sprinting and hopping over fences, chasing crack addict Pookie (Chris Rock) through the New York streets. This chaotic opening sets up the movie’s main conceit: the crack era’s ricocheting effects on the corner boys, cops, families, and abusers whose storylines converge under the reign of merciless drug lord Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes). Ice-T is so slick and stone-cold in his portrayal of Scotty that it’s hard to believe this was his first major acting gig. There’s a mix of empathy and malice in his eyes, from his initial recruitment by the NYPD to infiltrate Nino’s operation, to the moment he finally has Nino in his grasp. Ice-T achieved the feat of creating a sympathetic cop character, and also secured his place in history as one of the first to prove that a gangsta rap star could successfully go Hollywood. –Clover Hope

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7. Cam’ron in Paid in Full (2002)

Much like Giancarlo Esposito as the villainous Gus in Breaking Bad, Cam’ron’s performance as Rico in Paid In Full is built on a friendly outward mien that barely conceals an inner burning rage. Rico is a conniving crook who meets Mekhi Phifer’s Mitch in jail and soon joins the drug enterprise run by his friend Ace (Wood Harris). To Mitch and Ace, Rico seems loyal, though he’s a bit of a loudmouth: He’s the most entertaining part of the movie, doing stuff that Cam would probably do in real life, like showing his homemade sex tape in the club. But the personality is a facade to hide the malice under the surface. As the movie goes on, it’s clear that Rico had no genuine bond with the others, and his movements turn from hilarious to chilling without changing all that much. –Alphonse Pierre

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6. LL Cool J in In Too Deep (1999)

LL Cool J’s turn as a crime boss named God in the 1999 flick In Too Deep deserves a spot in the gangster-villain pantheon. He’s as evil as The Wire’s Marlo Stanfield and as darkly funny as Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. I’m not sure LL has ever looked cooler: At all times, he rocks a gold hoop earring, a medallion big enough to be a coaster, knee-length leather dusters, and patterned button-downs that would sell today for hundreds on SSENSE. Black ’90s everyman Omar Epps plays J. Reid, an undercover cop hoping to build God’s trust so he can bring down his criminal drug enterprise. But even as J. Reid witnesses God commit acts that might make him the devil incarnate, he falls into the gangster’s orbit and becomes conflicted about what side he’s on. LL manages to be both monstrous and charming, so that not only J. Reid is going through a moral dilemma, but you are, too. –Alphonse Pierre

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5. Eminem in 8 Mile (2002)

Eminem’s an easy target these days, but don’t lie to yourself: He’s absolutely electric in the final battle of 8 Mile. Across the film, his performance is best when he’s freestyling rather than brooding under the gray skies of Detroit. It comes to a head in those final few minutes, as he tears down his opponents with a combination of childish barbs and self-deprecating jokes. You can feel his desperation and hunger, qualities his music would lose soon after in favor of increasingly blatant self-caricature. –Alphonse Pierre

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4. Queen Latifah in Set It Off (1996)

Director F. Gary Gray’s Los Angeles-set heist drama builds chaos and tension around a group of friends who plan an ill-conceived bank robbery as a means to escape violence and living check-to-check. In a film with three other powerhouses—Jada Pinkett Smith (Stony), Vivica A. Fox (Francesca), and Kimberly Elise (T.T.)—Latifah excels as Cleopatra Sims, an unhinged, horny lesbian who embodies much of the crew’s desperation. At one point, she threatens Stony with a gun; at another, she consoles Stony after her brother’s death. You see their plan deteriorating the whole way through; there’s simply no way they’ll get away with it. It ends in tragedy when Cleo, on the run from cops, drives through a blaze of gunshots in sacrifice for her friends. Latifah goes above and beyond to sell the heartbreak, convulsing her body as she’s struck with bullets. It’s a sleeper pick for one of cinema’s most emotional death scenes. –Clover Hope

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3. DMX in Belly (1998)

Belly is the type of visually gaudy presentation you’d expect from a director whose signature music-video aesthetic is a fish-eye lens. By all accounts, Hype Williams’ 1998 magnum opus—the first and only feature he’s ever made—was a beautiful disaster. Nearly everyone involved came ill-prepared for a production that was rife with budget issues. But it was also the perfect proving ground for DMX, a former Yonkers stickup kid who’d recently rose to fame off a pair of disruptively good back-to-back albums that year. In Belly, DMX inhabits the role of spiritual drug dealer Tommy opposite Nas, who recites lines as if he’s still in a table read. Comparatively, DMX looks like a Training Day Denzel—dripping with aggression, and, apparently, lots of baby oil. Tommy is dangerous and blunt, the sort of criminal who’ll blast off errant gunshots while making an underling strip naked. When Tommy gets prophetic and says things like, “When it rains, niggas get wet,” it’s hard to tell where the actor ends and the character begins. –Clover Hope

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2. Ice Cube in Boyz N the Hood (1991)

There were rappers in movies before Boyz N the Hood, but none as three-dimensional as Ice Cube’s turn as Doughboy. Writer-director John Singleton lays out Doughboy’s hopelessness without wallowing in the misery: His mother views him as a lost cause, and he has few dreams of his own. Instead, he lives vicariously through his college-bound football star brother Ricky (Morris Chestnut), whose killing seems to deflate Doughboy’s own will to live. Cube’s final conversation with Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Tre—a realization that the outside world doesn’t give a shit what happens to them—is as moving as any scene featuring a rapper to date. –Alphonse Pierre

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1. 2Pac in Juice (1992)

It takes just once glance into Tupac’s eyes to know that Ernest Dickerson’s Harlem-set opus Juice isn’t your typical coming-of-age story. As Tupac’s character stares at his zoned-out father in the opening minutes, his background immediately becomes clear: He comes from a broken home, and his situation has grown from sadness to anger and hopelessness. After Bishop gets his hands on a gun and begins to turn on his friends, the movie takes on the beats of a slasher flick. But his loneliness is the engine of it all. The locker-room scene captures Pac at his best: When Omar Epps’ Q closes the door and Bishop is there waiting with the coldest “What’s up?” you’ll ever hear, the moment is chilling—not just because he’s lost it, but because you can see how far his pain has pushed him. –Alphonse Pierre

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