Rappers have a well-documented history of good acting. Since Will Smith’s hit show, The Fresh Prince of Belair, television and film audiences have been cognizant of this phenomenon. Whether or not the public personas that they are forced to educe prepare them for acting, rappers have captivated audiences with their performances and many have made successful crossovers, jilting their poetics to become eminent thespians. This rapper-turned-actor phenomenon attests to the undeniable talent to entertain that these performers possess.
What is noticeable about their dramatic performances is that they tend to align with the rappers’ respective public personas. Tupac, for instance, espoused an anti-establishment ethic, and in many of his films, he plays a villain or a character who goes against the establishment. DMX, who has served several jail sentences, also tends to play villains in film. This is not to say that rappers are decided villains in real life and thus play villains in film. But these roles ostensibly enable them to be playful with their public personas, especially since the mainstream media has done a lot to construe them in a negative light.
Some rappers have channelled the politics that fuel their lyricism into their dramatic performances, expanding their unique messages across multiple mediums. A notable example of this polyvalence is Ice Cube’s role in Boyz N the Hood, a role in which he plays an indolent young man attracted to a life of drinking, smoking, and petty crime. His character, however, delivers some of the most poignant lines of the film, illustrating the dangerous vortex that an inner-city ghetto can be. At the time of the film’s release, this role paired nicely with Cube’s off-screen persona as a member of NWA, the influential rap ensemble from Compton, California.
As the example of Ice Cube suggests, authenticity, or at least the appearance of it, factors heavily into many rappers’ dramatic performances. Authenticity, especially in this day and age where “copying” is so prevalent, has become a buzz word, but it can be hard to winnow out the authentic from the inauthentic. In reality, there probably is nothing that is truly authentic, but rappers who somewhat echo their off-screen personas on screen give the illusion of authenticity, a powerful, if superficial, illusion. Of course, some rappers just want to act—plain and simple. Whereas Ice Cube gives the illusion of authenticity in Boyz, Ice T ironically plays a cop in Law and Order. Ice T’s role as a cop tells the counter-narrative to the one outlined above, but is not less commendable because of that.
In their respective roles, whether calling attention to their off-screen personas or wholly contending with them, rappers have shown they can act. This list thus looks at ten surprisingly good performances by rappers in film or television. Some of these performances have attracted the attention of the Academy Awards and others have simply endeared rappers to film-going and/or television-watching audiences. Let us know if you think we missed any of your favourites.
10 Ice Cube—Boyz N the Hood
As intimated above, Ice Cube is surprisingly good in Boyz N the Hood, John Singleton’s 1991 social-problem film set in Compton, California. Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding Jr. also star in this film, and they up the ante as far as quality acting is concerned. However, Ice Cube, who plays an angry, wayward young man, holds his own, and his character delivers some of the film’s most solemn, profound lines. Ice Cube’s acting career reached its qualitative apex with this role, but it certainly paved the way for his future in acting.
8 Eminem—8 Mile
As legend has it, when Eminem began working on 8 Mile, he was really bad. The powers that be brought in an acting coach, and Eminem caught on quickly—the result: Eminem’s fantastic performance in the film. Opposite Brittany Murphy and Kim Basinger, among others, Eminem plays Rabbit, a troubled and confused man who believes he can freestyle with the best, despite his onstage anxiety. Rabbit is a grim man, who has been dealt a bad set of cards, and Eminem conveys this pain well. The climax of the film comes when Rabbit conquers his onstage fears and vanquishes his rap-battle enemies with caustic freestyles. Eminem’s performance is self-assured and, most importantly, believable.
7 RZA—American Gangster
Starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in the main roles, American Gangster is a film glutted with rap superstars. T.I. and Common also star alongside RZA, but RZA’s performance is notable for its grittiness. He plays Moses Jones, a narc on Richie Roberts’ (Russell Crowe) squad that sets out to put an end to Frank Lucas’ (Denzel Washington) illegal drug business. In the tensest scene of the film, Moses and his colleagues infiltrate Lucas’ drug factory, and things quickly go wrong. The scene devolves into a shootout, with Moses at its center. It is, of course, ironic that RZA plays a cop, but he is part of a rough, rule-breaking squad of cops, so he is—ironically—well-suited to the role.
6 Mos Def—16 Blocks
In 16 Blocks, Mos Def plays a convict who has information about criminal improprieties committed by eminent police offers, information that, if disclosed in court, could undermine a large portion of the task force and sully cops’ names. As such, the guilty police officers try to put a stop to Mos Def’s character, and, of course, Bruce Willis has to keep Mos Def alive. The film quickly becomes a fast-paced action flick, but, as the narrative progresses, Willis’ character and Def’s character develop a nice rapport and share more and more about themselves to each other. Mos Def plays his character well, and changes the inflection of his voice to give his character a quality of rawness that aligns with his criminal past.
5 Will Smith—Ali
In Ali, Will Smith plays, well, Muhammad Ali, arguably the world’s most famous athlete and one of the few athletes to transcend his sport. This information about Ali is important, because an actor playing Ali cannot dismiss the boxer’s significance to issues much larger than boxing. Will Smith is self-assured as the larger-than-life Ali. His performance is nuanced and powerful, as he conveys all the different facets of the great boxer—from his faith to his boxing prowess to his effusive interviews. Indeed, there are moments in the film when Smith, through his performance, transports viewers back to Ali’s prime, when issues outside of the ring beset Ali and, in turn, undermined his career. From his tonal inflection to his physique to his entire physiognomy—Smith nails Ali. Rightly, then, Smith was nominated for an Academy Award for his stunning performance.
4 Kid Cudi—How to Make It in America
3 Method Man—The Wire
Created by David Simon, The Wire is one of the most nuanced, detailed, and realistic television shows to come out in the 2000s. Indeed, the show illustrates the messy bureaucracy that the Baltimore police force is and how that bureaucracy, full of various cops trying to get theirs, hurts the already-disenfranchised people living in Baltimore’s urban ghettoes. Conversely, the show illustrates the sophisticated ways of criminal organizations and how these organizations leverage that sophistication to elude the cops. This is all important to understanding Method Man’s role, as he plays a drug dealer who is connected with one of the illegal organizations in the narrative. Method Man brings a degree of authenticity to his role and thus bolsters the performances of the other actors. Authenticity and credulity are paramount for this show—otherwise it fails. Method Man’s performance, then, is commendable for its believability.
2 Tupac Shakur—Poetic Justice
The bad boy of hip hop flipped the script with his role in the 1993 film, Poetic Justice. Opposite the beautiful Janet Jackson, Mr. Shakur plays Lucky, a socially conscious postal worker. By chance, Lucky and Justice (Jackson) are forced to ride from Los Angeles to Oakland together. On the trip, Lucky and Justice eventually open up to each other, despite their contentious past, and slowly develop a bond that transcends any mere sexual relationship. Tupac’s acting career was glutted with roles that had him playing depraved and/or murderous rogues, so this one is a complete departure from the rest of his oeuvre. Though the film is overblown at parts, it is compelling to watch Lucky save Justice from the depths of depression.
1 Andre 3000—Semi-Pro
Along with Andre 3000, Semi-Pro, a parody of the now-defunct ABA, also stars Will Ferrell and Woody Harrelson. Directed by Kent Altman, the film is ironic whenever it gets the chance—a perfect film for Will Ferrell, who plays Jackie Moon, the player-coach for the Flint, Michigan Tropics. Andre plays Clarence “Coffee” Brown, the star player for the Tropics, who dreams of making it big in professional basketball. Clarence’s problem is that he is a showoff, causing more trouble for his team than he is worth. However, when Moon and Clarence discover that the Tropics are being left out of the NBA-ABA merger, they band together and start winning games. Andre Fits nicely into this comedic and irreverent role, doing nothing to take away from Ferrell’s effusive performance.