Thursday, June 12, 2014

Pointless List: Greatest Rappers Turned Actors

Yesterday, we talked about the movie depicted above, New Jack City. That means it's a perfect time to speak about just how far rappers have come on the big (and small) screen. New Jack was one of the first movies to feature a rapper in a prominent role that wasn't him/herself. In the time since, they've become a persistent, if not always consistent, part of Hollywood. For me, these are the best actors of all time...who started as emcees.

10. Eve
Best Movie Performance: as Terri in The Barbershop franchise
The self-proclaimed “pit bull in a skirt” proved she could hang with the fellas with two really good performances in the Barbershop movies. She parlayed that into a fairly successful sitcom, the simply titled Eve. From there, she ventured into more dramatic fare and was widely praised for work in the unsettling Kevin Bacon vehicle The Woodsman. Since then she's done some TV and small indie films. I hope she gets better acting opportunities because I think she really is a talented actress.

9. Ludacris
Best Movie Performance: as Skinny Black in Hustle & Flow
It's probably a little hypocritical of me to put a guy on the list whose best performance is playing a rapper. But he was genuinely good as Skinny Black in Hustle & Flow.  He was also solid in Best Pic Winner Crash. The real reason he's here, though, is because he has carved out a very nice career for himself, including as a vital member of the ensemble for the Fast and Furious franchise.

8. Ice-T
Best Movie Performance: as Jack Mason in Surviving the Game
Ice seems to have been around forever. He was an unknown rapper who landed a part playing himself, but only rapping not speaking, in 1984’s Breakin’ (and it’s sequel). He had some musical success locally in LA but it was still a few years until he had a national hit. It was a few more years until he got back onto the big screen. This time, he had a major role in 1991’s New Jack City. He gets lots of points for being a pioneer in this Hip Hop to Hollywood game. Even though, I can’t recall ever thinking he was a really good actor, he’s been reliable and perhaps more importantly he had a period where he was really bankable. His early movies made money. Whenever he guest-starred on TV’s New York Undercover the ratings shot through the roof. He's since become a solid performer in smaller roles and has settled in as a regular on Law & Order: SVU.

7. LL Cool J
Best Movie Performance: as God in In Too Deep
Like Ice-T, LL has been at this acting thing for quite a while now. In fact, the two share a really similar career arc. LL started with a cameo as himself way back when in 1985’s hood classic Krush Groove He would do the same the following year in the Goldie Hawn football movie Wildcats. He was one of the first rappers to star in his own sitcom, In the House, which had a solid 5 year run. His turn as a big time gangsta who called himself God opposite Omar Epps in In Too Deep is perfect. This is especially praise-worthy since LL’s always been more of a lover than a bad guy. He has charm, charisma and a presence few can match and none can deny. None other than famed film critic Roger Ebert has commended him on this. Honestly though, if he had, or starts, picking better movie projects he’d be near the top of this list.

6. Ice Cube
Best Movie Performance: as Doughboy in Boyz N the Hood
Honestly, since his winning debut in Boyz N the Hood, Cube hasn't been anywhere near as good. However, that hasn't stopped him from becoming one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. With rare exceptions, his movies make money…lots of money. He’s simply a force to be reckoned with at the box office. As a rapper, he helped create gangsta-rap and has been involved with arguably three of the best albums the genre has ever seen, Straight Outta Compton as a member of NWA and Amerikkka’s Most Wanted and Death Certificate as a solo artist. Therefore, it feels kind of strange to say that he’s one of the most profitable comedic actors in the world, but it’s true. As proof, he’s the face of three highly lucrative comedy movie franchises: Friday, Barbershop, and Are We There/Done Yet?. That doesn't even count him having a major role in the Jump Street movies. Earlier this year, his buddy cop movie Ride Along, co-starring Kevin Hart, was a huge financial success. Love his movies or hate them, he gets it done where it counts, at the box office.

5. Tupac Shakur
Best Movie Performance: as Bishop in Juice
Tupac was less a person than a pure force of nature. It was impossible to take your eyes off him. His immense presence combined with an ability to be completely sincere no matter what he was saying led to some powerful performances. His turn as Bishop in Juice is wonderfully twisted. It has become legendary among hood-movie connoisseurs. As Lucky in Poetic Justice he was perfectly standoffish, yet vulnerable. He was even more vulnerable and all around flawless in Gridlock’d. Though I rate Juice as his best performance, I’d have to call this #1A. His fervent fans will tell me he should be #1. Talent-wise, it’s definitely arguable that he should be. Sadly, the brevity of his life and career kept him from giving us anything more than the few gems he left us with and from being even higher on this list.

4. Mos Def
Best Movie Performance: as Vivien Thomas in Something the Lord Made
Mos Def is one of the most underrated actors working today. He has a list of credits that’s not only as long as my arm but it hits nearly every demographic and goes back over two decades, starting with a role in TV’s God Bless the Child in 1988. He’s done just about every genre you can think of: action (16 Blocks, The Italian Job), comedy (Be Kind Rewind, Next Day Air), Sci-Fi (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), drama (The Woodsman, Monster’s Ball), voiceover (The Boondocks)…he’s done it all. No matter what he’s been asked to do, he’s excelled. In 2005, he was a Golden Globe nominee for his work in the HBO movie Something the Lord Made.

3. Queen Latifah
Best Movie Performance: as Cleo in Set it Off
The Queen is on my short list of most important rappers of all time. However, that has as much to do with what she’s done outside of rap as it does actually rapping. Her career as a thespian started with a brief yet powerful tirade against Wesley Snipes’ character in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever. From there, she had a few bit parts in TV and movies until she landed the part of Cleo in Set it Off. She gave a phenomenal performance. It’s a character that’s as far removed from her carefully crafted public persona as possible, yet she’s effortlessly believable. She hasn’t stopped working as an actress since, except by choice. She’s had a successful sitcom, Living Single. She’s been in some major money-makers (like Chicago and the Ice Age movies), some low-budget but well received fare (like Beauty Shop, Stranger Than Fiction, and The Secret Life of Bees), and everything in between. In 2003, she received an Oscar nomination for her work in Chicago In 2006, she became the first rapper to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In ’08, she won a Golden Globe and earned an Emmy nomination for her role in TV’s Life Support.

2. Mark Wahlberg
Best Movie Performance: as Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights
A former Calvin Klein underwear model with six pack abs, a brother that made it big with New Kids on the Block (Donnie, a fine actor in his own right) and a catchy rap song (the hugely successful "Good Vibrations"), Marky Mark was tailor made for the MTV crowd. He parlayed that into a cameo as himself in TV’s The Substitute and then into a role in the Danny DeVito vehicle Renaissance Man. He was widely praised for his work in Boogie Nights. I'll forever maintain that he should have gotten an Oscar nomination for this role. Though he himself didn't get one, the movie was nominated for 3 Oscars. He did make big money with that movie as well as a number of others. Most notably, The Big Hit, Three Kings, The Perfect Storm,The Italian Job, and 2 Guns. 2006’s The Departed finally earned him that Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor. He also received critical acclaim for his fantastic work as real life boxer Micky Ward in 2011's The Fighter.

1. Will Smith
Best Movie Performance: as Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness
This guy’s success at whatever he’s tried is nothing short of phenomenal. As the rapping part of the duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, he won the first ever Grammy for Best Rap Album. He took the Fresh Prince persona to the small screen and starred in the hugely successful sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. It was the first and still by far, the most successful sitcom any rapper has ever starred in. While there, he honed his acting skills and received critical acclaim with his role in 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation. Since then, he’s become nothing short of the biggest movie star in the world. The list of his movies that reached #1 at the box office seems endless and growing. He’s starred in 14 movies that have grossed over $200 million worldwide, 10 of them made over $300 million. Five of them, Independence Day, Men in Black, I Am Legend, Hancock, and Men in Black 3 have made over $500 million. He's the only actor to have eight consecutive movies gross better than $100 million here in the U.S and ten straight pull in at least $150 million worldwide. That's not the only rapper/actor, the only actor, period. However, he’s managed to have some substance with all that style. He’s twice been nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars, for 2001’s Ali and 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness.

As always, feel free to let me know who I've left out.


  1. I did a similar post a long while back about the best performances by singers turned actors. It's a really cool idea, and I love that I haven't seen half of the movies you mention here! I really need to look into these movies more. Great post!

    1. Thanks. Mind you, I didn't quite say all of the movies are good. Not sure which you haven't seen, but some of the better ones mentioned are The Woodsman, Gridlock'd, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Fighter. I personally really like Juice & Poetic Justice, but they're definitely of the 90s 'hood flick era.

  2. I learn something new every day in the movie blog scene you know. I had NO idea Mark Wahlberg had a rap song! I'm loading up YouTube right as I type this...
    - Allie

    1. You missed the Marky Mark & the Funky Bunch era? The whole 10 minutes of it? How's that possible? (j/k) Hope you enjoy that video. C'mon, feel it, feel it!

  3. Damn fine list here. Love Smith in Happyness and Cube in Boyz. Not an Eminem fan? I've always loved 8 Mile.

    1. I actually love 8 Mile. I just based the list on each performers' body of work. As good as Eminent is in that movie IS couldn't let one flick trump some rather lengthy filmographies.

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