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20 Best Acting Performances From Rappers In Movies And TV Shows


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Summary

  • Rappers can deliver strong acting performances that rival those of more experienced actors, but some rap artists have risen above the pack.
  • TV shows provide opportunities for rappers to showcase their acting skills in semi-biographical or fictional roles, with standout performances
  • Rappers’ performances often play into their rap personas, adding depth and authenticity to their characters.

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Some of the best acting performances seen in movies and TV shows have come from recording rap artists aiming to showcase their range as artists. As such, viewers have seen many actors tell their own life stories, or the stories of other influential figures from various walks of life. Although there are some rappers that have turned to acting full-time, or at the very least, act more than they rap, many of the world’s most successful rappers are fully capable of delivering strong acting performances that sometimes rival the performances of their more experienced scene partners.

Additionally, TV has also proven successful for rappers wishing to expand their creative repertoire, as there are many TV shows that star rappers in either a semi-biographical context, or a purely fictional one. Although some rappers like Ice-T or LL Cool J make the transition from rapping to acting more smoothly than others, more often than not, rappers tend to be successful in their endeavors because of their popularity as musicians, going against type, or even playing into the mythos surrounding their rap persona. Whether in movies or TV, some of the best acting has come by way of rappers.

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20 RZA as Samurai Apocalypse – Californication (2012)

RZA’s Samurai Apocalypse is a self-reflexive version of himself.

RZA as Samurai Apocalypse in a scene from Californication.

Played by RZA, Samurai “Sam” Apocalypse is a popular rapper and businessman who appears in Californication‘s fifth season with the goal of expanding his business ventures. Chiefly among Sam’s priorities is developing his own version of Beverly Hills Cop, named Santa Monica Cop, which necessitates him seeking out the show’s writer protagonist Hank. Sam’s profession, zen-like demeanor, and large entourage all lovingly poke fun at the rapper, but RZA’s performance suggests that he’s in on the joke. As such, some of Californication‘s funniest moments stem from Sam’s interactions with David Duchovny’s Hank.

Californication

Release Date
August 13, 2007

Cast
David Duchovny , Madeleine Martin

Seasons
7

19 Fredro Starr as Marquis “Bird” Hilton – The Wire (2002 – 2003)

Bird is one of The Wire’s most memorable characters despite his limited screen time.

Fredro Starr as Bird in a scene from The Wire.

Although HBO’s The Wire doesn’t have a singular protagonist for audiences to latch onto throughout the crime drama’s six-year run, it still boasts some of the most compelling storytelling and writing ever committed to TV. The Wire centers around socioeconomic factors such as corruption in politics and law enforcement, drugs, and gang violence that contribute to the destruction of urban communities. As such, many different characters are introduced to audiences on the fly, with one of the best characters in The Wire being Marquis “Bird” Hilton, played by Fredro Starr.

Despite Bird only appearing in three episodes, Starr’s intensity and delivery typically seen and heard in his work with the hardcore rap group Onyx translates incredibly well into that of the morally dubious and fairly unintelligent Bird. Acting as one of notorious drug lord Avon Barksdale’s top enforcers, Bird is impulsive, often opting for violence to resolve issues, which leads to his arrest in The Wire‘s second season. However, despite his brief appearance, many of the events that lead to the downfall of Barksdale’s organization hinge on his carelessness, which highlights his importance to the overall framework of The Wire.

The Wire

Release Date
June 2, 2002

Seasons
5

18 DMX as Tommy “Buns / Bundy” Brown – Belly (1998)

DMX’s rap persona enhances the performances of his loose cannon hitman for hire character.

Directed by prolific music video director, Hype Williams, Belly sees rap legends DMX and Nas as the hitman duo Bundy and Sincere in a stylish and gritty story about loyalty, money, power, and greed. Supported by the performances of fellow rappers Nas and Method Man, the late DMX delivers a solid performance that essentially sees him play two characters over the course of the late 90s crime drama classic. Initially, DMX plays into his aggressive rap persona as the merciless hitman known to others as Bundy. However, after a near-death experience inside a church, he turns his life to Christ.

While Bundy’s reckless and erratic behavior more closely mimics the aesthetic of his rap persona, his decision to give his life to Christ and dedicate the rest of it to being a positive influence on the world is much more reminiscent to the late rapper’s real-life tragic story. Although Belly marks DMX’s feature-length debut, he tackles the character and subjects covered with a bravado that is not only magnetic and enthralling, but also somewhat self-reflexive. As such, DMX delivers a convincing and engaging performance that highlights many of the ills of an environment similar to Bundy and Sincere’s.

17 Snoop Dogg as “Big” John Elliott – Day Shift (2022)

“Big” John Elliott is one of Day Shift’s best vampire hunters.

Snoop Dogg as

Perhaps the greatest display of a rapper showcasing their range, Snoop Dogg stars alongside Jamie Foxx and Dave Franco in the Netflix horror action comedy, Day Shift, as the mysterious yet effective vampire hunter “Big” John Elliott. Replete with a cowboy hat and black leather duster that would fit Elliott right in with the likes of a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western, Elliott comes to the rescue when Foxx’s Bud nearly meets his early demise via vampire ambush. Although the role mostly sees Snoop Dogg portray his usual charm and swagger, it balances out the otherwise absurd and bloody vampire flick.

Day Shift

Release Date
August 12, 2022

Director
J.J. Perry

Cast
Scott Adkins , Snoop Dogg , Karla Souza , Dave Franco , Steve Howey , Jamie Foxx , Natasha Liu Bordizzo , Meagan Good

Runtime
114minutes

16 André 3000 as Jimi Hendrix – Jimi: All Is By My Side (2013)

André 3000’s depiction of Jimi Hendrix humanizes the otherwise deified musician.

André 3000 as Jimi Hendrix, Oliver Bennett as Noel Redding, and Tom Dunlea as Mitch Mitchell in Jimi: All Is by My Side.

Jimi: All Is by My Side sees the second half of Outkast, André 3000, take on the role of the legendary psychedelic rock musician, Jimi Hendrix, in a biographical drama that focuses on the late musician’s career between 1966 and 1967. Whereas most biographical films tend to deify their subjects, Jimi: All Is by My Side showcases Hendrix’s shortcomings in his personal life and how they influenced his music. André 3000’s sincere depiction of Hendrix not only showcases his range as an actor, but it sees the musician utilize his unique voice in a way that perfectly captures Hendrix’s spirit.

15 Ice-T as Jack Mason – Surviving the Game (1994)

Ice-T excels as a homeless man being hunted down by wealthy hunters.

Ice-T as Jack Mason glares at a taxidermy cheetah in Surviving the Game.

Although Ice-T is known primarily in the acting world for his performance as Detective/Sergeant Odafin “Fin” Tutuola in the long-running police procedural, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Ice-T also delivers a strong performance as a homeless man named Jack Mason in Surviving the Game. Loosely based on the 1924 Richard Connell short story, The Most Dangerous Game, Surviving the Game sees Ice-T’s Jack fighting for his life after being tricked into being the hunting prey of a group of wealthy hunters. While Ice-T’s usual machismo is on full display, his work as Jack excels largely because of his intelligence.

Using the forested environment to his advantage, Jack consistently remains one step ahead of his seasoned hunters in a story that not only speaks to the character’s intelligence, but to the human spirit as well. While Surviving the Game isn’t as well known as Ice-T’s work in the Law & Order franchise or New Jack City, it displays his range as his typical scowling presence is replaced by a man desperately trying to survive his macabre situation. Replete with supporting performances from the late Rutger Hauer, Gary Busey, and Charles S. Dutton, Ice-T holds his own in the underrated action thriller.

14 Big Boi as Marcus – ATL (2006)

Marcus’s relentlessness makes him one of the most effective villains in cinema history.

Big Boi as Marcus smiles while inside his vehicle in a scene from ATL.

ATL is a coming-of-age drama that centers around a group of friends enduring the hardships associated with growing up in a rough Atlanta, Georgia neighborhood. Although many rappers star or cameo in ATL, the film’s central antagonist, Marcus, played by one-half of the southern rap group Outkast’s Big Boi, delivers ATL‘s standout performance. Whereas most characters in the movie follow familiar tropes, Marcus is an interesting villain in that he originally starts the movie off as something of a mentor to the film’s adolescent protagonists – even going so far as to steer them away from selling drugs.

However, the deuteragonist and impressionable teenager Ant finds himself drawn to Marcus and the flashy lifestyle that a life of dealing drugs seems to provide the man. As such, Ant disregards Marcus’s warnings about the dangers associated with drug dealing to not only pursue the riches and status associated with it, but also prove his manhood to his friends. Big Boi’s Marcus is an effective villain because he exploits Ant’s hubris, which leads to many near-death experiences for the teen, while also displaying a completely different side of the legendary rapper’s creativity.

13 LL Cool J as Dwayne Keith “God” Gittens – In Too Deep (1999)

LL Cool J’s antagonist avoids common crime lord tropes.

LL Cool J as Dwayne Keith God Gittens stares at an off-screen Omar Epps as Reid in In Too Deep.

The late 90s crime thriller, In Too Deep, sees Omar Epps as undercover police officer Jeffrey “J. Reid” Cole as he arduously works to take down the ruthless crime lord, Dwayne Keith “God” Gittens, played by rap legend LL Cool J. Whereas most crime suffer from cartoonish portrayals by their actors, Dwayne is an effective presence as LL Cool J’s boyish charm and bachelor swagger paradoxically make him a more menacing and threatening presence throughout the movie. As such, he effortlessly switches between a charming gentleman and a ruthless leader, seemingly by the drop of a hat.

Dwayne’s volatile mental state not only keeps his subordinates and J. Reid on their toes, but it has a similar effect on audiences, as LL Cool J’s performance lulls everyone into a false sense of security before turning things on their own head. As the movie progresses and Dwayne’s paranoia regarding J. Reid’s possible status as an undercover cop grows, his behavior becomes organically becomes more erratic. Because of Dwayne’s growing paranoia, he exacts harsher methods of keeping his subordinates in line with increasingly brutal results that aids significantly in making LL Cool J disappear into his role.

12 Busta Rhymes as Dreads – Higher Learning (1995)

Busta Rhymes’ energized performance solidified him as a capable actor.

Busta Rhymes as Dreads yells in a scene from Higher Learning.

Higher Learning centers around the racial tension between Black and White students at Columbus University in John Singleton’s third feature-length film. With performances from Busta Rhymes and Ice Cube, Busta Rhymes outshines nearly everyone in the film with his highly energetic energy that’s usually on display in his music. Busta plays Dreads, a fellow student at Columbus University who, along with his Black roommates, endures a lot of racial prejudice from some of the White staff and student body. Nevertheless, Dreads maintains a positive and optimistic outlook and uses his energy to uplift his friends.

11 Cam’Ron as Rico – Paid in Full (2002)

Rico’s cunning and treachery make him one of the best villains in the crime drama genre.

Cam’ron plays Rico, a ruthless drug dealer who, along with his closest friends Ace and Mitch, is very prolific in the 1980s New York drug scene. Rico is based on Alpo Martinez, and Cam’ron’s delivery of the backstabbing criminal highlights the treacherous and bleak reality of living a life of crime. While some of the other dealers in Paid in Full demonstrate a sense of honor, Rico disregards it entirely when the police’s apprehension efforts close in on him and his outfit. Filled with strong performances, Cam’ron’s is arguably the most memorable because of his betrayal of his crew.

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10 Common as Cassian in John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

Cassian proves to be one of John Wick’s greatest opponents.

Common as Cassian aims a gun at an off-screen John Wick in John Wick: Chapter 2.

Common plays Cassian, a deadly assassin who is also the chief bodyguard of the Italian Camorra crime family’s Gianna in John Wick: Chapter 2. A man of silence, what Cassian lacks in conversational skills he more than makes up for in ability, as he is consistently portrayed as Wick’s most equal foe around the time of the movie’s release. Common’s work as Cassian is effective because the rapper’s music is centered around peace and love. However, Cassian is a remorseless killer, and his subway fight with Wick still remains one of the best moments in the John Wick franchise.

John Wick: Chapter 2

Release Date
February 10, 2017

Director
Chad Stahelski

Cast
John Leguizamo , Ian McShane , Thomas Sadoski , Common , Keanu Reeves , David Patrick Kelly , Lance Reddick , Laurence Fishburne , Ruby Rose , Peter Stormare , Bridget Moynahan

Runtime
2h 2m

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

Rita’s constant feuding with Whoopi Goldberg’s Sister Mary keeps the tension high.

Ms. Lauryn Hill as Rita Louise Watson in a scene from Sister Act II: Back in the Habit.

Ms. Lauryn Hill’s breakout role as the young and brash Rita Louise Watson, a Catholic student attending St. Francis Academy, is one of the film’s standout performances. As Rita, Hill demonstrates a boldness and magnetic charm that would go on to translate incredibly well into her rap career as both a member of The Fugees and as a solo artist. Initially, Rita starts the film off as a perpetually moody young woman, but after audiences learn about her upbringing and her feelings regarding her school’s pending closure, it highlights why she’s the way she is, while demonstrating Hill’s artistic range.

8 50 Cent as Marcus “Young Caesar” Greer – Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2005)

Young Caesar’s story perfectly mirrors 50 Cent’s.

Curtis 50 Cent Jackson as Marcus and Joy Bryant as Charlene in Get Rich or Die Tryin'.

50 Cent delivers a powerful performance in his feature-length film debut as Marcus “Young Caesar” Greer, a character loosely based on the rapper himself. After surviving an attempt on his life that sees Marcus getting shot nine times by a fellow drug dealer, he takes the near-death experience as a sign to turn over a new leaf and focus full-time on his music career. While one could argue that 50 Cent would have a significantly easier time essentially playing himself, his performance demonstrates a vulnerability and humanity rarely seen in the world of gangster rap.

7 Eminem as James “Jimmy” Smith Jr. / B-Rabbit – 8 Mile (2002)

B-Rabbit’s rags-to-riches rap story highlights the arduous nature of becoming a successful rapper.

Eminem as B-Rabbit sits on a bus in a scene from 8 Mile.

In a similar lane as 50 Cents’ Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Eminem’s 2002 semi-biographical film, 8 Mile centers around James “Jimmy” Smith Jr., better known as B-Rabbit, and the journey from a poor, blue-collar working man to one of the most successful and influential rappers of all time. Eminem’s debut performance showcases a humility and gentleness typically absent from his early music career which provides a greater sense of understanding regarding Eminem’s real-life story. 8 Mile also highlights the particularly tough road many walk in pursuit of achieving mainstream success as a rapper.

8 Mile

Release Date
November 8, 2002

Director
Curtis Hanson

Runtime
110 minutes

6 Method Man as Davis MacLean in Power Book II: Ghost (2020 – Present)

Davis constantly keeps the tension and suspense high by satisfying his own interests over everyone else’s.

Although Method Man has portrayed a full spectrum of roles throughout his acting career, ranging from criminals to self-reflexive versions of himself, Davis MacLean is perhaps his most versatile character to date. As a criminal turned criminal defense attorney, Davis still maintains the grit and edge one would cultivate from a life on the streets while blending it with the discipline and acumen necessary to becoming a successful lawyer. Method Man’s commanding screen presence combined with his smooth delivery of each of his lines not only makes Davis undeniably complex, but it speaks to Method Man’s command of his craft.

5 Queen Latifah as Cleopatra “Cleo” Sims – Set It Off (1996)

Cleo’s unstable mental state keeps the tension high throughout the film’s runtime.

Queen Latifah as Cleo in a scene from Set If Off.

Known primarily for her conscious rap career and starring role in the underrated sitcom, Living Single as Khadijah James, Queen Latifah excels in her role as the borderline sociopathic criminal, Cleopatra “Cleo” Sims in F. Gary Gray’s mid-90s crime drama, Set It Off. Rife with strong performances by Vivica A. Fox and Jada Pinkett, Latifah stands out the most as Cleo’s misguided sense of honor makes her a perpetually volatile force of nature. Perhaps because of her image as a conscious rapper beforehand, Latifah outshines her scene partners by demonstrating the harsh impact a rough upbringing can have on people.

4 Yasiin Bey as Vivien Thomas – Something the Lord Made (2004)

Bey’s performance as Vivien Thomas highlights the power of perseverance through insurmountable challenges.

Yasiin Bey as Vivien Thomas in a scene from Something the Lord Made.

Yasiin Bey’s performance as Dr. Vivien Thomas shines as one of the best in the rapper-actor’s career, and Bey’s portrayal of the real-life heart surgeon highlights the multifaceted nature of his creativity. Starring alongside the late Alan Rickman, Bey’s performance as the meek yet determined Dr. Thomas not only demonstrates the pioneering medical professional’s brilliance, but his tack with combating racism speaks volumes to his character as well. While Bey has acted in movies since the late 1980s, his work in the 2004 biographical drama remains a standout in his acting career.

3 Donald Glover as Earnest “Earn” Marks – Atlanta (2016 – 2022)

Glover’s performance exposes audiences to the multifaceted nature of being a Black man in America.

Created by, co-written, and co-directed by Donald Glover, Atlanta sees Glover as Earnest “Earn” Marks, a brilliant yet lazy young man navigating his personal relationships while also trying to establish himself in the music industry. Although Glover’s work on the hit comedy series, Community, perfectly demonstrates the actor-rapper’s excellent comedic chops, his performance as Earn outshines it because it highlights the nuanced experience of being Black in America as it relates to both one’s interactions with Black and non-Black people. Infused with absurd, surreal, and horror elements, Glover grounds the show with his performance.

Atlanta

Release Date
September 6, 2016

Seasons
4

2 Ice Cube as Doughboy – Boyz in the Hood (1991)

Ice Cube’s breakout performance as Doughboy is the heart of John Singleton’s debut film.

Ice Cube as Doughboy in a scene from Boyz in the Hood.

Although O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson has developed a strong reputation as one of Hollywood’s best rapper-actors, his breakout role came in the 1991 John Singleton classic drama, Boyz in the Hood, as the iconic Doughboy. Based partially on the people Ice Cube grew up around, Doughboy is brash and outspoken, often speaking up on behalf of his significantly less confident friends and peers. While Doughboy very easily could have been a generic and flat character, Ice Cube’s authentic representation of the often disregarded people like Doughboy, helps highlight many issues in urban communities.

Moreover, Ice Cube’s performance as Doughboy addresses an oft-neglected issue in many Black households, especially for its time, and that’s problems relating to Black masculinity. While Doughboy remains one of the most prominent figures in cinematic history because of Ice Cube’s star-making performance, his monologue at the film’s climax regarding society’s impact on his behavior perfectly tackles the issues in the community without feeling preachy or insincere. Ice Cube’s acting career has taken off since Boyz in the Hood, but the empathy expressed in his monologue solidifies itself as one of his best.

1 Tupac Shakur as Roland Bishop – Juice (1992)

Bishop’s manipulative and controlling mindset makes him one of the best movie villains.

Tupac Shakur as Roland Bishop aims a gun at an off-screen Omar Epps as Quincy Q Powell in Juice.

Despite Tupac Shakur’s untimely demise in 1996, he successfully developed an impressive acting career that consists of supporting and starring roles in movies such as Poetic Justice, Abov the Rim, Bullet, and Gridlock’d. However, his star-making turn as Juice‘s Roland Bishop not only serves as the best acting performance of his career, but is also arguably the best performance from a rapper in a movie. Even though star Omar Epps delivers a strong and convincing performance throughout the film, Shakur’s intensity and charisma make his Bishop one of the most effective villains in cinematic history.

Bishop’s speech to Epps’ Q inside their school’s hallway is iconic, but the brief scenes of Bishop’s home life and Shakur’s body language speak to his ability as a thespian. Bishop’s awkward interactions with his near-comatose father highlight the negative impact that the lack of a proper father figure can have on young men, particularly young men of color. While the scenes don’t justify Bishop’s actions, they explain them, and given the lengths Shakur’s Bishop goes through to maintain his misconstrued sense of manhood, it remains the best rapper performance delivered in one of the best movies ever made.

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