From 'Notorious' to '...Compton:' Ranking Rap Biopic Performances
By Stereo Williams
The biopic is a Hollywood staple. Some may deride its cliched storytelling, predictable format, and tendency towards sentimentality (revision?), but we love seeing icons' life stories reimagined on the big screen. For several years now, Hip-Hop legends have been getting the biopic treatment, and with more on the horizon (there have been whispers of a Run-D.M.C. movie for years and Salt-N-Pepa's story is slated to hit Lifetime in 2021), it's as good a time as any to rank some of the most memorable rap biopic performances.
Jarrett Ellis as Snoop Dogg (All Eyez On Me)
Snoop Dogg hasn't been the subject of his own major biopic as of yet, but the Doggfather has been a major player in so many other Hip-Hop stars' biopics. An early breakout role for Lakeith Stanfield was playing Snoop in the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, and there was an uncredited Snoop appearance in the Biggie story Notorious. But the most memorable Snoop performance is also it's most bizarre: Jarrett Ellis played the rap icon in the 2Pac flick All Eyez On Me, with his speaking voice strangely dubbed over by Snoop himself.
Naturi Naughton as Lil Kim (Notorious)
Before she was Tasha St. Patrick, Naturi Naughton was a former teen pop star looking to establish herself as a serious actress. She got her chance with a major role as the Queen Bee herself in the 2008 Notorious B.I.G. biopic. Of course, Naturi's casting quickly became the subject of controversy, as Lil Kim herself denounced the portrayal and Naughton's choice. Regardless, the role helped Naturi re-brand herself as an edgy actress, and set the stage for her star-turn as Tasha on 50 Cent's hit crime drama Power.
Romany Malco as MC Hammer (Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story)
If anyone's life and career was perfect for biopic treatment, it's the rags-to-riches-to-ridicule story of MC Hammer. And in 2001, VH1 decided to bring that story to the small screen. Enter then-unknown Romany Malco. The former dancer/rapper landed his first major role playing none other than the fleet-footed rhymer from Oakland. The movie wasn't exactly a major television event, but Malco would go on to star on Showtime's Weeds and in hit movies like 40 Year Old Virgin.
R. Marcos Taylor as Suge Knight (Straight Outta Compton, Surviving Compton: Dre, Suge & Michel'le)
He was so believable as imposing Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight, that they cast him to play the notorious mogul twice. R. Marcos Taylor landed his first big break playing Suge in Straight Outta Compton, then once again grabbed the big cigar to play Knight in the Michel'le biopic Surviving Comptona year later. In a strange twist, Taylor would wind up arrested for assault in 2017; leading fans to speculate that he was taking the Suge role a little too seriously.
Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre (Straight Outta Compton)
The legendary superproducer (and film's executive producer) tapped Hawkins to portray him on the big screen, and Hawkins' performance is the centerpiece of the blockbuster N.W.A. biopic. Hawkins' portrays Dre as an angry creative, hell-bent on getting out of Compton by any means necessary.
Mamoudou Athie as Grandmaster Flash (The Get Down)
Baz Luhrmann's ambitious and gaudy take on the early days of Hip-Hop received mixed reviews and only lasted one season on Netflix, but the musical melodrama did yield some memorable moments and performances. Not the least of which was Athie's turn as legendary turntablist Flash. He serves as a sort of spirit guide for the young kids partying in the Bronx, and injects a ton of soul into the overall story.
Rhyon Nicole Brown as Michel'le (Surviving Compton: Dre, Suge & Michel'le)
Michel'le isn't a rapper, obviously, but as the First Lady of Ruthless Records, she holds a signifiant place in Hip-Hop history. The pain of that place was front-and-center in this Lifetime look at her tumultuous career and toxic relationships with legendary rapper/producer Dr. Dre and Death Row CEO Suge Knight. Abuse, betrayal and survival are key themes and Brown pulls it all off admirably. Tough to stomach, impossible to ignore.
O'Shea Jackson, Jr. as Ice Cube (Straight Outta Compton)
Being cast to play your dad may elicit cries of nepotism, but don't sleep on how challenging it must've been to step into the black baseball cap of one of the most famous rappers of all time. That's what makes O'Shea, Jr's portrayal of his iconic father so cool: of course, he looks like Ice Cube, but he also effectively captures the nuances of the role. And it set the stage for a strong acting career that now includes appearances in Godzilla and Just Mercy.
Chanté Adams as Roxanne Shante (Roxanne, Roxanne)
Hip-Hop's first solo female star would get Hip-Hop's first female-led biopic in 2017, when newcomer Adams was cast to play Queensbridge legend Roxanne Shante. Chronicling a hardscrabble story of life and career, for Adams, capturing the brashness and vulnerability of the teenaged Shante was no easy task, but the actress' performance earned raves, including a Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Performance at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017.
Jamal Woolard as The Notorious B.I.G. (Notorious, All Eyez On Me)
Casting a figure as formidable as Biggie couldn't have been an easy task, but the producers of this 2008 Christopher Wallace biopic landed a pretty remarkable performer in Woolard. The movie itself may have recieved mixed reviews, but Woolard effectively captured Biggie's persona. And he showed up to play the late Frank White again, in 2016s 2Pac biopic All Eyez On Me.
Demetrius Shipp, Jr. as 2Pac (All Eyez On Me)
For many years, producers, directors and actors clamored for a Tupac Shakur film; with many fans believing that it would be impossible to cast the legendary icon correctly. Enter Demetrius Shipp, Jr; a young thespian with a remarkable resemblance to Pac. Director Benny Boom's take on Shakur's story left many critics cold, (the film had a troubled production history for years), but Shipp's performance was recognized for doing what many thought was impossible.
Lil Mama as Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes (Crazy Sexy Cool)
The world had no idea what to expect when Lil Mama was announced as the late Left Eye in the then-upcoming TLC biopic. When Crazy Sexy Cool premiered on VH1 in 2014, fans were blown away by the rapper's acting chops. She effectively captured Left Eye's fiery persona and her emotional vulnerability. It was a performance that had some sounding the alarm for an Emmy nomination.
Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E (Straight Outta Compton)
His performance as the Godfather of Gangsta Rap was the emotional center of the blockbuster N.W.A. biopic, and Jason Mitchell got to show his full range portraying the late Eric Wright. The movie's success put a huge spotlight on Mitchell, who landed enviable roles in projects like Mudbound on Netflix and Showtime's The Chi. Subsequent controversies have put his career in limbo, but this was the performance that made him one of the more talked-about young actors in Hollywood.