Hip-hop has never been a dominant force when it comes to romance. It’s a genre built on being tough and lyrically slick, and as such, songs that deal with the opposite sex typically revolve around just that: sex. Anyone talking that love stuff should either go in for some R&B or risk looking like a chump in front of their crew. It wasn’t until LL Cool J’s 1987 hit “I Need Love” that this romantic seal was breached, but even then, truly great love songs in the genre have been hard to come by.
Heavy has decided to do some digging and unearth this rare strand of hip-hop. Nevermind the brags and flashy beats, these songs are all about the joy and happiness that’s brought on by one’s better half. So cozy up and enjoy our Top 10 Best Hip-Hop Love Songs.
1. “Put It On Me” (2000), Ja Rule featuring Vita
Before 50 Cent derailed his career, Ja Rule was the go-to guy for thug-love anthems. His growling delivery and tough image were a perfect foil to the R&B sounds of singers like Vita and Ashanti, and nowhere did recipe work better than on the 2000 single “Put It On Me.” The lyrics for the song were inspired by an actual argument that Ja Rule had with his wife, and out of that experience came the rapper’s desire to express just how much she meant to him. It didn’t hurt, of course, that it came with a chorus that was so catchy it inspired an entire generation to perfect their Ja Rule impressions.
The song was Ja Rule’s first top ten hit on the Billboard Hot 100, and today, it stands as one of the most beloved rap hits of early 2000s. Ja may have become an easy target for mockery, but there’s no denying the influence he had, with this song especially, on the subsequent generations of artists. Thug-loving doesn’t get much more sincere than “I only think about you!”
Learn more about “Put It On Me” here.
Learn more about Ja Rule here.
Read the lyrics for “Put It On Me” here.
2. “Teenage Love” (1988), Slick Rick
The original rap love story, told by one of the genre’s greatest storytellers: Slick Rick. The eye-patched emcee became a star with his 1988 album The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, and the bittersweet “Teenage Love” was a big reason why. The song tells of a relationship between two young teens who fall in love. Rick’s description perfectly captures the euphoria of being head over heels, from hand-holding and phone calls to the pride of showing off your significant other in public.
As the song progresses, however, the purpose of the refrain “don’t hurt me again” comes into focus. Quirks turn into annoyances, trust turns into lies, and plans for the future come undone through cheating. Like his most famous song, “Children’s Story“, Slick Rick uses the narrative to teach the listener a lesson: even when love goes wrong, stay strong, and remember that you’ll find the right one someday. Thanks, Uncle Ricky.
Learn more about “Teenage Love” here.
Learn more about Slick Rick here.
Read the lyrics for “Teenage Love” here.
3. “Best I Ever Had” (2009), Drake
In 2009, Drake was more famous for playing Jimmy Brooks on Degrassi than he was for his music. All that changed, however, with the release of So Far Gone, the juggernaut mixtape that turned Drake into a star and earned him a Grammy nomination before he was even signed to a major label. “Best I Ever Had” was the mixtape’s defining song, an ode to “that special somebody” who makes you want to share the last slice of pizza and whistle the Andy Griffith theme song. More carnal in spots than some of the other entries, “Best I Ever Had” also had the detriment of a lousy music video– one which Drake very nearly squashed the goodwill he accumulated with his female fanbase.
Still, as a standalone song, “Best I Ever Had” is a Valentine’s Day must. Drake has since gone on to become the most romantic rapper since LL Cool J, with hits like “Find Your Love” and “Hold On, We’re Going Home“, but fans will always hold a special place in their hearts for the bouncy “Best I Ever Had.” Bonus points for this gem of pick-up line: “Sweat pants, hair tied, chillin’ with no make-up on/That’s when you’re the prettiest, I hope that you don’t take it wrong.”
Learn more about “Best I Ever Had” here.
Learn more about Drake here.
Read the lyrics for “Best I Ever Had” here.
4. “Dilemma” (2002), Nelly featuring Kelly Rowland
When Nelly wasn’t telling people people to disrobe in “Hot In Herre“, he was faced with a far more difficult, and meaningful task on the Kelly Rowland duet “Dilemma.” As a last minute addition to his 2002 album Nellyville, the song details the rapper’s forbidden love for a female character, voiced by Rowland. She is in a committed relationship, and the two must decide whether they should stay friends or give into their passions. Lyrics like “no matter what I do, all I think about is you”, speak directly to the struggle and heartbreak they endure, while the wistful Patti LaBelle sample serves as the cherry on top.
“Dilemma” was a thematic departure for Nelly, and it proved a beneficial one, as it won a Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration and topped Billboard charts all around the world. To date, it is Nelly’s most successful single. Don’t let the spreadsheet memes deter you, this is a romantic hip-hop staple.
Learn more about “Dilemma” here.
Learn more about Nelly here.
Read the lyrics for “Dilemma” here.
5. “Bonita Applebum” (1990), A Tribe Called Quest
This classic from A Tribe Called Quest’s debut People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990) is hip-hop’s most playful pick-up song. Over a bed of buttery soul samples, rapper Q-Tip approaches the titular “Bonita” with nothing but sex on the brain. But unlike the vulgar content that’s given the genre its crass reputation, Tip opts for the gentlemanly approach. He charms Bonita with his wit and cheeky wordplay, complimenting her “elaborate eyes” and, in perhaps the cutest example ever of backside flattery, the perfect fruit-shape of her “derriere.”
According to industry lore, “Bonita Applebum” was based on an actual girl who attended New York City’s Murray Bergtraum High School For Business Careers alongside the members of A Tribe Called Quest. Whether or not this is true, it goes without saying that the song is a staple for both hip-hop romantics and those who just want to get put on.
Learn more about “Bonita Appelbum” here.
Learn more about A Tribe Called Quest here.
Read the lyrics for “Bonita Applebum” here.
6. “21 Questions” (2003), 50 Cent featuring Nate Dogg
Few artists define the thug persona more thoroughly than 50 Cent. The New Yorker burst onto the scene in 2003, with a well-documented history of violence, gang affiliation, and drug dealing. So when he released the sappy “21 Questions” as the second single off his debut album Get Rich or Die Tryin’, rap fans were justifiably confused. According to 50 Cent, producer Dr. Dre was particularly critical of the song, asking the rapper “how you goin’ to be gangsta this and that and put this sappy love song on?”
Wisely, 50 Cent went with his instincts, and ended up scoring his second number one single on the Billboard Hot 100. In addition to Nate Dogg’s effortlessly catchy hook, 50 offers some of the most sincere lyrics of his career, with questions like “If I wrote you a love letter would you write back?” and “could I count on you to be there to support me mentally?” Of course, the line that’ll forever take the cake is the incredibly silly claim: “I love you like a fat kid loves cake.”
Learn more about “21 Questions” here.
Learn more about 50 Cent here.
Read the lyrics for “21 Questions” here.
7. “The Light” (2000), Common
Common’s relationship with hip-hop and love dates back to 1994, when he penned the seminal classic “I Used to Love H.E.R.” But seeing as that song was a metaphor for the culture and not an actual person, we’ve decided to give the nod to this beautiful tune from Common’s 2000 album Like Water for Chocolate. Framed as a love letter, “The Light” finds the rapper proclaiming his love for a woman– specifically, his girlfriend at the time, neo-soul singer Erykah Badu.
It was one of those songs that when you’re really pouring out heart, its just coming from your soul,” Common said in an interview with Complex. “I just had to let the truth come out.” “The Light” went on to receive a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rap Solo Performance in 2001. Still, it is J Dilla’s iconic sample of Bobby Caldwell that best captures the song’s timeless feel: “there is a light that shines, special for you and me.”
Learn more about “The Light” here.
Learn more about Common here.
Read the lyrics for “The Light” here.
8. “I Need Love” (1987), LL Cool J
There’s no getting around this one. LL’s opening bars to “I Need Love” are some of the most quoted in all of hip-hop: “When I’m alone in my room sometimes I stare at the wall, and in the back of my mind I hear my conscience call.” From there, the Queens rapper embarks on a journey to find “the warmth that is created by a girl and boy”, and he’s willing to do anything, including lay his jacket over a puddle and pull out seats, to do so. The song was a surprise hit, crossing over to the Billboard Hot 100 (it peaked at #14) and introducing the world to romantic LL, a persona that would come to be the rapper’s calling card.
LL Cool J‘s career has enough sensual sparks to fill his own Valentine’s Day list, with classics like “Hey Lover“, “Loungin’ (Who Do Ya Luv)“, and “Luv U Better.” Still, it is “I Need Love”, with its naive, unapologetic sweetness, that remains the OG standard for all rap ballads. Without it, most every other song on this list would cease to exist.
Learn more about “I Need Love” here.
Learn more about LL Cool J here.
Read the lyrics for “I Need Love” here.
9. “Passin’ Me By” (1992), The Pharcyde
Not everyone is lucky enough to be in a relationship on Valentine’s Day, and for those listeners, we present “Passin’ Me By”, the lovelorn classic from California quartet The Pharcyde. In an era dominated by gangsta rap like N.W.A. and Cypress Hill, The Pharcyde provided a breath of fresh air, waxing poetic about their secret crushes, even if they know they didn’t stand a chance.
Over a crackling Quincy Jones sample, rappers Bootie Brown, SlimKid3, Imani, and Fatlip give a voice to every guy who was too nervous to make a move. Bootie Brown pines for his teacher, SlimKid3 reminiscences over his first girlfriend, Imami feens over a girl who’s already taken, and Fatlip, who brings it home in the achingly sad chorus, raps about carrying a torch for a girl who doesn’t even know he exists. Equal parts relatable and melancholy, “Passin’ Me By” is the national anthem for unrequited love.
Learn more about “Passin’ Me By” here.
Learn more about The Pharcyde here.
Read the lyrics for “Passin’ Me By” here.
10. “I’ll Be There for You / You’re All I Need” (1995), Method Man featuring Mary J. Blige
The original version of “You’re All I Need” was a solid track off Method Man’s debut Tical (1994), but it wasn’t until he linked up with Mary J. Blige for the remix that it became the legendary song that it is today. Pulling a pair of wildly different samples, one from Motown singer Tammi Terrell and the other from Biggie Smalls, the song finds a perfect balance between romance and rap authenticity. Method Man refuses to pander to his girl, treating her like an equal and thanking her for sticking around “even when the skies were grey.”
Moreso than lust, or sexual desire, there is respect, and appreciation for the other person as a whole– a true rarity in the genre. “Nothin’ make a man feel better than a woman,” is arguably one of the most truthful lyrics ever written, rap or otherwise. With Blige’s powerhouse vocals and a thumping beat thrown into the mix, this 1995 classic is the quintessential hip-hop love song. It’s a reminder not to just love the person you’re with, but to support and celebrate them as well.
Learn more about “I’ll Be There for You / You’re All I Need” here.
Learn more about Method Man here.
Read the lyrics for “I’ll Be There for You / You’re All I Need” here.