Straight Outta Compton, a film about the rise of controversial hip hop group NWA, is garnering good reviews ahead of its release this Friday. The decision to cast the role of Ice Cube, the influential gangster rapper at the heart of the film, with his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., is one of the more interesting casting choices in the film. Just like his father – who has acted in dramas (Boyz N The Hood), comedies (the Friday series), and – paradoxically for a gangster rapper – family movies (Are We There Yet?) over the course of a three-decade career – Jackson Jr. has also straddled the line between rapper and actor. Prior to the release of Straight Outta Compton, Jackson released a mixtape under the name OMG and even spit a few verses on his father’s last album.
Many eminent figures in the world of hip-hop have expanded their careers by coming out from behind the mic and getting in front of the camera. Sometimes they’ve failed – does anyone remember Vanilla Ice in Cool as Ice? – But there are a few who have the talent to effectively pull of convincing performances despite the fact that they have a well-known persona off the big screen. These rare gems have harnessed their personal struggles to create authentic, memorable performances. While some of these performances have garnered the attention of the Academy Awards, all have rightly earned the respect of fellow Hollywood actors, critics, and viewers alike. Here is our list of the 10 best performances by rappers-turned-actors.
Chris “Ludacris” Bridges – Crash
Controversial yet critically acclaimed, Crash put Chris Bridges – better known as Ludacris – on the map as a significant actor in Hollywood. Bridges plays Anthony in Crash, a young black man living in Los Angeles and pursuing a life of crime. This role is a far leap from his debut role as Tej alongside Paul Walker in 2 Fast 2 Furious. Bridges is serious, thoughtful and introspective, constantly trying to explain why he doesn’t fall into the black male thug stereotype (despite being a criminal). The role was surprising to many fans, considering that Ludacris is known for his irreverant persona.
Ice-T – New Jack City
Ice-T has made a living for the greater part of his career by playing a cop on both the big and small screens. Pretty ironic for someone who made a song called “Cop Killer.”
Before playing a detective in Law & Order: SVU, Ice-T played undercover police officer Scotty Appleton in New Jack City. Having limited acting experience, Ice-T was approached by director Mario Van Peebles to play the role while partying in a club in 1990. Ice-T accepted, but later confessed that he was nervous about taking on the role, due to his own reputation as a gangster rapper. Hesitations aside, Ice-T is effortlessly convincing as he vows to bring down the film’s crime lord protagonist Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes). While Ice-T’s character has the qualities of many other good-cop personas, his debut presence on the big screen bought nuance to the character, and critics found him to be commanding and authentic.
Mos Def – 16 Blocks
Yasiin Bey (better known by Mos Def, his former stage name) began his career as an actor, but he’s better known for his output as a politically-oriented alternative hip hop artist. After gaining fame as a rapper, he began getting bigger roles in film and television, even getting nominated for a Golden Globe for his work on the HBO film Something the Lord Made. His character acting has also translated well on the big screen, most notably in 16 Blocks.
In 16 Blocks, Mos Def plays a convict with information about crimes committed by eminent police offers. While the film received sub-par reviews, there’s no denying the entertaining chemistry between Mos Def and Bruce Willis. In order to give his character authenticity, Mos Def changed the inflection of his voice to align with his criminal past. Kudos has to be given for a performance that’s completely unexpected in this type of action movie.
André Benjamin – All is By My Side
André Benjamin, best known by the name André 3000, one half of the hip hop duo Outkast, put forth a notable performance as Jimi Hendrix in All Is By My Side. In this biopic, Benjamin portrays the rock icon from the time he leaves New York for London, where his career took off.
The film has caused controversy, as several of Hendrix’s friends have criticized it for being largely fictitious. Fictitious or not, Benjamin’s performance is raw and authentic. To prepare for the role, he played a left-handed guitar for six hours a day, studied Hendrix interviews, and lost 20 pounds to match Hendrix’s skinny frame. Additionally, he spent a copious amount of time listening to audio of Jimi in order to perfectly capture his rhythm and inflections of speech. Benjamin’s portrayal of Hendrix is subtle yet convincing, and the thoughtfulness he put into the character deserves to be recognized.
Queen Latifah –Chicago
Queen Latifah made her mark in hip hop by rapping about the issues faced by black women, including domestic violence, harassment and relationship problems. She has long been considered one of hip hop’s strongest feminists. Her strength and dominance translated well into film with roles in films like Set it Off and Chicago.
What sets Queen Latifah apart in Chicago is how commanding she is on screen as Big Mama. Her confidence oozes when she belts out “When You’re Good to Mama,” and she asserts herself as THE authority in the movie. The musical theater genre is no easy feat to accomplish successfully on the big screen, and Queen Latifah made her mark in Chicago, which also led to a future role in the film version of the musical Hairspray. Queen Latifah received accolades for her performance as Big Mama, including Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actress.
Mark Wahlberg – The Fighter
It’s not easy to be respected as an actor when you don the name Marky Mark (leader of the Funky Bunch) and make a fool out of yourself for half a decade, but Mark Wahlberg’s breakout performance in Boogie Nights proved that he was force to be reckoned with onscreen.
Wahlberg has had strong performances over the years, but The Fighter stands out because it showcases his thoughtfulness and restraint. Walhberg’s performance drew heavily from his own working-class Boston upbringing, but his character focused on positive growth as transformation. This is a drastic difference from Wahlberg’s early days, which were riddled debauchery and criminal activity. Some critics deem that Wahlberg was outdone by Christian Bale’s performance, but the dynamic wouldn’t have been as effective without Wahlberg’s subtlety. Wahlberg didn’t win an Oscar like Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, but he delivered a strong performance regardless.
Will Smith – The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Will Smith, the “OG” of the rapper-turned-actor phenomena, has proven over the past two decades that he has some serious acting chops. Smith’s charm, humor, and bigger-than-life personality shine in blockbuster franchises like Bad Boys and Men in Black. His serious side has also garnered attention in films like Six Degrees of Separation, Ali and I Am Legend.
While The Fresh Prince has had many noteworthy performances over the years, his best was in The Pursuit of Happyness. This film is based on the real-life story of Chris Gardner, a struggling salesman and single parent who is determined to provide for his son. Smith starred alongside his son Jaden to deliver one of his most vulnerable performances to date. His desperation and determination to survive was authentic and moving. Viewers felt the anguish when he gave his last $5 to his boss to pay for cab fare. There’s also no denying the desperation the audience felt when his character spent the night on the bathroom floor of a train station with his son.
Eminem – 8 Mile
In 8 Mile, Eminem plays “B-Rabbit,” a young blue-collar worker who struggles with various aspects of his life. Eminem’s performance as Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith Jr. is authentic, in part because it reflects Eminem’s emotional journey of gaining the confidence to become a rapper himself. Eminem has acknowledged in his lyrics that he’s a white man playing in a black man’s field. The ability to admit his weakness is what makes both Eminem and his character Rabbit believable and endearing.
Eminem displays a great range of emotion throughout the course of the film. At times he is soft and tender, and other times he behaves like a homicidal maniac. Eminem garnered much critical acclaim at the time of the film’s release for his ability to bring such emotional depth to his first role. From beginning to end, Eminem makes us root for his character. Even though he gets knocked down quickly in his first battle, he doesn’t throw in the towel. In the end, he gets back in the ring and knocks out the defending champion.
Ice Cube – Boyz N The Hood
Boyz N The Hood was Ice Cube’s first movie. It follows the fate of three inner-city kids – Ricky (Morris Chestnut), Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.), and Doughboy, growing up in the South Central area of Los Angeles. Boyz N The Hood is a thoughtful and realistic look at the struggles kids face growing up in the hood. Ice Cube’s portrayal of Darrin “Doughboy” Baker stands out because of the hopelessness and fatalism he brings to it. Doughboy is the product of his situation – he deals drugs, drinks, and is a gang banger because he has no other choice.
Ice Cube delivers the most poignant line in the film after his half-brother is killed by the Bloods gang: “Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.” Ice Cube’s harrowing performance makes us believe that he is resigned to a fate that’s never fully been in his control.
Tupac Shakur – Juice (1992)
Tupac “2Pac” Shakur’s film career was short, but he received praise from critics for several authentic performances in the ’90s. His role as Bishop in Juice particularly stands out because of his realism in portraying a certified psychopath. He loses his humanity over the course of the film through his pursuit of power, i.e. the “juice.” Shakur was so convincing in the film that it had viewers wondering how much of the real Tupac Shakur was in his character.
The role took critics by surprise, as it was a notable departure from the rapper that the world had come to know through more positive songs like “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” Some believe that after Juice, Shakur took on the persona of the fictional and troublesome Bishop, and as a result his life experienced a downward spiral that ended with his death in 1996. Juice co-star Treach disagrees and affirms that Bishop didn’t make Shakur; Shakur made Bishop. There’s no question that Shakur made his mark in film history with his chilling performance in Juice.