A couple weeks ago, I announced my Top 5 in the game right now. Not favorite 5 or hottest 5, but top 5 coming with consistent product after consistent product. My list was as follows:

  1. Rick Ross
  2. Kanye
  3. J. Cole
  4. Pusha T
  5. Jay Electronica

Kendrick Lamar gets the honorable mention. Again, this is not a hottest list or one that has anything to do with buzz — which is why Jay Elec is on here, because everything he’s put out is consistently stellar. Surprisingly, though, it seemed like a couple people scratched their heads at my Ross selection. If it was a top-5 hip-hop artists list, Kanye would be my number 1. But top 5 rappers, Ross is hands-down at the top of the list (not including Black Thought, who’s in a league of his own). Here’s why:

It’s easy to hate Ross ’cause of the CO business. But if we look at how he’s bounced back, that actually only strengthens his case. The best way to come back from public humiliation is, in any field — look at Mike Vick, Big Ben, etc. — is to perform. And he did.

Quite simply, Ross is bodying the game right now. In this new era of hip-hop, one of transition, confusion, trying to figure out how to best capitalize on the internet and still make money, Ross has figured it out better than anyone else.

First and foremost, Ross is the best rapper in the game. Lyrical content notwithstanding, he’s mastered the art of rapping like few others. His flow is impeccable. I’ve said before, Ross could rap the ABC’s and it would sound straight. His voice, cadences (and beat selection) are perfect matches. I dare someone to find me a Ross verse that he didn’t body or at least flow the shit out of. He’s the best rapper in the game.

And he’s done the best job of exemplifying that. His viral game is crazy. Every week, for the past couple years — certainly since Deeper Than Rap — there is some kind of Ross video on WorldStar, OnSmash, NahRight, you name it. He keeps his name buzzing on the net. Videos for everything: album singles, arbitrary album cuts, mixtape tracks, Triple C’s, him at All-Star Weekend, the Super Bowl, etc. And somehow, he manages not to come off like Wayne circa ’06-’08, avoiding the dreadful allegation of over-saturation. This new age of hip-hop is based on visuals maybe even more than audio, and Ross has done a great job striking the perfect medium between the two.

Because underneath all the videos is the actual product. If there’s no video, there’s a feature or a mixtape, and in between it all have been some damn good albums. I was sold after Trilla. It took others longer. By now, it’s undeniable. Three debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, three gold albums. And on them, he paints pictures. Fictional or not, they’re vivid images, something that many artists fail to do even by the end of their careers. When he raps, you see a — not his — whole persona come to life, like a director developing a character in a movie.

And again, it’s never saturation. All this from a guy who many would have figured to be a 1-hit wonder with “Hustlin'”. Continuing to elevate himself in the game, and further proving his perfection of it, he’s gone from a major label artist to having his own imprint — Maybach Music Group — signing other buzzing artists, such as Wale, Pill and Meek Mill.

Where he stands all-time, against history is an entirely different story. To be sure, he’s still a tier (or two) below the Jay-Z’s and Diddy’s and 50 Cent’s. He’s not an immediately recognizable figure in the mainstream yet. (I know this because he was sitting courtside at a Heat game with Diddy. The ESPN guys knew Diddy and had no clue who Ross was.)

But here in 2011, in this new and still-evolving game called hip-hop, Ross knows the rules and knows how to play within them. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.