For many years now, the mixtape has been essential to hip-hop and music in general. Love-song collections made by drooling admirers aside, mixtapes are a quick, easy, and cheap way of getting your name out there. If you have been to a hip-hop show, you know this better than anyone. I know I’m not the only person to dodge a flying CD thrown by a local opening act. How about the guy who doesn’t even perform but has a box full of free mixtapes? Yeah, we all know ‘em and, unfortunately, their (pushy) enthusiasm ends up overshadowing whatever might be on the disc you just received. And on the web, it’s even worse. With sites like zSHARE and MegaUpload, artists have free reign over uploading their latest mix and sending it over to the endless number of music blogs. But, thankfully, there are always the few that shine through and make wading the sea of trash worth your time, like Clipse’s We Got It 4 Cheap series and Wale’s breakthrough Mixtape About Nothing. And, as of last December, we have another to add to the list in Novel’s topnotch 808s & Mixtapes.
Novel, who you may know from his 2003 hit “Peach”, was once part of the underground Rawkus Records movement. But, most likely due to shady music business bullshit, he never got the attention he deserved. A smooth crooner who can also spit with some of the best, he possesses one of the finest one-two punches heard in years. And with 808s & Mixtapes, he lays it all on the line. While it’s essentially a collection of cuts he had leaked to the net, it’s nice to have it have them all in one place. Also, unlike other rappers, he doesn’t just fill the virtual mixtape to the brim. Instead, he has kept it short and sweet at a mere 10 tracks playing at just over 32 minutes. And when you compare that to the typical mix that features around 20 or more cuts, you appreciate Novel’s effort even more. I know I’m not supposed to complain about free music, but come on people, some quality control would help.
808s & Mixtapes gets off to a glorious start with a remixed version of Adele’s gorgeous “Hometown Glory”, which she sings a bit off toward the end of the track. Rather than borrow Adele’s song-title, Novel instead adopts the name “Intro-spective”, a proper tag for a dope political-cum-shit-talking joint that allows him to reintroduce himself to the world. And Novel actually remains on the political/conscious tip for most of this, though he doesn’t do it in a way that would allow you to pigeonhole him in the way critics have done to Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and others. Like those emcees, Novel spits uplifting, socially “aware” lyrics, like when he dives into bullying and domestic violence on the somewhat disappointing “Wild West (Breakbeat Version)”. Even more poignant is his track “I Can Be President”, off his I Am… (Future Black President) EP, on which he and Joell Ortiz spit inspiring rhymes over J Dilla’s beautiful “Believe in God” instrumental.
It all makes for a very moving affair that ends perfectly with pieces of a President Obama speech. As I read somewhere today, it would have been a great idea for someone to collect all the Obama-themed songs for a mixtape. Oh well, there is still plenty of time, bloggers. What is most impressive about “I Can Be President” is that it surpasses the other Ortiz and Novel collaboration on the remix of Lupe Fiasco’s “Fighters”, dubbed “The Fighters (Remix)”. The two emcees absolutely kill it as they speed-rap their way across the beat. And goddamn, if this isn’t a rhyming-workout, I don’t know what it is. If that wasn’t enough, Novel slaughters the hook with his smooth crooning. Sorry, Matthew Santos. Much of the same goes for the “Lost! (Remix)”, of the Coldplay track of the same name, which has Novel giving it his all. It’s particularly stirring when he almost falls to pieces over the guitar solo and spits some of the best lyrics on this mixtape.
Yet, as dope as most of those are, the spotlight here is obviously on the remixed 808s & Heartbreaks tracks; and one that fits with the others since it’s still a Kanye West-production. Of the four West-beats he jacks, two of them stick out solely based on Novel’s singing. In a way, it’s fitting considering the artist he has borrowed from couldn’t hit the right note to save his life. “Hard 2 Stay Afloat”, which mixes parts of “Amazing” and “Coldest Winter”, features some of his best vocals. Though his lovelorn sentiments aren’t anything new, he delivers them flawlessly. And then on “Amazin (Remix)”, he murders it again, belting out lyrics of lost artistic integrity. But it doesn’t sound bitter. At least, it doesn’t on that track. By the final cut, “Music”, the topic gets a little grating, but he certainly deserves a chance to vent. It’s his return to rhyming on “Southern Boy”, an obvious take on Estelle’s “American Boy”, that is the most refreshing. It’s a laid-back, party joint that oozes with Dirty South grease. And it’s a fun change of pace needed amongst all of the primarily sober themes.
While it might seem as if 808s & Mixtapes is perfect, it’s not. There are several noticeable flaws, like the aforementioned “Music” and the take-it-or-leave-it “Welcome to Heartbreak Freestyle”. But, to be fair, those tracks are heavily outweighed by their cohorts and they aren’t even bad. They’re just not up to the snuff of the others. A mixtape this repeat-worthy in this saturated age of MySpace, OnSmash, and blogs galore is truly something special. If you haven’t found it yet, do yourself a favor and track it down. It’s well worth your time and then some.