In the four years since mixtapes became anything but a mix on tape, rap listeners have grown accustomed to the idea that not only should they feel like a brand new album, but also that they should probably be better than the product you pay for.
For the longest time, hip-hop mixtapes were exactly as the name implied: tapes, mixed and stitched by neighborhood-renowned DJs, blending various instrumentals and a capellas and fresh-out-the-booth street singles into transformative works. For the working class rap lover who didn't have the coin for a retail release, these grey-area tapes from DJs like Tony Touch, Kid Capri, and Kay Slay became a definitive form of taste-making within the genre. But everything changed in 2009. When Freddie Gibbs, Drake, and J. Cole first became household names in rap nerd circles it was off the strength of free projects that eschewed DJs and flavor of the week beats married to "freestyles" (see: Da Drought 3, We Got It for Cheap, Vol. 2) for, well...
In the four years since mixtapes became anything but a mix on tape, rap listeners have grown accustomed to the idea that not only should they feel like a brand new album from the rhymes to the beats, but, lacking the typical constraints of a retail product, they should probably be better than the product you pay for. Mixtapes have turned albums into a product that's purchased almost as a thank you for prior free releases in many cases, particularly in the case of such prolific artists as Curren$y and Gucci Mane, whose free output dwarfs their retail output at a ratio of nearly four to one. As odd as it feels to call these things mixtapes, that's what we've settled on. In speaking with Gibbs' manager, DJ Lambo in preparation for this feature, I asked him whether we'd decided if Gibbs' ESGN was an album - like many modern mixtapes, it exists in a limbo with free versions floating through the ether and a for-pay version on iTunes. His response: "Midwestboxframe wasn't really a tape if [you] think about it. It was free, but it was all original. We were kind of annoyed people were trying to make it into his 'debut'. It's the wild west really, and categories just make it easier for people to comprehend. But you can call ESGN whatever you want [laughing]."
So how did I define a mixtape for this feature? Essentially, if it was still hosted on Livemixtapes or Datpiff as of this writing, I included it. I left Big K.R.I.T.'s King Remembered in Time and Chance the Rapper's Acid Rap out as we'd already declared them two of 2013's Best Hip-Hop. I didn't include Run the Jewels' atom bomb primarily for the same reason, although fear of El-P target-locking deadly lasers on me from outer space for calling it a mixtape also weighed on my mind. And then I threw ESGN in just because I was told I could by the man's right hand. Also, I'd like to think of this list not as a best-of, but simply a note from me to you about the mixtapes that caught my ears all year, the releases that stood out from a mountain of Atlanta trap, Chicago drill, New York coke music, and Richmond slappers. As I put the finishing touches on this list, there are 420 mixtapes in my iTunes and I promise you I didn't find time to get to all of them. Hell, Q-Tip and Busta Rhymes just dropped a new one -- and the fans are disappointed it's a mixtape in the classic sense of the word. Oh, how times have changed.
Album: Trap God 2
Label: 1017 Brick Squad
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Trap God 2
"Fish scale all over my muthafuckin' 'partment / Damn, I got dope all on my garment." It took 40 projects to get there, but Gucci Mane may have finally found the couplet that summarizes his entire career. For all his bullish intimidation tactics on record and in the interview room, at heart Gucci's just a comedian, and opening this album with a line like that let me know I was probably in for the Gucci Mane release I'm always patiently waiting for. Later, after I got to hear, "I got that Mexican weed, them bricks / You know, that trash shit / And all you gotta do is drive this shit to Athens," on a song that also shouts out Black Panthers ("And for them Panthers raise your arm up then you make a ball fist") all wrapped in a ball of paranoia Georgiaphilia and jokes like, "I'm a tough guy like Conan," I knew I'd found it, certainly.
Trap God 2, however, presents a dilemma more and more common to the mixtape scene. Frankly, quite a smart one as well. While in mixtape format Trap God 2 is certainly good at what it does, you'll be doing yourself a disservice if you don't take advantage of a new trend: buying the iTunes version. If the mixtape market wasn't confusing enough before, it certainly is now. But this review concerns that version, because the tape is just too solid to dedicate more than this sentence to the common knowledge that absolutely zero DJs screaming threats and making fake rewind noises is preferable to a pair of them doing so.
Even then, not necessarily a let down. If you've spent any cursory time through the maze of Wooh da Kid, KayO Redd, Cartel MGM, and Frenchie mixtapes, you're going to hear a lot of the 808 Mafia's (Lex Luger, Southside, TM88, Tarentino, Purps, London, and others) experiments coming to fruition on Trap God 2. "Bullet Wound" is the sort of experiment in making bass so titanic that it renders many lower-end audio systems -- and the cars that house them -- absolutely pitiful. Then he teams up with DJ Squeeky on "Bob Marley" for a fairly plain song about weed and money that just so happens to sound like "Hail Mary" meets "Come with Me", because why not. This is an album where he's raising the price of a blunt from $100 to $200, or smoking 75 of them in one minute; the way that he comes about making his threats by way of humor and assertion is as goofy and creative as it's ever been.
Album: The Patriarch
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More stoner nerd gangster shit, same as it's ever been. Deniro Farrar has a voice maybe half an octave higher than Tyler, the Creator and raps about as monotonously. Like a lot of internet icons of the cloud rap movement, he's a delightfully honest rapper, and the weary certainty with which he delivers his struggles couches that honesty in all kinds of solemnity. Because this is the accepted, boilerplate model of most current aspiring rappers with Bandcamp accounts, and because Farrar is so eager to fit into it, what he talks about and how he talks about it is really of the utmost importance to his enjoyability. The whole of The Patriarch is consistently head-bobbing, with a track like "Fears" achieving Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors' grand vision of a perfect synthpop/rap hybrid, while "Feel the Rain" brings a depression to gangster-sounding music you just don't hear often enough.
With The Patriarch, Deniro Farrar is just good enough most of the time as a rapper, but it's his subject matter that made this release feel like a peer to the other releases on this list. It's very enjoyable musically, with beats from cloud rap superstars Clams Casino, Friendzone, KIRA, and more, and Deniro's grumbly sorrow over the fates of his close friends and family as working class poor in North Carolina feels oddly refreshing in a rap climate currently dominated by opulence, party tunes, and not so humble brags. Were it not for a shaky start to the tape, The Patriarch might've been in the discussion for rap album of the year. As it stands, along with The Patriarch II, it marks Farrar as one of 2013's newer names we should be watching very closely over the next couple years.
Album: Honest Cowboy
Label: Maybach Music Group
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List Number: 8
As an artist, Stalley remains about as ephemeral as ever with his third high-quality mixtape, Honest Cowboy. Much like former stablemate Curren$y, his is a formula that asks very little of its listeners. Marijuana, car trunk bass, vague Muslim motivational speak, and generic rapper confidence. But with each tape he finds a new twist on the formula, and each twist tends to diminish his worth to the public ever so slightly. As his music's drifted farther and farther from Masillion, Ohio, so too has Stalley's career appeared more and more anchorless.
Fortunately for him, he still has that metered, breathless desperation to his voice, a sort of Freeway for the common man. And when that gets paired with spacey, Aquemini-like production from DJ Quik and Block Beattaz, it becomes very hard for anyone to make a sonically disengaging record. Honest Cowboy may limp to its ending with a few of Block Beattaz' patented genre experiments (deadmau5-sampling "Raise Your Weapon" and drum-heavy, Soundtrakk-produced "Long Way Down" feel airlifted in from other projects) that fail to pan out the way they so often did in the confines of the G-Side machine, but at just 42 minutes, these moments breeze by, with memories of the epic lowride "Swangin'" with Scarface, aerospace-ode with DJ Quik "Spaceships & Woodgrain", and west coast boom bap throwback "NineteenEighty7" with ScHoolboy Q and Terrace Martin still rattling around your mental trunk. "Hidden" track "A-Wax" flips the boom bap to the other coast, a surprise move from Block Beattaz that makes one wonder how Stalley would sound paired with Alchemist.
Honest Cowboy isn't one of 2013's more notable mixtapes because it pushes anything forward. It just sounds great, and in the face of such a schizophrenic year for hip-hop releases sometimes that's all it takes, even if the star on the cover appears more malleable and personality-less than ever. The music on Honest Cowboy requires confidence and execution more than a beloved captain, and Stalley has always been nothing if not one of indie rap's most steady beat stewards since arriving on the DD172 scene in 2010.
Album: 6ix Commandments
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List Number: 7
It's important to note that in the grand scheme of things, positioning 6ix Commandments as an appetizer is the best option. Between its numerous allusions to the late '90s glory days of Three 6 Mafia production (four of the ten songs here, as is Three 6 Mafia tradition, blatantly appropriate famous underground hits, with the rest unafraid to drop random snippets as well) and DJ Paul's lingering late-career obsessions with going as heavy as possible at the expense of subtle horror, this reincarnation isn't turning heads because they've released a mixtape as good as albums When the Smoke Clears, Chapter 1: The End or Underground Vol. 1. What's attention grabbing about this mixtape is how comfortable a lot of former boardroom enemies sound having set aside their differences and committed to showing their many modern imitators how much those new stars owe these underground legends.
Crunchy Black's been so quiet over the past decade, it's easy to forget he laid the template for Waka Flocka Flame in 1995, while DJ Paul's solo career so obscured by Juicy J's co-opting of the 2 Chainz formula, it's easy to forget that without him the entire Raider Klan ceases to exist. When you hear Koopsta Knicca lay into one of his many barely-on-time, charisma-laden raps about misogyny and drug use, let alone the sing-songy cadence of Lord Infamous, it's hard not to run out in the streets in search of everyone wearing an A$AP Mob t-shirt and wave a CD-R of this tape in their face wildly, screaming something about how all the blueprints for that act are right here. By inviting acolytes like Memphis native J-Green and Spaceghostpurrp along (as well as frequent co-producer TWhy of California) DJ Paul makes the smart move of exposing his openly nostalgic production to new school influences, but it's no mistake that this take ends up so self-referential and focused on wound healing.
6ix Commandments is a history lesson for folks who missed the train, or only know of Three 6 Mafia through random Juicy J ad-libs and "Stay Fly" or "Poppin' My Collar". For everyone else, it's a sign that all is well in the Hypnotize Camp Posse. That alone makes this one of 2013's very greatest mixtapes.
Album: Wrath of Caine
Label: G.O.O.D. Music
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Wrath of Caine
The most striking thing about Wrath of Caine is probably how proudly it wears the influences of Max B and Future on its sleeve. "Trust You" says it's performed by Kevin Gates, but try to tell any blind listener that's not Future. The same goes for "Blocka", an album highlight produced by Young Chop that has St. Thomas dancehall deejay Popcaan getting chopped and screwed into a very Future/Young Scooter type of melodic haze. On paper, it looks like Pusha's just trying to fit in with the people he paved the way for. Even accepting that premise, Wrath of Caine proves over and over that Pusha T is back to having more fun with basic gangster bragging than everybody else doing what Wrath of Caine does. Like the mixtape Pusha of old, he tends to be an exceptional bully whenever he decides to play along with his peers.
It's sometime during Pusha T's last verse on "Millions", the second track of his second solo mixtape, that you'll probably make an important decision. Important in relation to this ZIP file, anyway. Are you the sort that demands an artist grow with the times, or more so within themselves? Because if you're the former, then Wrath of Caine is an easy sell. Unlike the somewhat tepid Fear of God tape released two years ago when Pusha T first signed with Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music, this right here is some free music that proves there's life for Terrence Thornton outside the confines of his Virginia duo, Clipse, and the prideful guidance of Pharrell Williams. The verse that he delivers there is so full of that vintage Pusha Ton fire that you'll be immediately swept up in the idea of 37 minutes of new Pusha T music.