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The Best Mixtapes of 2008

The year's best mixtapes are full of the energy of crunk, unapologetic weirdness, a castle built of cartoon references, and raps about Bill O'Reilly.

By nature, it’s literally impossible to definitely declare what are the top ten mixtapes of a given year. The internet has made mixtapes readily available to anyone in the world, but it’s also opened us up to millions of bootleg and repetitive tapes put together by no-name deejays just trying to get their names out. The internet has made the mixtape landscape nearly unnavigable, and it’s not a coincidence that this list consists of many tapes that have gotten some online press this year. On one hand, this is because they are all of very high quality, but it’s also partly because they are undeniably the most authentic.

This list reflects what was to me a standout year for pseudo-undergound rap in the South. The mixtape circuit was dominated by known unknowns -- guys like Lil Boosie, Gucci Mane and Young Dro -- who have had hit songs or hit albums, but are right now putting out the best music of their careers for free on the internet to minimal fanfare. This list is very incestuous -- many of the rappers here show up on tapes on this list besides their own, but I think that just highlights the strength of the work that was put out by young Southerners this year.

This list should be taken as a primer, with the caveat that wading through the songs on all of these tapes will be remarkably tiring. I doubt that many of you will find these mixtapes to be solid full-length listens (and only a few truly are), and in this regard I hope that this list exposes you to some rappers who I think are under appreciated in some critical circles but worthy of Lil Wayne-level fandom.


Lil Boosie

Da Beginning

[Download full mixtape here]

Anything written about Baton Rouge's Lil Boosie always centers around his voice, and with good reason. His high-pitched screech is the most memorable and arresting rap voice in the game, sounding something like a hyena or maybe like he's rapping through his nostrils while fire comes from his mouth. But Boosie's voice would only be a novelty if he didn't know how to harness it, and on Da Beginning he makes some of the most emotionally resonant rap of 2008. On show-stopping opener "Undeniable Talent" he raps forcefully and with purpose over house synths: "Wake up and smell the coffee/ It's a new nigga in town / Gotta shake them haters off me / You know how Boosie get down." It's stirring, inspiring and epic and when he kicks into the chorus repeating the song's title his tinny voice harnesses all of the energy of crunk in a matter of seconds. But Boosie really wins because he's able to spin soulful and mournful tracks from his voice so there's no overkill. On "Dirty World", over a classically Southern instrumental of pianos and rumbling bass, Boosie calmly lambasts gold diggers, W, and Michael Vick's conviction amongst other things. He softly sings the chorus -- "It's a dirty, dirty world that we live in / It's a dirty, dirty world that we live iiiiiin" -- and ends up hitting harder on a mixtape track than Wayne and his robotic warbles could even dream of.




Hello My Name Is B.o.B

[Stream full mixtape here]

If you read about rap on the Internet, you're either extremely excited about B.o.B or extremely annoyed by him. He's put out just one official release -- an iTunes-only EP -- and as is normal nowadays, his mixtapes are usually stitched-together bootlegs of recycled material made by wack Internet DJs (cf. the new Who the Fuck Is B.o.B tape). Hello My Name Is B.o.B justifies the hype. The tape finds B.o.B., a teenage Atlanta kid who has that thick T.I. voice that makes you feel like you are drowning in barbeque sauce, rapping over gutter Lil Wayne instrumentals ("Money on My Mind") as well as beats that sample "Elanor Rigby", The White Stripes' "My Doorbell", and "Sweet Home Alabama". On paper it should be a disaster, but instead B.o.B is able to corral all of his incongruent tastes and influences into a mixtape that feels homogenous, so much so that when he jumps from trance-rap ("Haterz Everywhere") to reggae ("Slow") to basically singing country ("Sweet Home", his Skynyrd interpolation), it's totally natural and even seamless. His weirdness is unapologetic and endearing -- he's like a member of the Dungeon Family brought up on the Internet instead of soul and funk. His 2009 full-length debut could be a classic or a mess or (probably) both, but it certainly won't be boring, and right now, rap needs less boring.



Rich Boy

Bigger Than the Mayor

[Stream full mixtape here]

Last year Rich Boy got paid off of his classic Polow Da Don produced single "Throw Some D's", but the album, featuring more of his hurt, impassioned raps over Polow's candy production, remains slept-on and underrated. Bigger Than the Mayor, his remarkably strong 2008 mixtape, falls into that category as well. The tape is pure Rich Boy, comprised of life-affirming verses over beats that are skull-cracking ("Chevy a Monsta"), pure pop ("Haters Wish", which has violins like rainbows) and somewhere in between ("Ms. Pacman"). Rich Boy raps straight from the gut, and oftentimes his verses -- whether he's rapping about dead friends, moving weight, or rims -- hit you in the same place. Much like Boosie, Rich Boy benefits from being able to make whatever he's rapping about sound like the most important thing in the world, and it doesn't hurt that he's improved as a lyricist ("Chain swingin' on a nigga neck like Donkey Kong"). The collaborations here with 2008 mixtape MVP Gucci Mane ("Ms. Pacman", "Po'd Up") are some of the best free rap songs of the year, and not even the presence of Shawty Lo doing retarded Rick Ross impressions ("I'm rich, boy / Ask Rich Boy") can dampen the tape's fire.



Gucci Mane

Gangsta Grillz: The Movie

[Stream full mixtape here]

Picking Gucci's best mixtape of 2008 is impossible, mostly because there are too many and because the best songs are scattered all over. Two of his best tracks of the year -- the bonkers "Nickelodeon", which builds a castle out of cartoon references, and "Light Show", a Yo Gotti collaboration that's all dark, empty spaces -- don't appear on this DJ Drama tape, but this one contains a lower ratio of throwaways. It also has a bunch of killer songs, like the soul-sampling, Drumma Boy ("Put On") produced anthem "Georgia", which has Gucci flexing a surprisingly nimble double-time flow before Gorilla Zoe comes in and lords over the track like the Wizard of Oz. Mostly, the tape sees Gucci eschewing the pop sensibilities he showed on his last album in favor of true street beats from ATL lifers like Shawty Redd and Drumma Boy. Gucci's the most fun rapper in the game and Gangsta Grillz: The Movie is no different, and when he does things like calling himself Gucci Tarantino it's hard not to giggle. Since he's locked up for a year now, this is one to cherish.



Young Dro

I Am Legend

[Stream full mixtape here]

Ever since Wayne and the Clipse fell off, rap's best punch lines have undoubtedly come from one man: Grand Hustle's Young Dro, who aside from being an incredible rapper is a true sartorial icon (please Google Image). His 2006 debut is full of classic lines like "Know a nigga healthy cause my Cutlass look like carrot juice" and so does I Am Legend. The only problem with the tape is that between Dro's nearly indecipherable drawl and the tinny mixtape production, lots of gems undoubtedly get lost in the shuffle. In the end it doesn't really matter because even though Dro spits a mile a minute his flow is scarily on lock, and when he drops a diamond of a punch line it rewards close listening. Avoiding hyperbole is hard when it comes to Dro, but oftentimes he's totally operating on another level, and I Am Legend has enough of those moments to be worth the wading.



Gorilla Zoe

Monkey Business

[Stream full mixtape here]

Gorilla Zoe is an imperfect rapper. At times, like on last year's certified single "Hood Nigga", he transcends lazy Dirty South trappings, though often he's just another good rapper with a good voice that settles for mediocrity. Monkey Business, a tape that trickled out only a few weeks ago, is surprisingly consistent, and its highlights make it obvious that Zoe is very much worth our attention. "I'm Dumb", a well-circulated track that's itching to be a single, has Zoe spouting off a remarkably catchy chorus ("I'm dumb / I'm a Dodo / Still in the hood / Got work for the low-low") before effortlessly bodying the stomping beat, looping his flow like he's twisting chewing gum around his finger. His verse from the remix of Traffik's "Hercules", over a gothic drip-drop beat, finds him reaching Gucci Mane levels of simple brilliance: "I'm a walking bank roll, what I need a bank fo'?" Even the songs that feature Zoe dabbling in AutoTune aren't tired; in fact his deep, gravely voice injects life into the gimmick, and further encapsulates the idea that, when he wants to be, Gorilla Zoe is one of the most nuanced and interesting rappers in the South.




The Nigger Tape

[Stream full mixtape here]

Earlier this year Nas, as is his nature, tried to make a statement with his labored Untitled, which depicts him on the cover as a whipped slave. By September, as is his nature, he'd already been sonned by a weaker MC, in this case Young Jeezy, whose album The Recession was less ham-handed and about three million times more epochal. Nas did manage to put out a winning album this year, the Green Lantern-helmed The Nigger Tape. The mixtape doesn't short on Nas' internal fire and its loose-limbed nature and lower-fi beats lack the baggage that usually accompany Nas albums, especially ones with raps about Bill O' Reilly.



Soulja Boy

Teen of the South

[Stream full mixtape here

All indications are that Soulja Boy is going to be end up being a spectacular one-hit wonder, but as his music becomes less commercial it's becoming arguably more interesting. On Teen of the South, the South's intrepid prince collaborates with mixtape foot soldiers like Yo Gotti and Gucci Mane, though he doesn't slack on the typically captivating keyboard hooks or chanted choruses. "Shopping Spree", a Gucci/Gotti track, is nasty and towering, with Soulja Boy rattling off a snarling verse ("Soulja Boy Tell 'Em aka the Assassin / Princess cuts in my watch like I threw some glass in") before Gucci takes him to school: "From my Cutlass to my Chevy / Chevy to my Lamborghini / You can't be me or see me unless you see me on TV." The rest of the tape is full of Soulja Boy's overlooked hard-as-fuck pop-rap, including the actually good Bow Wow single "Marco Polo".



Charles Hamilton

It's Charles Hamilton

[Download full mixtape here

Charles Hamilton can't get out of his own way. He's already oversaturated his market (the Internet) with millions of pointless YouTube videos and freestyles and a gimmicky amount of "official" mixtapes, and on It's Charles Hamilton, the tape's 13 songs have an hour-plus run time. The time's worth it though, as Hamilton comes off as a guy who just really likes to rap over his own beats, many of which are pretty engrossing for an impressionable self-fulfilled genre-hopper. "Starchasers", which samples Lykke Li's "Little Bit", would make Cindy Lauper-sampling Dipset rappers jealous and "Wrong Side of the Bed" flips The-Dream's "I Luv Your Girl" into an alluringly stuttering Harlem beat. Hamilton's flow leaves a lot to be desired, but his rapping is nice and detailed, and if his verses can catch up to his production he might blossom into who he already thinks he is.




There Is No Competition

[Stream full mixtape here]

Fabolous remains relevant on the pop landscape by selling out on songs with Ne-Yo, but it's acceptable because it means that he still jumps on remixes to say things like, "I hop out the suicides lookin' so Cobain." His Gangsta Grillz tape from this year is a little too stuffed with verses by bad rappers -- it is a Gangsta Grillz tape after all -- but Fab will murder tracks like "Barry Bonds" with a freestyle until he dies, and he's still alive and kicking and calling himself "the Diddy of this rap marathon" which is funny.

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