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“Rich off a mixtape, got rich off a mixtape” brags Drake, on his latest opus of first world problems Take Care, a reference to his breakthrough mixtape in 2009. While I suspect Drake has never been anything but rich, a few on the following list can, quite legitimately, claim to have made a fortune off a mixtape. No more so than Rocky A$AP whose debut mixtape LIVELOVEA$AP was released in October after signing to Sony/RCA for a record-breaking $3 million – enough to buy a few crates of Olde English 800 (A$AP mob’s inexplicable super-strength lager of choice). It has become something of trend in the past year, with mixtapes (or at least the promise of one) having been responsible for the signing the likes of Frank Ocean, Big K.R.I.T. and Curren$y to major labels. Unlike A$AP Rocky though others on this list have been a bit more discreet about their (alleged) label dealings, such as hype king The Weeknd, whose mysterious rise to fame has been the subject of many blog conspiracy theories.

Coching with a bottle of Olde English 800

Who knows quite what labels (and artists for that matter) are getting out of it, with rappers like Lil B charitably leaking even their own albums, let alone stubbornly continuing to release free mixtapes. For better or worst, Lil B has come to epitomise the mixtape format: unhampered by content or time constraints, the self-styled Based God has been putting out new material thick and fast like some unmentionable bodily functions. Perhaps unsurprisingly some of his mixtapes have been of questionable merit, I would recommend the 676 track long Free Music: The Myspace Collection as for “Based” disciples only. But the how else would anyone get away with such feats if not by internet distribution.

As ever, Lil B is something of an anomaly, as quite a few mixtapes from the past year have bested fully fledged albums. As Tyler the Creator whinges in the intro to his much anticipated, much disappointing debut album: “Bastard [2009 mixtape] intro, how the fuck I’m gonna top that?” Something Goblin just couldn’t manage. So it isn’t surprising that all of the mixtapes on this list are also some of the best releases of the year. Not all are hip hop either, the boundaries of what actually constitutes a mixtape are increasingly difficult to ascertain. Which is something to be rather thankful for, given everything on this list is free – although a bit worrying for all those involved. Hopefully no one will be rapping about filing for bankruptcy due to a mixtape anytime next year.

(I should add that I’ve included Oddisee because he initially released Rock Creek Park for free and Action Bronson’s Dr. Lector for the tenuous excuse that it is a digital exclusive).

 

XXX – Danny Brown

Hypothetically speaking, if I could witness any record label meeting this year it would probably have to be that of Danny Brown and G-Unit. That is if Brown’s claims of being dismissed by 50 Cent purely on the heinous crime of wearing skinny jeans holds true (probably just as well they didn’t see his current asymmetrical haircut). Quite how they saw past his “distinctive” yelp, which has garnered less than pleasant comparisons to injured animals, South Park characters and pre-pubescent schoolboys, is surprising enough. Thankfully, Brown’s latest mixtape is reassuringly unfazed by such rebuffs. XXX documents tales of miraculous survival from drug abuse (“Die Like a Rockstar”), nauseating details of cunnilingus (“I Will”) and thirty years of dark memoirs (“DNA”, “30”, “Scrap or Die”). Hip Hop needs more eccentrics, more weirdos, so to speak, and Danny Brown is perhaps one of the few that is not just another fad.

Boasts most likely to deliver: “Rhymes that make the Pope wanna get his dick sucked/ Had Virgin Mary doing lines in the pick-up/ Make Sarah Palin deep-throat til’ she hiccup/ Had T.D. Jakes round this bitch doing stick-ups.”

 

Nostalgia, Ultra – Frank Ocean

OFWGKTA affiliate Frank Ocean must be the most successful member of the collective by now, what with writing songs for Beyoncé and guesting on hip hop oligarchs Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch The Throne. Perhaps his time with these two monster egos of rap inspired his Guitar Hero rendition of “Hotel California” on his live debut. It’s not much of surprise given all the videogame references in Nostalgia, Ultra. Along with the unashamedly uncool sample choices and fanboy-ish interludes (“Bitches Talkin’” is 20 seconds of Radiohead) it offers an endearing insight into France Ocean’s taste. While Nostalgia, Ultra does have its share of wet moments, “There Will Be Tears” and “We All Try”, songs for just snaring women it ain’t.

Most pro-gay line: “I believe that marriage isn’t between a man and woman/ but between love and love”

 

House of Balloons – The Weeknd

It wasn’t much of a surprise to find The Weeknd guesting and writing tracks on Take Care. There’s certainly what you’d call “shared concerns” between Drake and Abel: polygamy, parties, drink n drugs – the sacred triptych of riches-to-riches rappers. Which is bemusing given the near universal appeal of The Weeknd that has encompassed hip hop fans, R&B lovers and those with more left-field tastes alike – even Match of Day has used him for the odd montage. Partly responsible for it’s wide fanbase is undoubtedly it’s alluring production, by duo Doc McKinney and Illangelo. Although the party lifestyle of House of Balloons is faintly hilarious at times (“Drinking Alizé with our cereal for breakfast”) it never tires you with it’s ridiculous hedonism, tempering it’s highs by its share of repugnant nocturnal confessions.

Most sleezey line: “I got you on the floor, doing things you never thought you’d do.”

 

808s and Dark Grapes II – Main Attrakionz

 

“You can’t hate, you can’t hate” raps Squadda, one half of Oakland duo Main Attrakionz, on the ethereal “Chuch”. It’s difficult to feel any overbearing emotions towards Squadda and partner Mondre, let alone resentment, whilst listening to their tranquillised mixtape 808s and Dark Grapes II. Their particular style of production has been coined “cloud rap” by the blogosphere – a sample-heavy, lethargic, daydream aesthetic. But part of their appeal is that their are rather more grounded, than this label would suggest, in the lives of 20 year-old Bay Area college dropouts messing around with Pro Tools.

Best use of repetition for effect: “A fooliyone is a fool nigga / A real, real, real, real, real fool nigga”.

 

Rock Creek Park – Oddisee

Few mixtapes so evocatively recollect a place and location as Rock Creek Park, an ode to Oddisee’s childhood memories of an idyllic woodland recluse on the boarder his hometown, Washington D.C. Other than a guest spot from Diamond District crewmate yU on its opening track, Rock Creek Park is all instrumental. Oddisee largely forgoes samples, choosing instead to use orchestral soul arrangements of horns, piano and string, moderated every so often by a traditional boom-bap beat. Along with its nostalgic song titles (“Skipping Rocks”), there a strong visual connection to his music that gives it a resonance that instrumental hip hop often lacks.

Track most likely to be used in nostalgic photo montage: “Beach Dr.”

 

Return of 4Eva – Big K.R.I.T.

As you might guess from the title Big K.R.I.T.’s Return of 4Eva is, in part, a salute to his Southern rap elders OutKast. Even if that tribute is audibly present (there’s a track named “Players Ballad” for god’s sake) Justin Scott never becomes a pastiche of his predecessors. Much like his equally sized namesake, Big Boi, K.R.I.T. is obsessed by an automobile, or to be more specific his Chevy. Whether snarling about “my subbb” or his sharing his rotating tires metaphor for life,  this is a mixtape made with an automobile on the mind. As K.R.I.T. reminisces on “Time Machine”, Return of 4Eva is a cruise through his Atlanta upbringing with the man himself – just don’t go near the dashboard he’s touchy about that.

Most worrying car obsession line: “…don’t touch my screens or my radio/ She know the score.”

 

Mr Muthafuckin Exquire  – Lost In Translation

 

So far as mixtape cover art goes, there has been few this year quite as memorable as that. As you might expect Lost In Translation has it’s share of queasy moments: a track entitled “Lovesponge”, Harold and Kumar gags and an uncomfortably long blowjob skit. But it outgrows its frat boyish beginnings, not that there’s anything wrong with the “fuck da world” anthem “Triple F” (that’s fuck in triplicate) or ode to drink driving “Huzzah!” and it’s primordial call for “Drink driving on a Wednesdayyyy”. Those two aside, Lost In Translation is a surprisingly personal affair. Mr eXquire is perhaps more multifaceted than the cover art might lead you to assume: a solitary insomniac (and momma’s boy) on “I Should Be Sleeping”, a anxiety prone self-doubter on “Weight of Water” and, better yet, a loyal patron of  his local takeaway on “Chicken Spot”.

Line most revealing of chicken wings preference: “I don’t fuck with no drumsticks”.

 

The ONE… COHESIVE – G-Side

G-Side’s “inner circle” must be a bit crowded, what with all the guests and producers, from their extended family on Slow Motion Sounds, that feature on it. Which is appropriate given The ONE… COHESIVE has a sort of celebratory vibe to it. G-Side duo, ST 2 Lettaz and Yung Clova toast minor victories such as escaping a dead-end job, finally being able to afford phone bills and uh a receiving a nude picture from a girl (does that come under the term “sexting”, I dunno). They also keen to share their workings, whether proudly reminding you of their hard earned independent releases or revelling in their blog ordained rise to fame. An ode to small triumphs it may be, but with such audacious production, that samples a mix of piano medleys, violin motifs, trance and choral singing, even the minutest of gains are given an epic weight.

Most heartbreaking recession story: “Wanted new sneaks had to wait two weeks”.

 

Honourable Mentions are quite a patronising term, but these records were only culled for the sake of making this an at all readable length (not that it is):

Instrumentals Clams Casino, I’m Gay (I’m Happy) Lil B, LIVELOVEA$AP A$AP Rocky, Short Notice Boy Better Know, Take Your Hats Off Giggs, Weekend at Burnie’s Curren$y, Blue Dream & Lean Juicy J, Dr. Lector Action Bronson, Thank H.E.R. Now Rapsody, Blvcklvnd Rvdix 66.6 Spaceghostpurrp, Altered Ego Angel Haze.

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