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hip hop: a history in mixtapes

In a move apparently now called “pulling a Beyoncé, ” Drake dropped a surprise midnight album last Thursday and yes, it’s great, but let’s be clear on one thing–according to Drake, this isn’t an album, it’s a mixtape.

The last time Drake dropped a mixtape, in 2009, he threw a release party with LeBron James—which was lavish but appropriate, considering the fact that “So Far Gone” was an instant success that put the rapper on the map and earned him the ‘sensitive mobster’ image he’s been working ever since. If Drake’s new tape, “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late,” gets hailed as a classic, it won’t be his first time.

The term “mixtape” is a rollover from the early ’90s hip hop scene, when listeners in the underground traded cassettes–usually live and illegal tapings of shows. Friends dubbed mixtapes for friends, who dubbed them for friends, and so on until the playback was buried in layers of lossy hissing. Post-internet-age artists still drop ‘mixtapes’ today, usually identified by their lo-fi production, small budget, and blatant sampling. Almost all mixtapes are free.

Lots of small-time artists release these tapes every year, hoping to break out and win fans and record label contracts. Occasionally—and in Drake’s case—a mixtape will get big, and the rest, as we know, is history.

So, to reminisce on a younger Drake, and pay respect to rap’s long tradition of good, free, fresh music, here are some of the best break-out mixtapes dropped in recent memory.

Joey Bada$$ – 1999 (2012)

“People refer to the ’90s as the golden age of hip hop. So ’99 being the last year of that age, it was basically like a ‘last hope’ type of thing you feel me?”

Joey Bada$$ was in high school when this tape dropped, which is crazy because his music so easily captures the vignette feel of east-coast boom bap in the ’90s. Joey borrows his flow from golden-age greats like Biggie and Common, adding to their ferocity more punchlines, wordplay, and a teenage chilling-ness that disarms his attempts to be socially conscious (cut him due slack here–the kid was seventeen).

But his lyrics get by on sheer vivacity, no doubt helped by the fact that his tracks—two produced by the late J Dilla—have the perfect blend of jazz, clear drums, soupy vibes, and that glad irresistible bass. Vintage on the first listen.

Standout Tracks: “Summer Knights,” “Waves,” “World Domination,” “Survival Tactics”

Wiz Khalifa – Kush & OJ (2010)

Ever been sleepy on an airplane at high noon with the sun blinding and the sky outside very, very blue? That’s the feeling Khalifa lays down in his first track. And the second. And pretty much his entire tape sublimates into this feeling.

Tom Breihan, in his review for Pitchfork, notes that Wiz basically raps about three things: “smoking weed, girls, and smoking weed with girls (usually your girl).” On point. Nowhere in this tape does life ever lose its gloss of ’80s-funk synths, R&B, lazy sex, and marijuana—and because of this, Kush & OJ continues to top the mixtape lists—Wiz has pulled off no easy feat, birthing a stoner classic.

There’s laid-back music, and there’s lay-back music. Save this one for your nicest Sunday morning.

Standout Tracks: “Mezmorized,” “The Statement,” “Never Been”

KiD CuDi – A Kid Named Cudi (2008)

The breakout summer mixtape that brought us “Day N Nite,” and turned ‘the lonely stoner,’ alias ‘the martian,’ into an internet big-leaguer practically overnight.

Cudi both sings and raps in this tape—and for once, the rapper can sing—over weird, saddish, EDM-inspired beats sampling artists like Gnarls Barkley, Band of Horses, Paul Simon, and Nosaj Thing. In 2008, this kind of free-form genre-bending was a leap, even for indie rap.

What’s more, Cudi’s lyrics make most other rappers seem over-the-top and not a little fake. He talks about loneliness, alienation, and loss without trying too hard to make that shit sound like poetry. Take this hook from “The Prayer,” sung as sincerely as a eulogy: “And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. But please don’t cry, just know that I have made these songs for you … ” Hear this. I dare you not to feel it.

Standout Tracks: “Down & Out,” “Day N Nite,” “Man On The Moon,” “Heaven At Nite”

J. Cole – The Warm Up (2009)

There’s a story about a younger J. Cole standing in front of Jay-Z’s studio in NYC to give his idol a track he made, only to find Jay-Z too busy to even step outside. It seems rejection only made the young rapper hungrier, because the J. Cole we hear in “The Warm Up” spits with an ambition so cutting you just want to hand it to him.

Cole raps over some classic beats, including Jay-Z’s “Dead Presidents,” without once losing his gumption. That goes for production too—Cole produced nearly all of the tracks on his own, and his beat-making talent is impressive. That plus his blue-collar, one-man attitude almost frame him in this narrative as a younger Kanye, say from “College Dropout.” Cole sets the bar at least as high–so high his fans still compare his albums today against his mixtapes. Every track on “The Warm Up” has been polished to kill; it’s worth a front-to-back listen.

Standout Tracks: “Can I Live,” “Lights Please,” “World Is Empty,” “Dollar And A Dream”

Lil Wayne – Da Drought 3 (2007)

“Hello Hip-Hop, I’m home; it’s your Daddy.” Wayne’s third mixtape technically wasn’t a breakthrough artist’s work, but for plain lyrical wow it belongs on this list–certain forum authorities agree that this two-disc mixtape is Wayne’s best work to date; certainly it dropped when Wayne was still hip hop’s reigning king, actually maybe “the best rapper alive,” and he makes excessively clear in this tape how much he knows it.

Every track on Drought 3 remixes old beats; sometimes he just rips a Jay or Nas or Beyoncé song and raps over it–because he can. Slick delivery, syllabic cleverness, and Wayne humor—“And when I was five, my favorite movie was the Gremlins / Ain’t got shit to do with this, but thought that I should mention”—made this tape a hip hop holy book that other rappers have been referencing since 2008. Most of all, Wayne’s flow on this tape gets pretty damn close to perfect–that is, he sounds like he’s not even trying. One warning: this album is intense, and runs almost two hours long.

Standout Tracks: “Live from 504,” “Sky is the Limit,” “We Takin Over,” “Walk It Out,” and fuck it, the whole thing.

Big K.R.I.T. – Return of 4eva (2011)

I’m from the South, but didn’t like the country much, and sweet tea and fried chicken don’t move me. The opening tracks on Return of 4eva, though, somehow always make me homesick.

Krit’s roots in an older era of Southern rap come through heavy on here—soul samples and sleigh-bell snares, candy coats and Cadillacs, wood grain and big-assed women. Even for listeners who don’t get nostalgia pangs at Southern hip hop, Krit’s singlehanded production on Return of 4eva easily matches any studio album put out that year or, for that matter, any year since.

This mixtape has its serious moments—check out “Dreamin’” and “Another Naïve Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism”—but most of the tape is Krit doing what he does best, that is, making deeply feel-good car music. Together, this stuff plus a warm night should give you an excuse to drive somewhere.

Standout Tracks: “R4 Theme Song,” “American Rapstar,” “Free My Soul,” “Country Shit (Remix)”

 

Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap (2013)

“IGH!!!!” If you can take in stride the squawks and other vocal misdemeanors, Chance’s tape won’t just tickle your imagination, it might even make you tear up a little.

Chance goes a little bit nuts on some tracks, but matches his own breakneck pace with a keen lyric intelligence, humor, and a sense for beats as smooth and buttery as the childhood summers he so likes to describe. But this mixtape really gets gold when Chance is moody, wise, or tripping and, amidst these frequent swings, drops a track like “Acid Rain” or “That’s Love.”

“Acid Rain” tells the story of a teenage fuck-up who finally, more or less, finds a way to get it together. It’s springtime music, and like any good mixtape, it gives me hope for what the up-and-coming freshmen of rap might be dropping for their listeners soon.

Standout Tracks: “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” “Chain Smoker,” “Acid Rain”

All the mixtapes listed here, and many more, can be downloaded for free at www.datpiff.com.