10 Best Mixtapes of 2013
The mixtape culture in hip-hop continues to flourish thanks to the Internet. The web allows hopeful rappers and producers to connect with the goal of catching a label's attention or, in special cases, making it on their own. It's a breeding ground of sorts for some while others use free releases to test the waters and holdover fans waiting on a proper release. What better way to satisfy a starving group of listeners than with a free offering, right?
The trend of mixtapes serving as albums in disguise also continued in 2013. In fact, most of the entries on this list would likely be for-purchase projects in another time -- perhaps before the copyright laws surrounding samples came into effect. Those laws be damned, these free releases still allow artists to gain a solid following and critical acclaim as they work toward something more tangible.
It's also interesting to see how bigger artists (read: those on major labels) have allowed mixtapes to become more than stopgap releases meant to serve as mere appetizers. In certain cases, they've been more fulfilling than the actual retail product. With that in mind and a hard-drive open for more downloads, let's break down the 10 Best Mixtapes of 2013.
Larger-than-life Queens spitter Action Bronson and Brooklyn producer Party Supplies put themselves on the hip-hop map in 2012 with their first 'Blue Chips' installment. It was the breakout project for Bronson, who before then was steadily gaining momentum and about to burst. Since then, he's released additional projects, though few have come with as much anticipation as the 'Blue Chips' sequel. Thankfully for everyone involved—including the listener—Bronson and Supplies proved that going back to the well didn't mean it would be dried up. Some might criticize it for being a victory lap for the duo, what with the lack of narratives heard on the first mixtape ('Hookers At The Point,' for one) and "obvious" sample choices. But those are flawed arguments posed against one of the most fun projects of the year with serious replay value. Who doesn't want to hear Bronsolino going in over '80s classics on 'Contemporary Man'?
While last year's '10 Day' laid the groundwork for Chance The Rapper's career, it was 2013's 'Acid Rap' that cemented him as one of the genre's most important new voices. And he did it all on his own (mostly), and that includes a headlining tour, after releasing a free project. With good reason, of course, because 'Acid Rap' is essentially what a true rap debut should be. Every element of his personality is on display across the 13 tracks. You get a hint of his love for his hometown of Chicago's juke music on the 'Good Ass Intro'; there are bursts youthful energy on standout single 'Juice' and 'Favorite Song'; and then he can slow things down and reflect on fan favorites 'Lost' and 'Everybody's Something.' That versatility is one that's attempted by many but possessed by few. And after repeated spins of 'Acid Rap,' we can safely count Chance amongst those few.
With a proper full-length album ('Marci Beaucoup') due in December, Long Island rapper/producer Roc Marciano saw it fit to warm up his fans (and gain some new ones) with a precursor mixtape. But don't think for a second that the awesomely titled free release, 'The Pimpire Strikes Back,' is an afterthought or collection of loosies. Marciano's too sharp and meticulous to release something like that to his fans, who on here were treated to a collection of New York rap grit and grime. This is pimp rap through the eyes of someone who's actually lived it—or at least observed it closely—and isn't afraid to portray the good and the gully. Just listen to 'The Sacrifice,' a filthy cut produced by Madlib, and you'll understand.
Be honest: You listened to Migos' 'Versace' and/or 'Hannah Montana' at least a handful of times at full blast. If not, you have been missing out on two of the most off-the-wall rap tracks of the year. They reside on the Atlanta trio's bonkers mixtape, 'YRN,' which earned its acclaim for being relentlessly true to themselves. Migos' Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff aren't afraid to switch up their flows, bounce all over a beat, and display ridiculous humor, the last of which sounds insular at first listen. But you'll be playing the tracks on 'YRN' repeatedly, if not for the stuck-in-your-brain hooks ("VERSACE/VERSACE/VERSACE/VERSACE!" for one) then for the trunk-punishing beats. It's then that everything begins to come together. Whereas other "trap" rappers might use the rolling hi-hats and punchy snares as mere backdrops, Migos use them as accent marks. Therein lies the talent of these three, who hopefully won't decide to oversaturate the rap world with their output.
If you're going to make a statement in the current hip-hop landscape, you better come with plenty of charisma, hunger, and/or a smattering of notable production. When it comes to Brooklyn's the Underachievers, they arrived with all three on 'Indigoism.' It's a mixture of their trademark psychedelia—they proudly rep their third eye—and gritted-teeth braggadocio bolstered by sample-heavy production that's either soulful or menacing. The opening track alone, 'Philanthropist,' is a slow-creeping monster outfitted with barely-letting-the-beat-breathe rhymes from Ak and Issa Gold. From there, they pay homage to their hometown with 'New New York,' channel their inner Souls of Mischief on 'The Mahdi,' and show love to their favorite drug in the murkiest way possible, 'Herb Shuttles.' If you need confirmation that the Beast Coast movement is real, here it is.
As fans clamored for the release of Pusha T's proper debut, 'My Name Is My Name,' at the top of 2013, they were met with another stopgap project in 'Wrath of Caine.' From the title to the cover art, it was an obvious nod to his drug-dealing past. And it left fans wondering if this was still a narrative worth buying into—it was and still is, for that matter. Pusha proved that by adapting to the sound of the moment and embracing new interests. Yes, there's "trap" music on here, namely 'Millions' and 'Road Runner,' but his fondness for reggae pervades, too. Standout tracks 'Blocka' and 'Take My Life' are indebted to the Caribbean and demonstrate Pusha confidently dragging bodies and slinging keys outside of his comfort zone. It was, in other words, a fitting lead into this fall's superb 'My Name Is My Name.'
If their name didn't give it away, Flatbush Zombies are three artists fond of rapping about the more morose topics out there. Hell, they even named their second mixtape 'BetterOffDEAD.' But it's not necessarily all "murder, murder, murder/kill, kill, kill" on here, though they do repeat that rap trope on standout cut 'Death.' There's an air of urgency on the tape that goes beyond wanting to strangle their opponents, shout out serial killers, and snort every drug known to man. As cannibalistic as their voices might sound, Flatbush Zombies are very much human. In between battle raps, they wax about their love for hip-hop on 'Regular and Complex' and fire well-aimed shots at the government on 'AmeriKKKan Pie.' These, among a few others, are the most lucid moments amid a mostly visceral and blunted listening experience, and they add much needed weight to the Zombies' "high as hell/ don't give a f--k" attitude.
Drake might be all about having 'No New Friends,' but that didn't stop him from adding a few artists to his OVO roster in 2013. Among them is PARTYNEXTDOOR, a slightly mysterious singer/producer who adopted this moniker as a reboot. He previously made dance-friendly jams under his government name (Jahron Brathwaite) but on his self-titled debut, he sounds molded directly from the OVO aesthetic. PND switches deftly from sing-song rap to all-out croon, though he's not afraid to straight-up rhyme on cuts like 'Right Now' and 'Break From Toronto.' And the production on the mixtape is moody and thick, though it still bangs thanks to the 808s. While that might all sound familiar, it's really not. PND is an artist all his own, capable of writing and vocalizing his own lyrics and producing the hypnotizing instrumental to accompany them. Throw all the obvious shade you want, but don't front like you're not going to check for his next project.
Compton rapper Problem isn't worried about being ultra-lyrical or stealing the so-called rap crown from his contemporaries as much as he is interested in remaining successful. This was apparent on his 2013 mixtape 'The Separation' that, as he told us, was inspired by his group's move away from the rest of the pack. He doesn't want to be lumped in with anyone else, which is what gives his approach on this tape such lasting power. You throw it on and you know exactly who you're listening to, and that remains true even when more well-known guests Wale and Game make an appearance. Problem is always leading the way and allows his feature complement his style, whether it's on a tough cut like the Game-featured 'Bang Bang' or the more sensual 'Do It' with Tyga.
'King Remembered In Time' is the work of an artist who's self-assured, hungry, and eager to give his fans what they want. Big K.R.I.T. returned to his sample-fueled roots following the release of his live instrumentation-laden debut album, the under-appreciated 'Live From The Underground.' And by removing himself from the shackles of copyright laws, the Meridian, Miss. native was free to make the music he wanted on his terms. This led to soulful romps alongside his heroes ('Shine' with Bun B), chest-pounding anthems ('King Without a Crown'), and relationship-driven introspection ('Bigger Picture'). There's also a hint at Krizzle's next move in the snippet of 'Just Last Week' with Future. While the move from his blue-collar roots to mainstream rap star seemed far-fetched before, they're evident on the radio-ready 'Just Last Week.' Now, if only the radio DJs stopped sleeping on the track.