What is a mixtape these days? Do beats need to be jacked? Must it be for free? Lord knows it doesn't have to be an actual mix, nor on tape. It seems like the modern mixtape, for all intents and purposes, is only labeled as such by the artist that puts it out. If DJ Khaled can drop albums on which he does nothing but yell, and artists like Chance the Rapper and Michael Christmas can release fully-formed projects without a price tag, we're lost at sea here. We might as well just get rid of categories like "mixtape" and "album" as a whole, but humans can't function unless things are compartmentalized, so confusion reigns.
What we can say to distinguish these 10 mixtapes from albums is you can't buy physical copies -- at least not official ones. With DatPiff and LiveMixtapes getting populated with new tapes every day, we thought it best to highlight mixtapes across a wide range of tastes that ruled rotations in 2014. Nerds, boom-bap heads and turn-up gurus, you're all welcome. These are the 10 Best Mixtapes of 2014.
'STN MNTN'Childish Gambino
Childish Gambino once had a dream of running Atlanta and doing his own Gangsta Grillz, so he got DJ Drama on board and actually did one for ‘STN MNTN.’ Even though he often sounds like he’s imitating Big Sean or Drake, the project is a successful experiment in the same vein as Pharrell’s infamous pre-‘In My Mind’ tape. Gambino tries on hats he usually wouldn't don. When he’s not rhyming over classics from Mannie Fresh, Neptunes and Timbaland, Gambino’s beat selection is on point thanks to beatmakers like Nick Banga, Black Party, Kari Faux and Tim Suby.
The tape, named after the Stone Mountain town where Gambino grew up in Georgia, is a one-dimensional exercise in putting on another skin for the rapper-actor, who’s far from a down South rapper in every way. Seen from that angle conceptually, the project takes on a nuance, and Gambino’s adept rhyming skills help make the tape one of the smoothest listens of 2014.
Wiz Khalifa’s ‘Blacc Hollywood’ failed to excite the masses outside of his hit single ‘We Dem Boyz,’ but months before that LP dropped, he gave fans a more palatable treat -- 28 tracks on ’28 Grams.’
The tape finds Wiz slipping in and out of different styles as he tries on production by Metro Boomin’, Zaytoven, Sonny Digital and other southern stalwarts. He’s on his usual spacey tip, joined by familiar friends (Curren$y and Chevy Woods, for example) and newcomers (like Curtis Williams and Ty Dolla $ign) alike. ‘Let’R’ is an ethereal ode to letting girls do their thing and ‘Like Jimmy’ is as groovy as it gets, so while ’28 Grams’ might seem overblown at first, it has its golden nuggets spread throughout the tape.
You only need 10 songs to get your project’s message across -- just ask Nas. ‘House Rules’ say if your tape is too long, the songs aren’t potent enough. Royce Da 5’9”, Joe Budden, Kxng Crooked and Joell Ortiz pack more headbanging bars into this short tape than most rappers spit in their entire careers. Production from Illmind, Harry Fraud, Nottz and Heatmakerz, among others, make it more than just a lyrical affair, but a musical one, too.
With the official sophomore Slaughterhouse album, ‘Glass House,’ coming in 2015, ‘House Rules’ is an excellent appetizer for the main course.
When Tyrone Biggums showed up for the “Free Crack Giveaway” on 'Chappelle’s Show,' he couldn’t have anticipated it being as good as Lil Bibby’s mixtape series. The young Chicago rapper has a voice that sounds far more weathered than his age might belie, but his lyrics make it clear: he’s seen a lot of pain and his delivery feels desperate, like rap is his last resort. He doesn’t have a revolutionary take on the drill sound that once radiated out of the Midwest, but Bibby, along with his compatible counterpart Lil Herb, is the crowning young voice of the scene.
The highs of the project include the Kevin Gates collaboration ‘We Are Strong,’ the motivational ‘Dead or in Prison,’ and the soulful ‘Tomorrow,’ produced by Honorable C-Note. Look for Bibby to stop dropping all this crack for free and start racking up in the mainstream in 2015.
'By Any Means'Kevin Gates
The music Baton Rouge rapper Kevin Gates makes can be best described as emo trap. He prides himself on his depression, boasts of the intimate details behind cooking crack and indulges in all the lascivious details of sex -- yes, even eating booty. Yet ‘By Any Means,’ his mixtape from March 2014, impresses not for the content but for how Gates delivers it.
The opener, ‘Wish I Had It,’ finds Gates riding around, looking out of his window and seeing everything he wishes he had. The way he bellows “window” alone conveys his hunger. His manipulation of melody at a whim on ‘Movie’ is another highlight, and though the domestic abuse simulation of ‘Posed to Be in Love’ has garnered its fair share of criticism, ‘By Any Means’ works as a look into Gates’ process as a wide-ranging songwriter.
Lyor Cohen’s 300 label has snatched up all of the upcoming Atlanta rap stars, and Migos could be argued as the epicenter of the Quality Control imprint. At their best, Migos' songs are catchy, fun and built for the club or a car ride or something that involves going outside with humans. At their worst, they’re repetitive to a fault. Many of the hooks are just drilled at you and it isn’t always effective. It’s like in-ear branding and it’s been wildly successful in the marketplace.
What’s more interesting is the way Quavo, Offset and Takeoff use their voices in different ways on their project from early 2014, 'No Label II.' It feels very free, this unrestrained singing and stretching of their vocal chords on songs like ‘No F---in With’ and ‘Birds.’ Each of them can sound pained, anxious, excited or confident. Their voices carry a range of emotions that makes you want to listen. Massive beats from Zaytoven, Metro Boomin’, Cheese, Murda and others help, too, though the group’s ear for beats isn’t quite as experimental as those from Travis Scott or Young Thug.
There’s been a hysteria about these guys the likes of which seems to have come out of the blue. They aren’t too out there like Thugger and they’re not quite as street as Gucci Mane, so they seem to find the right middle ground between hard rap and pop stuff. That makes them radio-friendly and thus automatically popular once the spins come. They are, as the writer Andrew Nosnitsky put it, “The Thing That Everyone Is Talking About.” They’re also heavily influenced by Future and 'No Labels II' is a crucial twist on the Atlanta crooner’s style. Still, the hits on here -- 'Handsome and Wealthy’ and ‘Fight Night’ -- stand on their own, and the project as a whole is a testament to the lasting power of Migos.
Dej Loaf’s breakout tape is quietly one of the best rap projects of the year. Her delivery is fluid and her production, handled mostly by DDS, is aquatic, but it’s her mastery of melody that rules over ‘Sell Sole.’ 'Blood' proves she can fish a catchy hook right out of thin air, while 'I Don't Know' illustrates how effective three words can be when said a certain way.
The standout of the tape, however, is ‘Me U Hennessy,’ a ballad that sounds like something out of Drake’s notebook. Dej, like Shy Glizzy, is primed for stardom with her voice alone. Whether she’ll need another smash hit like ‘Try Me’ in order to stay relevant remains to be seen -- if she keeps dropping projects as solid as ‘Sell Sole,’ she’ll build a loyal following in no time.
No one in the world has a voice like Shy Glizzy, and if they do, they don’t make rap music. The kid out of Washington, D.C., who partnered with Lyor’s 300 label, has been making noise in his city for years, but ‘Young Jefe’ was his national breakout moment, as it primed the incredible self-help anthem ‘Awwsome’ for radio and paved the way for his equally dope ‘Law 3’ tape.
Street knowledge, mantra-like choruses and a gang of different flows infuse ‘Young Jefe’ with a bright energy. ‘Medellin’ proves how lethal Glizzy and Zaytoven can be together, ‘I’m a Star’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and ‘Free the Gang’ has a haunting hook. Glizzy has this innate ability to sound lighthearted when he’s talking about heavy subjects like imprisoned friends and his own funeral. He may end up being the voice of a new generation that sees every inequity performed in the streets and still rises above it.
'Tha Tour, Pt. 1'Rich Gang
The Rich Gang mixtape that everyone’s been talking about has three different dynamics at work: Young Thug’s indecipherable babble, Rich Homie Quan’s all-too-human pleading (his opening bars on ‘Freestyle’ are pure poetry) and the interplay between the two. The fact that these guys occupy two different aesthetic spheres serves to heighten their individual talents, making Young Thug sound like he’s having a séance while Rich Homie sounds like he’s on a couch for therapy.
‘Givenchy’ might be the most virtuosic performance of Thugger’s career so far, as he flows like water in and out of London On Da Track’s beautiful beat. The tape has something for every mood -- ‘Flava’ is celebratory, ‘730’ is almost gothic in its dark dominance, ‘Imma Ride’ is music to pull off the lot to and ‘Milk Marie’ is one of the most unique love songs in recent years, no matter the genre. By the time the tape winds down and Nipsey Hussle surprises with one of his best verses in years, it hardly even matters -- Quan and Thugger have flown us to Mars. Now we just look down on itty bitty humans.
Future’s ‘Honest’ album was a smooth ride, but it had its bumpy moments. His breakup with Ciara seems to have rekindled a new flame in the Atlanta dope boy, though. ‘Monster’ might be the best mixtape of his career. Only two songs are iffy -- the opening ‘Radical,’ which sounds completely drowned in promethazine, and ‘Wesley Presley,’ which never launches from its boring base.
Besides that, the tape is top to bottom full of hits. ‘F--- Up Some Commas’ is engineered for the club, ‘Mad Luv’ works as any confident person’s walk-in music and ‘Codeine Crazy’ is a ballad not only to his muddy drink, but perhaps the pain that said drink conceals, too. Replace ‘Wesley Presley’ with ‘Break the Rules,’ which didn’t make the cut, and you’ve got the best mixtape of 2014, hands down.