Just what exactly a mixtape is has had people in a tiff the last few years. Questions will be raised like, “If it has all original music, how can it be a mixtape?” We suppose that’s what weary listeners of the 90s set asked when mixtapes suddenly no longer meant buying Clue tapes from some shady dude wearing a trench coat in July. Then there’s the confusion surrounding what the artists themselves are calling it. Drakes IYRTITL was a mixtape and then it wasn’t, and wasn’t it? And did it count towards his contractual albums or didn’t it? The Barter 6 also suffered from the same kind of confusion. In short, the line between mixtape and album is blurred, no Robin Thicke.
Which brings us to why certain pieces of joy were left off this list. Almost anything from TDE because, well, they called almost everything they did an album over time. Who can blame them? But it means you won’t be seeing Section.80 or Control System, and it’s not because we didn’t love them because we did. Similarly, you won’t find Danny Brown’s XXX on here even though it was a searing homunculus of drugs, partying and IDGAF because they called it an album. Also pay attention to the term decade. It means we aren’t counting anything that came out before 2010, which leaves off Nicki’s Beam Me Up Scotty and Drake’s So Far Gone as well as Lil Wayne’s No Ceilings. Everything else is, well, up for debate, but we hope you’ll agree with most of it.
*These mixtapes are not in any particular order.
Big K.R.I.T. – “K.R.I.T. Wuz Here”
Release Date: May 3, 2010
Kritical was on his last, last spittle of gasoline before he dropped K.R.I.T Wuz Here. It was his leave-it-all-out-on-the-field moment, as more pointed works from years past left crowds not feeling much of anything at all. His 2010 offering changed all that, immediately placing him in a line of one as OutKast’s true successor and Def Jam’s southern answer to Nas. And not only did he rap, he produced, making his DIY coupling of grizzled tenor and thumping bassline seem like a gift from the rap Gods. The pressure was on after this one, though, and while he wouldn’t quite figure it out until last years Cadillactica, the Mississippi emcee would place himself in the conversation as a torchbearer for the future of southern Hip Hop with his 2010 now classic release.
Wiz Khalifa – “Kush & Orange Juice”
Release Date: April 14, 2010
Before Kush & OJ Wiz Khalifa was some kind of West Coast/Midwestern hybrid hailing from Pittsburgh who pitched stoner raps like horseshoes. After Kush & OJ Wiz was a cult figure lit up in a purple enjoined haze. A stoner messiah for the slender post-hipster set looking for redemption and Bud Light in a post 9/11 world. Was it the cover art straight jacked from David Ruffin’s low-key sex-smoked masterpiece Gentleman Ruffin? Or was it the litany of zoned out bangers like “Mesmerize,” “Up,” “In The Cut,” and “Visions” that made Kush & Orange Juice the classic it would almost immediately become? Either way it launched the legend of Wiz Khalifa, and he would soon find the ultimate pay dirt with a little song called “Black and Yellow,” which combined with his hometown Steelers making the Super Bowl catapulted him into mainstream prominence.
Earl Sweatshirt – “Earl”
Release Date: March 31, 2010
Earl was shocking, introverted horror-speak spoken from the mouths of babies, and it was crystallised menace all at once. It was also the beginning of the end for the pre-second-decade of the 21st century web with it’s intimate spaces where kids could conjure ways of thinking into modes of being. The runtime is less than 30 minutes and yet once you listened in full it felt like you were digesting an entire universe. And that eponymous track was brutal. Earl in a barber shop looking like an old man, prescription drugs and whatever else mixed up into a goo, and all the OF kiddies trying to poison themselves out of being angry. All while scat, rape, and torture spun up from that cauldron like an unseemly witches brew. Tyler, BeatBoy, Hodgy and Left Brain laced those beats up to the ankle tight. And, oh: Fuck Steve Harvey!
Joey Bada$$ – “1999”
Release Date – June 12, 2012
Joey Bada$$ and the Pro Era crew came seemingly out of the NYC dark with 1999. It was a brilliant little exposition on a pocket of NYC that is almost extinct. And like a white rhino it gleamed ever brighter for it. You could just about hear the dutch pot bubbling with oil, the crooked tenement door creaking closed, and the infinity of skating around with your friends avoiding crooked cops, sheisty grown-ups and the booth operators of the city’s subterranean palace. There was a second consciousness, too: An information-aged third eye theme intermingling with one of unity, of love. “Waves” was made in Joey’s bedroom, and it thrust him immediately into “savior of New York rap” territory. The young master has worn the crown well, if crookedly, and when you look into his eyes you can’t help but see a very old soul smoking ganja overlooking a calm blue sea.
Yelawolf – “Trunk Muzik”
Release Date: January 1, 2010
Yelawolf had been kicked down more than his fair share of times before making friends with Kawan Prather’s Ghet-to-Vision Entertainment and releasing Trunk Muzik. If he wasn’t riding around in his “Box Chevy” with fellow Slumerican Rittz, he “Licked The Cat” with former Crime Mob femcee Diamond and spit his most blistering rhymes on the titular track. For those who doubted him, he was ready to “Pop The Trunk.” The mixtape served as a new beginning for the Alabama native who eventually made his way over to Eminem’s Shady Records.
Action Bronson – “Blue Chips”
Release Date: May 12, 2012
Bronsolino can rap his ass off and nothing put that out there on display more than Blue Chips. All of it was signature Bronson, “eatin’ tacos higher than an opera note,” and the pop cultural reference to the Shaq and Penny duo that never quite hit the jackpot. The beats were lush and referential, and the man rapped about everything: Hookers at the point, all different kinds of delicacies, and life in and out of the cultural melting pot that was Flushing, Queens. The non-sequitur comparative rap is there as he resurrects wild names and your mind jumps into a feeding frenzy. It’s the kind of visceral nostalgia that seems easy to do until you realize no one else is actually doing it. Like walking into Denny’s and smelling your exes perfume and being instantly taken back to that place. Blue Chips taught us nothing is really forgotten; it’s just lying in wait.
Kendrick Lamar – “Overly Dedicated”
Release Date: September 14, 2010
Kendrick Lamar was still a young emcee getting his bearings around 2010, but Overly Dedicated was his breakout moment for a couple of reasons. One, it was his last mixtape before TDE would independently drop Section.80 and the two year waits would begin as he would move from one amazing concept album to the next. Two, he found his voice here, and began to lay the ideas for what would become “signature” Kendrick Lamar. Three, he’d always exhibited protean talents, but he began to gel on Overly Dedicated, beginning to rhyme in the multiplicative styles and voices he’d become known for. A style that was both straightforward and breathlessly complex. And speaking of breathless, “The Heart Pt. 2” would move us into a different space, bringing voice to The Roots absolutely beautiful “The Light” as Kendrick seemed to be brought to tears by exactly how badly he wanted to explain the words buried in his mind.
Frank Ocean – “Nostalgia Ultra”
Release Date: February 11, 2011
Just before The Weeknd would drop his opus to booze, women and ill will, Frank Ocean would drop the beautifully rendered Nostalgia Ultra. It was a true mixtape, as he lent his delicate tenor to other people’s beats for a few, terraforming them into water droplets of dense, sweet rhythm and blues. He’d also have a few originals on there, and his rehashing of what it meant to be numb, “Novacane,” shot him clear into the alt R&B stratosphere. The entire tape was incredible however, as it took on the different kind of hazy angst plaguing the young at the time and, well, plagues them still.
A$AP Rocky – “Live.Love.A$AP”
Release Date: October 31, 2011
A$AP Rocky’s “Purple Swag” has about 32 million Youtube views right now, and everyone can tell you where they were when they saw that young white girl with the grill mouth the lyrics to some new fusion of H-town lean and New York swag. At the time it was like a new door opened in New York Hip Hop, and the A$AP crew spilled out into the blogosphere. “Peso” followed closely behind, and the hype was approaching a straight up fever. How many members were there? Some estimates had it at over 30, but the undeniable leaders were Yam$, Rocky, Ferg, Bari and Ant. The mixtape dropped to ridiculous hype next, and when A$AP proved that he could actually rap his career trajectory was cemented. Since, he’s gone on to be a cultural mainstay, bringing fashion and cool-kid-rap together in a different way than Kanye and Pharrell before him.
J. Cole – “Friday Night Lights”
Release Date: November 12, 2010
J. Cole was one mixtape into his time at Jay Z’s fairly new Roc Nation. Tracks like “Lights Please” proved he was more than capable of making music that remained fairly rooted in Hip Hop but went just pop enough. Going for the gold, he dropped Friday Night Lights a year later and managed to top his own previous work with cuts including “In The Morning” featuring Drake (eventually featured on his debut Cole World: The Sideline Story) and “Villematic.” Though many doubted, Friday Night Lights proved exactly why Hov took Jermaine under his wing. And more than his ability to put syllables together was Cole’s message and his way of being. The man’s amassed a cult following, with everything he does being laced with a kind of authenticity rarely found in Hip Hop nowadays.
Pusha T – “Wrath Of Caine”
Release Date: January 28, 2013
King Push has been through it. First, The Clipse broke up because his brother disagrees with him on a fundamental level about the music they created together. Then, the accusations of being a one-trick-pony, with the term “coke rap” thrown around like sand at a beach. After came the reinvention with G.O.O.D Music, but save a few standout verses on MBDTF and Cruel Summer, his most poignant and important work has been his 2013 standout Wrath Of Caine. Originally billed as a hold-over while MNIMN leapt into our arms, it became one of the best examples of his prolific talents of his career. It also reminded us that we lived in the kind of horrible world where “Blocka,” “Millions,” and “Trust Me” don’t make the official album.
Big Sean – “Detroit”
Release Date: September 5, 2012
Sure, Detroit’s own Big Sean had a few hits under his belt thanks to his G.O.O.D. debut Finally Famous in “A$$” (Remix) featuring Nicki Minaj and his rookie verse on Cruel Summer single “Clique” with Kanye West and Jay Z. However, it was yet to be determined if he could actually pull off a full body of work on his own. Then came Detroit. Alongside flexing every lyrical bone in his body, Sean managed to also break the internet when Datpiff crashed seconds after Detroit’s release.
Chance The Rapper – “Acid Rap”
Release Date: April 30, 2013
It’s quite interesting how Chicago’s own Chance The Rapper is nearing the release of Surf two years after the release of his breakout Acid Rap project and still manages to tour manically. Yes, it’s that good. The mix of post-Kanye experimentalism, Chicago juke and traditionalist Hip Hop sonically painted colors in broad strokes. It didn’t hurt that Chance’s tight rhyming blended acute social commentary, humor and rough introspection perfectly.
Rapsody – “She Got Game”
Release Date: August 20, 2013
Those who recently caught wind of Snow Hill, North Carolina emcee Rapsody on Kendrick Lamar’s opus To Pimp A Butterfly could be pointed to this breathtaking mixtape for further examples. She Got Game is one of DJ Drama’s rare hosting duties that specifically serve core Hip Hop fans. Most importantly, the project has excellent features from Raekwon, Jay Electronica, Chance The Rapper, Common, Phonte and Mac Miller among others. Then again, Rap is the star and she shines like no other.
Gucci Mane – “Trap God 2”
Release Date: February 12, 2013
“Gucci Mane La Flare, millionaire but don’t give no care, tote my pistol anywhere, go to war with a grizzly bear,” says Radric Davis on Lil Wayne and Young Scooter’s assisted “Bullet Wound.” It’s the perfect description for someone who has become Atlanta’s one man rapper/A&R and weirdo thug. Within this list, there were plenty of mixtapes of Gucci Mane’s that could have made this list including Burrrprint (2) HD, Mr. Zone 6, Trap Back, Diary of a Trap God and I’m Up. However, there hasn’t been a mixtape that explains the subversive genius of the marble mouth charm that equates to Gucci Mane himself like Trap God 2.
Travis Scott – “Owl Pharaoh”
Release Date: May 21, 2013
If you listened to Yeezus you would have heard a lot of Travis Scott’s influence, as the disintegration of chord projections, synths and hard rhymes echoed an adolescent finding out he was a stranger in a strange land. Owl Pharaoh was Scott’s true introduction to us all. His flared out soundscapes felt like a bombed out building in the rubble filled cities of our immature souls. He is the “new” Houston if one is even trying to claim such a thing, and his dalliances with both G.O.O.D Music and Grand Hustle have touched the lives of older emcees like an elixir helping to bring them back to life. “Upper Echelon” featuring 2 Chainz was his breakout, though, a bonafide single from the very young emcee/producer that feels, still, like he’s from another world entirely.
The Weeknd – “House Of Balloons”
Release Date: March 11, 2011
Beautifully sung, House Of Balloons was really a Frankenstein love story. Abel was the twisted, empty young existentialist and libertine calling out to all the lonely, brainy, said beauties exclaiming, “You wanna be high for this.” The chorus flooded in, and the tape spread out before you as you listened to his lyrics of desperate lust and tender understanding. What was this? The Internet sprang anew with think pieces on this “new” R&B. No longer aspirational about love, male crooners had become sudden pragmatists doubling down on apathy and sex above all else. House Of Balloons marks a kind of beginning to that trend. Then he was scooped up by OVO because this is their very aesthetic. And once The Weeknd was absorbed into the fold Drake came one step closer to defining a sound that would haunt us ever since.
Migos – “Young Rich Niggas”
Release Date: June 13, 2013
The hood’s equivalent to The Beatles were only known for the local sensation “Bando” before Quavo, Offset and Take Off dropped their breakout mixtape Young Rich Niggas. Their profile rose to unprecedented heights once Drake hopped on the remix to their luxury fashion ode “Versace.” It didn’t stop there as “Hannah Montana” kept white women twerking all damn night. Since then, the trio has risen to become one of “New Atlanta”s best new artists. Drake and Jay Electronica have eventually copied that triplet flow, as well.
Quelle Chris – “Niggas Is Men”
Release Date: April 30, 2013
The Detroit Native uncorked a long, wolfen sigh with Niggas Is Men. It was gorgeously constructed chain gang rap for the modern era, filled with all the tensions governing our lives. There’s even a chorus asking with real brevity, “Who’s going to clean this shit up?” Like, what? It was post- Love Jones ideating on love and relationships and life for Gen Y. Just how can we navigate these relationships that are supposed to govern our lives? It featured a gaggle of emcees that defined the Brooklyn Hii Power underground like Cavalier and Fresh Daily giving their best performances to date. And it was earthy in a land of people faking out lives where their choices are infinite.
Mac Miller – “Faces”
Release Date: May 11, 2014
Remember when Pitchfork gave Blue Slide Park a 1.0 after it sold over a 100K in the first week? Since then Mac has grown up past being a very populist rap jokester into a bluesy ombudsman for the game. Faces was that evolution incarnate. Damn near no features and Mac Miller built a world all his very own. Coming up to this mixtape Mac had been bodying other people’s tracks while putting out his own top-tier music. So, his DNA can be found all over this list, weaving into and out of the lives of Vince Staples and Earl Sweatshirt. Plus, he did it all without a Drake feature.
Rick Ross – “Rich Forever”
Release Date: January 6, 2012
Was it the Diddy assisted intro that blended both the spiritual and turnt through “Holy Ghost?” Or was it Drake’s acidic verse subliminal disses on the French Montana hooked “Stay Schemin?” Regardless, Rich Forever was Rick Ross’ peak before the downfall in quality that set between God Forgives, I Don’t and the mostly dreadful Hood Billionaire. Following what many see as his best album to date, Teflon Don, Ricky Rozay managed to deliver a project that damn near evolved past his fourth feature length project.
Vince Staples & Larry Fisherman – “Stolen Youth”
Release Date: June 20, 2013
Vince Staples and Mac Miller’s production alias Larry Fisherman created anarchic magic through Stolen Youth. Both managed to bring the absolute best out of each other in crafty ways. Staples’ already dynamic rhyming skill set evolved drastically while Miller’s production showed improvements that would work better for himself down the line. If Stolen Youth was a healthy experiment in stretching creative boundaries, both delivered in spades.
Young Thug – “1017 Thug”
Release Date: February 23, 2013
1017 Thug displayed the potential Young Thug had to offer regarding the new emerging scene out of Atlanta. Starting with “Stoner,” that star potential the Lil Wayne fanatic displayed had him evolving into new territories. Then the collaborative Black Portland project with Atlanta brethren Bloody Jay introduced the world to “Danny Glover.” The rest has been controversial history. But, it was the odd crooning of “Nigeria” and “Trigger Finger” along with the Wayne influence of “Jungle” featuring then mentor Gucci Mane that made all the difference.
Jhene Aiko – “Sailing Soul(s)”
Release Date: March 16, 2011
While the rest of the world focused on the PBR&B adventures of Frank Ocean and champagne adventures of The Weeknd, Jhene Aiko was slowly building ground thanks to key collaborations with TDE artists Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul. Not bad for someone who had an “almost there” moment during her time under TUG Entertainment, the label that groomed B2K. Reestablishing herself in more earthtones, Aiko managed to create a mixtape that transitioned somber to sweet. Didn’t help that she had some help from guest features ranging from Drake to Gucci Mane.
Lil B – “Everything Based”
Release Date: July 23, 2010
Outside of Lil Wayne’s glory days, there hasn’t been a rapper alive who has utilized mixtapes within the digital era like the Based God himself Lil B. The Berkeley native essentially went from member of “Vans” group The Pack to post-Lil Wayne oddity due in part to modern classics “Wonton Soup” and “Suck My Dick Hoe.” It’s nearly impossible to count the number of mixtapes and compilations featuring Lil B but the best example of his best works has to be Everything Based.
Andre Grant is an NYC native turned L.A. transplant that has contributed to a few different properties on the web and is now the Features Editor for HipHopDX. He’s also trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot. Follow him on Twitter @drejones.
Ural Garrett is an Los Angeles-based journalist and HipHopDX’s Senior Features Writer. When not covering music, video games, films and the community at large, he’s in the kitchen baking like Anita. Follow him on Twitter @Uralg.