With so much uncertainty in the world, music fans are in search of a simpler time. Almost nothing brings back early 2000s nostalgia like the idea of mixtapes. The distinction between albums, mixtapes and EPs seems to get blurred more and with each year that passes. Some artists claim they released a mixtape despite it being a studio LP and others will label a 15-track project an EP. Simply put, there’s not much rhyme or reason anymore.

But whether it’s just a label or artists releasing mixtapes and EPs in the traditional sense, plenty of these projects are still being delivered despite the ambiguity. HipHopDX is compiling the best of the best in an effort to help fans keep track of what drops in 2023. 

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2023 has opened the year with some great mixtapes. So far, fans have seen releases from Ice Spice, BabyTron, Armani White, Conway The Machine and more. DX will be narrowing down the endless amount of music released during the course of a year to the essentials, providing readers with a list of the must-listen projects.

Armani White – Road To Casablanco

Philly MC Armani White had an unconventional blow up. After years of grind, things finally clicked with his breakthrough hit, the Neptunes-sample international smash single “Billie Eilish,” amassing well over 40 billion streams. Now he drops off his first collection of songs since his meteoric rise and subsequent Def Jam signing, Road to CASABLANCO (a subtle nod to his 2018 Santo-produced “Casablanco Freestyle,” in name only). While a major label debut, this EP doesn’t attempt to create any deep sense of timeline or biographical context for new listeners, which makes sense as he isn’t a new artist. Instead, the project is a celebratory victory lap following a year that’s seen him go from criminally underrated to almost unfathomably popular. Sitting at nine songs, six of which are credited to “Billy Eilish” producer July Da Producer, it revels in his now-exaggerated profile, attempting to shake off any thought that his massive hit was in any way a fluke. In fact, for those who just tuned in, it’s the tip of the iceberg. – Riley Wallace

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Conway The Machine & Jae Skeese – Pain Provided Profit

Conway The Machine has cemented his spot. Over the past several years, the relentless Buffalo emcee, perched alongside his Griselda brothers Benny The Butcher and Westside Gunn, has ratcheted up the pressure on some of the biggest names in the rap game to up their lyrical skills. Conway’s sprawling extensive discography ranges from certified cult classics like 2015’s Reject 2 to shorter projects like his 2020 EP with The Alchemist, LULU. Although he’s still putting together striking bodies of work full of unrelenting lyricism and storytelling, like last year’s Shady Records debut, God Don’t Make Mistakes, it’s becoming clearer and clearer with each release that he no longer feels like he has something to prove. Now, he’s working to showcase his artists from his DrumWork label, with a priority on his protégé and first signee, Jae Skeese. Pain Provided Profit, Conway’s latest offering with Skeese, balances his veteran presence without stepping on his mentee’s lyrical and technical abilities in the process. – Isaac Fontes

Fly Anakin & foisey – Skinemaxxx Side A

Fly Anakin leveled up with Frank, a lowkey early album of the year candidate in 2022 that still held up when the year closed out. The Richmond rapper’s debut LP came after a breathless period of prolificacy, combining the bubbling psychedelia he and Big Kahuna OG explored on Holly Water with the heavy-lidded haze of his work with Pink Siifu. It was a triumph, a coming-out party that signaled Anakin’s arrival as an essential new voice to the broader rap landscape. A year later, he’s back with Skinemaxxx (Side A), the first of a two-part collaboration with foisey, a Connecticut-based producer and fellow Mutant Academy member. Unfortunately, Skinemaxxx doesn’t capitalize on the momentum Anakin built with Frank, feeling more like a lateral move than a charge forward. It’s a little confusing because there’s nothing about Skinemaxxx that’s inherently bad. Taken individually, the songs are mostly excellent. Anakin still approaches the mic like speed bag drills, displaying the tight rhythmic control that’s made him compelling from the jump. On quiet storm drill jam “Blickey Bop,” the EP’s first single, he moves with a Project Pat staccato, adding a sly, graceful swing on the phrase “get to know me.” Other tracks, like the organ strut of “Suppression” or cocaine funk of “Outsidigan’s Anthem” showcase Anakin’s precision; he raps with such an exacting meter that it’s easy to become fully hypnotized by his songs. – Dash Lewis

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RXK Nephew – Till I’m Dead

RXK Nephew is the type of rapper who doesn’t leave any song in the vault, matching the prolific release rates of Chief Keef, YoungBoy Never Broke Again, Gucci Mane, Lil Wayne, and Lil B. Since dropping more than 400 songs in 2021, the output has remained steady on his YouTube channel up until the release of his debut album Till I’m Dead. If you’ve been a fan of the Rochester, New York rapper since “American Tterroristt,” then you know Neph is not traditional in any sense, known for crazy quotables about questioning our existence through conspiracy theories and calling out celebrities. He occupies a space in Hip Hop reserved for people enamored with internet meme culture and Rap oddity, packing out DIY venues the moment he goes on tour. Till I’m Dead takes inspiration from The Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 debut Ready to Die, mirroring its cover art and the idea that he has something to say before he leaves this Earth. March 9 is the day Biggie died and maybe Neph wanted to draw from that symbolism by releasing Till I’m Dead on the same day. The album is the first where Neph worked with one producer (Brainstorm), and it’s the first where he recorded the songs completely sober. It’s a distinction that makes Till I’m Dead an intriguing entry point for people who are just catching up to Neph’s music, a concentrated effort of varied beats, mixed metaphors, and non-sequitur raps. Till I’m Dead is neither for the algorithm nor force fed by the industry machine, bombarding us to listen. Instead, the album stands out for being completely original, allowing Neph’s eccentric personality to shine. – Eric Diep

BigXThaPlug – Amar

Though Dallas has long been home to cult favorites like Big Tuck and The Outfit, TX, it’s only in recent years with rappers like Yella Beezy and the tragically late Mo3, that the Metroplex’s rich scene has had more of a national presence. BigXThaPlug is the latest voice from Dallas to generate serious buzz beyond the borders of the Lone Star State. That voice is his main appeal, full-bodied and heavy with weathered depth. At times it’s so deep that it’s almost subterranean, as if his voice were naturally chopped and screwed. Armed with a gruff, booming vocal register, his debut album AMAR exudes the kind of rich swagger and effortless charisma embodied by breakout Texas stars like Maxo Kream. BigXThaPlug grew up at the altar of Texas rap, worshiping the region’s rich rap heritage: As he says on “Texas,” “I thought Pimp C was a god before he went to prison.” But BigX’s music never feels like throwback pastiche or a nostalgic retread of the music that inspired him. AMAR pays homage to the land that raised BigXThaPlug and the legends who shaped him, fusing a classic sound with a modern sensibility. – Nadine Smith

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Young Nudy – Gumbo

Young Nudy operates in the realm of neon distortion. Since 2016, the 30-year-old stylist has blended his sticky rasp and macabre gunplay with beats that could soundtrack Zelda, creating songs that are jarring and immersive. He’s rarely shown interest in veering from that style, and he’s yet to experience the commercial breakthrough of his cousin 21 Savage or Gucci Mane, but his consistency and penchant for merging his distinctive vocals with idiosyncratic production keep him on the line between “if you know you know” and legit rap stardom. With its vibrantly sinister sounds, pristine sequencing and spurts of Nudy’s underrated humor and flow versatility, Gumbo is just more evidence of his status as one of Atlanta’s most unique artists. – Peter Barry

YG Teck & Peezy – Champain

In rap music, as in life, sometimes the best partnerships are the most unexpected. The odd couple, the unpredictable pairing that brings out new strengths in an individual and nudges the boundaries of their comfort zone. Baltimore’s YG Teck and Detroit’s Peezy are a tag team I wouldn’t have shipped, more like The Rock N’ Sock Connection than The British Bulldogs or The Young Bucks, who find strength in their respective differences rather than working as a completely seamless unit. Their joint mixtape Champain is a combination that’s novel enough to grab your attention and dependable enough to maintain it. Teck and Peezy are each from regions with their own rich scenes and signature flows. Teck has the thickest Baltimore accent this side of Snoop from The Wire, a pronounced drawl on the vowels of words like “Do” and “Choose” that gives his frequently-sung flow a syrupy texture, oozing slowly like molasses. Peezy’s delivery showcases distinctive relentlessness of Michigan scam rap on opener “Like Dat,” but across Champain, he frequently takes his foot off the gas to more evenly match Teck’s crooner sensibility. On “Japanese,” he slips into more of an Auto-Tuned warble, imbuing his voice with a weary resignation — though he’s swaddled in drip and relishing his trophies, the atmosphere is dejected and sullen. – Nadine Smith

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BabyTron – Out On Bond

At his best, BabyTron doesn’t give you room to escape his deadpan charisma. Pairing an indifferent monotone with eclectic pop culture references, he unspools successive, kaleidoscopic punchlines in tightly coiled couplets, soaking up jittery Detroit beats for tracks that are as funny as they are exhilarating. They’re also technically precise. He flaunts all these abilities on Out on Bond, a five-song project that continues his steady streak while distilling his most favorable qualities in tidy fashion. Out on Bond arrives a few weeks after BabyTron was arrested for possession of a controlled substance. Naturally, his mugshot went viral. Even more appropriately, he uses his mugshot as the cover, putting him in the lineage of rappers who were unfairly arrested before him. He starts off the EP by addressing the brief imprisonment, poking fun at the customary #FreeHim viral campaigns in the process. “Stop saying free me, I was out the next day — that’s a broke problem,” he begins on the title track. From there, he wastes no time diving into quips that drip humor and machismo: “Worried if I’m locked up, make sure that your rent paid/All my mans around me fresh like next year we in 10th grade.” Like other rap tropes, Tron takes the time to skew the public’s faux thoughts and prayers care when a rapper they like gets locked up, not letting people use his name for clout and get away with it. – Peter Barry

Skech185 & Jeff Markey – He Left Nothing For The Swim Back

When asked about his searing delivery during a recent appearance on The Rap Music Plug Podcast, SKECH explained that it’s to make the listener “feel as tired as [he does].” He records each verse in one fell swoop but does several takes until he’s fully explored the emotional crevices of each line. It sounds exhausting; you can feel his tensed neck muscles when midway through “The River” he snarls, “There’s a war going on outside/ you were born with your uniform in uterus.” Throughout the song, an examination of how the corpse of Manifest Destiny festers in the American psyche, SKECH’s gruff voice spirals upwards towards dizzying peaks before descending into quieter — but no less anxious — valleys. He ends by sighing, “The march continues as it always does,” one of many instances across He Left Nothing for the Swim Back that finds SKECH slumped, utterly spent from another day in dystopia. – Dash Lewis
Coming of age during the peak of P2P sharing sites like Limewire and Frostwire’s dominance, Producer Popstar Benny has helped paint a different palette for Atlanta. If Zaytoven replaced the piano keys with digital plug-ins, Benny would be the outcome. He offers licorice sweet production that blurs genre lines of hyperpop, trap, EDM, drill, and jersey club, with 8-bit video game and anime samples. University!, Benny’s sophomore album featuring his friends and collaborators, feels like a Japanese RPG (think Persona or Final Fantasy); every artist has a specific role, with each song providing a soundtrack to their journey. It’s imaginative, fun, and a gleaming showcase of the next generation of ATL rap. – Anthony Malone

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Ice Spice – Like…?

As the internet’s most popular rapper right now, Ice Spice is well-versed on what it took to get “Munch (Feelin’ U)” into the mainstream; when combined with the use of unique phrases, her skittered agile flow is free to emphasize and pronunciate at her own accord. Ice Spice is undoubtedly on the rise; the question is whether or not she can remain in the spotlight. Her debut EP Like…? arrives with an eye-roll and answer of, “obviously.” From the cheeky dismissive bars sprinkled throughout the tracklist to the provocative title and cover art, everything about Like..? doubles-down on the artistic qualities and signatures that first catalyzed Ice Spice’s overnight success, and asserts she will not accept one hit wonder status no matter how many times detractors try to box her in. Her affinity for wrapping common sensibilities in clever verses and delivering them like her own discovery is just one of the things that makes Ice Spice one of the hottest young rappers in the game. “The party not lit / then I’d rather not go,” she explains in a single rush of breath on “Bikini Bottom.” The sentiment is easily understood; so much so, that Ice Spice’s lyricism can be dismissed for its simplicity; but when push comes to shove, most don’t have the audacity to verbalize their wants and needs in the same unapologetic way that the Bronx-native does with finesse. –Rebecca Barglowksi

IDK – SIMPLE.

Focus has been a struggle with IDK, a main thorn that’s kept his best material from sticking the landing. But on his latest project, aptly titled Simple., the PG County rapper forgoes existential questions and on the nose large-ranging concepts, instead, leaning into an underrated part of his arsenal – dance music. He’s shown an ability to ride a groove on previous tracks such as the Burna Boy-assisted “December” and Lucky Daye-featuring “Puerto Rico.” However, Simple. enlists the help of KAYTRANADA to create a lush exhibition of rooftop dance parties and sensual summer flings. IDK flaunts his vocal talents and ear for fun and catchy dance tracks, leading to a cohesive and joyous experience. But SIMPLE. is not without purpose, despite the candy-coated beats, the project is named after Simple City, a neighborhood in the Benning Terrace projects of SouthEast DC, deriving its name from the grim outlook that anyone can get killed there for simple reasons. Using the dance music underscores the harsh reality IDK paints throughout the record about the struggle to improve neighborhood safety and wellbeing amid inflation and lack of infrastructural needs. Even if those things were afforded to residents, change doesn’t come overnight…but it would be a start. Using his knack for melody and rhythm to dive into these issues allows IDK to get his point across while making some of his most compelling music to date. – Josh Svetz