As the convenience and ubiquity of streaming has all but stamped out a future for platforms like Datpiff, it becomes increasingly difficult to ascertain the meaning and function of mixtapes. Check in on the people trying to find the exact divide between tapes and albums online, and you’ll likely end up more confused. Must they be exclusively released on a free-to-use service like SoundCloud or Spinrilla? Not in this decade. Are they just a casual assortment of loosies, decidedly less “official” than an album release? Many folks might land on that definition, but a burgeoning subset of rappers like Pi’erre Bourne, Bear1boss, and Tony Shhnow have spent the past few years re-examining the digital mixtape releases of their youth to develop a phenomenology of bootleg culture, bringing the art of hosting and curation to the forefront of their work.
Of this new guard, Atlanta’s Shhnow displays an unparalleled mastery over the format. From the MIDI-laden R&B of 2021’s Authentic Goods to the first-wave trap bounce of 48 Laws of Flower 2, each of his projects are a discrete, loosely conceptual experience guided by a carefully-selected handful of like-minded producers. LOVE STREAK—a dreamy follow-up to his KILLSTREAK collaborations with lo-fi beatmaker GRiMM Doza—is Shhnow’s best work yet, delving deep into a psychedelic, sample-based aesthetic that often pushes him out of his plugg-y comfort zone.
Doza’s production teeters the fine line between boom-bap and dark trap, allowing more space for Shhnow’s wordplay to cut through the mix without relying on the gaudy tropes of prestige rap. LOVE STREAK highlight “Need” demonstrates their chemistry at its most potent. The sultry loop, decorated with bongos and retro synth leads, activates an intensity that usually lies dormant beneath Shhnow’s leisurely mic presence. “She in my ear singin’ touch me, tease me, feel me, please me,” he pants on the track’s chorus, sprung like a cartoon character with a heartbeat thumping out of his chest. He pounces on the beat from all angles, catching his usual Guwop-esque flows while also carving out new paths—he’s nearly hyperventilating as syllables spill over from one stanza to the next.
“Mixed Emotions” pulls another lounge sample from Doza’s crate, but incorporates it into much less analog production, adding 808s and rapid-fire hi-hats to a tapestry of twinkling keys. The more rigid rhythm of the beat prevents Shhnow from experimenting with flows at the same level as he did on “Need,” so he shifts his focus to mood-setting, professing his love through religious imagery like: “she give me hell but she was born a baptist” and “she prays for patience but the lord don’t give you patience, he’s gonna give you opportunity to be patient.”
The surreal atmosphere of “ILY / IH8U” inspires a brief and bittersweet sketch about a relationship on the rocks, while a whispery hook from D.R.A.M. on “Reminisce” sets him up to reflect on that same heartbreak from a distant perspective. He even holds his own on a drumless duet with North Carolina’s MAVI. The trap house proverbs he rattles off on his work with producers like SenseiATL and CashCache are worth committing to memory, but Tony might prove to be a better storyteller than motivational speaker if he continues down this route.
LOVE STREAK could stand to be tighter, however, as it’s frontloaded with more traditional Tony cuts not produced by Doza. They’re still solid tracks for the most part—particularly the CashCache produced “Sometimes Pt. 2” and “Unordinary Drugs,” with its nervy beat that’d sound at home on a classic Project Pat CD—but they feel more like they’re parroting Doza’s taste in samples than fitting neatly into his vision as lead producer. The tape flows best when it feels like an actual mix, the laid-back smooth jazz of “Touch the Sky” leading into “Friends Still,” an UnoTheActivist-assisted slow jam dripping in Autotune.
Tony and GRiMM have successfully flexed their skills as a team on smaller-scale works like KILLSTREAK I and II, but the big-budget ambition of LOVE STREAK allows each collaborator to progress beyond what they’ve previously been capable of. Despite a slow start, the finished product succeeds in its ambitious scope, acting as a drama, romantic comedy, and mob movie all at once.