Over the past decade the concept of a mixtape has been fast-evolving; fluidly transforming as bootleg freestyle collections die out and technology allows them to be replaced with album-quality releases of all original material.
In 2016 the line between mixtape and album is thinner than ever, with the impact of streaming meaning that all music pretty much sits at the same value - that £10 subscription fee. Whether the selection of songs currently pumping through our Apple Music and Spotify accounts was uploaded by a major label aiming for chart glory, or a kid in their bedroom trying to share her latest creation, doesn’t really make a difference to us consumers.
Having said that, the format does still allow for the circulation of some great new music. From low key creative experiments, boundary-pushing sounds to even just a bunch of unreleased material that didn’t quite make it through the major label machine. 2016 was another great year for these self-initiated, promotional collections - in fact, a bunch of these could easily have sat amongst our top 40 albums of the year list!
To help us navigate through murky waters, we asked our contributors to choose their mixtape picks defined as projects that are downloadable free-of-charge from DatPiff, LiveMixtapes, SoundCloud or the artist’s official website.
10. Curren$y & Alchemist – The Carrollton Heist
Following 2011’s mesmerising ‘Covert Coup’, New Orleans rapper Curren$y and legendary West Coast beat-smith Alchemist reunited for ‘The Carrollton Heist’, drawing inspiration from a real-life quarter-million Chase Bank robbery on the corner of South Carrollton and South Claiborne avenues down in New Orleans.
Here, Curren$y’s hard-boiled raps sketch out a shady, smoky N’Awlins mob underworld, while Lil’ Wayne, Action Bronson and Styles P supply memorable guest spots. Underpinning proceedings is Alchemist’s potent soundtrack, a humid mix of woozy Louisiana soul and vocal snippets from Stanley Kubrick’s ground-breaking 1956 heist thriller ‘The Killing, which only adds to the project’s dusky, noirish charm. Hugh Leask
9. Denzel Curry - Imperial
Behind his unconventional and idiosyncratic flow, ‘Imperial’ sees Denzel Curry demonstrating his capacity not just for the brutal aggression that his voice lends itself to, but also for political commentary and vulnerability.
The production further elevates him above ‘one-trick pony’ status, with room across ten tracks for aggressive trap, spaced-out beats and jazzy boom-bap. At full tilt, the Floridian rapper’s delivery hits like a verbal onslaught, but throughout the record he manages to maintain a clarity that most of his contemporaries lack – in a time when incomprehensibility seems to be the fashion. James Kilpin
8. Cousin Stizz - MONDA
The pressure was on for Cousin Stizz in 2016, as the success of the previous year’s Suffolk County had Boston looking to him as a cataclysmic figure for the City's music scene. With MONDA, he duly delivered. He could have looked upwards, scored some big name features, dipped his toes in the pool of celebrity, but instead Stizz chose to stay local, stay genuine, and keep it personal.
Dedicated to his late friend Damone, his sophomore tape takes on a tragic yet hopeful feel. By using MONDA top pay tribute to the city that made him and the friends that shaped him, Stizz has created an intricate and focused project that should be seen not just as a farewell to a dear friend, but also to the years spent dreaming of being a successful rapper. Robbie Russell
7. Lil Yachty – Lil Boat
Atlanta's Lil Yachty erupted into hip-hop in 2016, and things haven’t quite been the same since. With his polarising ‘bubble-gum trap’ style, the release of his debut mixtape ‘Lil Boat’ secured Yachty his status as a teen hip-pop icon. Nursery rhyme-influenced beats and short staccato lyrics, along with his nautical theme, was enough to generate a combination of reloads and online conversation, keeping Yachty’s at the forefront of hip-hop throughout the year (and not always for positive reasons!) His Marmite combination of auto-tuned melodies, addictively simple lyrics and samples from sources like Super Mario and Finding Nemo have had us returning to ‘Lil Boat’ and basking in its daring weirdness. Kamilla Rose
6. Maxo Kream - The Persona Tape
On his fourth mixtape, ‘The Persona Tape’, Texas crip Maxo Kream has perfected his formula and delivers his most stand-out effort yet.
Paying homage to his Houston heritage, Maxo delivers drawled storytelling over bass-heavy production, ranging from dark tales of gangsterism - on the opener he’s already throwing informers in lakes with cement boots and by the third track swapping his Call Of Duty activities for a job as a hitman - to laid back grain-gripping odes to H-Town and weed.
His ability to do so over an eclectic beat selection that draws from grime (on the Wiley-sampling ‘Big Worm’) trap, murky boom bap and sun-drenched West Coast funk makes ‘The Persona Tape’ a compelling mix of familiar and futuristic that stays stuck on repeat. Grant Brydon
5. Princess Nokia – 1992
The word Nokia brings to mind the world’s toughest, most durable mobile phone. And it’s no coincidence that Princess Nokia embodies that, in her tough, hard-hitting mixtape ‘1992’. The New York native carries on her city’s hard-wearing rap style, packed full of hard bars, wavy samples and catchy hooks.
Her delivery oozes Big Apple swagger, with brash statements and clever wordplay backed by killer instrumentals from the likes of A-Trak, Lex Luger, Saint M.O.B and Blanco. It’s in ‘1992’s impeccable beat selection, from the 8-bit samples of ‘Kitana’ to the brazen opener ‘Bart Simpson’ and the Trap-influenced ‘Mine’, that Nokia demonstrates her versatility. Mike Wood
4. Young Thug - JEFFERY
Rarely do icons rise and fall with at such dramatic pace than they did in 2016, but when, in August, Young Thug threw on a dress and alerted everyone to his outrageously 'normal' birth name, his music enabled him to stay on a remarkably steady upwards trajectory. Even as a cacophony of voices went from celebrating Gucci Mane's freedom to calling out Kanye West for POTUS, and the late Harambe fell into an unlikely two-gorilla race for TIME 'Person of the Year;' Thugger was able to float graciously above the noise with his most refined project to date.
The dress, the name, the ad-libs and the vocal flamboyance: we might be getting used to it, but we're far from sick of it. ‘JEFFERY’ serves up personality and creativity in abundance. Each track a shout out to Thugger's idols (including GUWOP, Kanye and Harambe), and each an ode to his own enigmatic star quality. Lets all toast to Thugger's status only increasing in 2017. Robbie Russell
3. Kamaiyah – A Good Night In The Ghetto
‘A Good Night in The Ghetto’ is a celebration, something that’s most immediately gleaned from the cover art, which shows Kamaiyah—decked in a Big Money Gang jacket, a black bandana on her head—greeting friends with a bag of chips and a bottle of Hennessy.
On the opening cut ‘I’m On’, a gauzy, syncopated beat precedes her first line, “Remember when I didn't have shoe strings?” That self-reflective sentiment—of coming from nothing and working hard to achieve something—becomes a through-line for the project.
The tape demonstrates the Oakland rapper's flair for wit and G-Funk driven melodies. But what we really learn from Kamaiyah’s tape is that we want her to win: She made her own fame, her own fortune; she built all of this by herself, and for herself and her homies. Tara Mahadevan
2. Noname – Telefone
After a near two-year wait, Chicago’s Noname finally released her eagerly anticipated project ‘Telefone’ in Summer ‘16. Fusing gospel, jazz and hip-hop, ‘Telefone’ sees Noname stepping into the spotlight after supplying her hometown contemporaries some of the finest guest verses of the past 24 months. Withher nimble tongue and conversational style, armed with a dexterous pen, she opens up with candid tales of relationships, addiction, police brutality and family.
Incredibly honest and personal, ‘Telefone’, comes from a very authentic place. Lined with pure instrumentation throughout, Noname paints a vivid and raw picture of Chicago. But that’s not to say there’s no glimmer of optimism to be had – it’s concise 33 minute run time encompasses resilience and hope for the future too. Unique in style and sound, Noname is on to greatness in the future. Kamilla Rose
1. Chance The Rapper - Coloring Book
Chance The Rapper’s 2012 debut ’10 Days’ and its follow-up ‘Acid Rap’ are world class, but it’s his third mixtape that undoubtedly showcases the Chicago MC at his brilliant best.
‘Coloring Book’’s Gospel influence takes centre stage from the get-go and permeates throughout: from the addition of the Chicago Children's Choir alongside Kanye West on opener ‘All We Got’, right through to the uncomplicated gratitude of tracks like ‘Blessings’ and ‘How Great’. With production from the likes of Brasstracks, Lido, Kaytranada, Chance’ own band The Social Experiment and close friend Peter Cottontale, the album builds on the existing tropes of the genre with modern technique and a dextrous use of autotune.
It is, however, the album’s overwhelming positivity that characterises ‘Coloring Book’, setting it apart from the works of many of Chance’s contemporaries. His joyous appreciation of success, and indeed life itself, borders on child-like: “I was baptized like real early / I might give Satan a swirlie” he affirms on ‘All We Got’. ‘Coloring Book’ really is a modern reinvention of a classic genre; a self-released, Grammy-nominated, record-breaking, Gospel Rap mixtape. Lewis Lister
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