Note: This feature runs down our 20 favourite mixtapes of 2013, excluding a handful that made it onto our overall best albums list. We’ll be running the 50 Best Albums of 2013 next week.
You can blame the internet for many things, but the existence of the free mixtape format has to be one of its finest attributes.
Sadly, because the internet is, well, the internet, there are far too many tapes popping up each day on DatPiff, Soundcloud, AudioMack and LiveMixTapes for any normal person to actually listen to all of them, so over the year we’ve endeavored to separate the wheat from the chaff each week and find ten worthy of closer inspection.
Now it’s time to corral those tapes into an even tighter list, and it hasn’t been easy; the sheer quality has been astounding. So good, in fact, that despite shuttling the missing entries (you’ll probably work out which they are) onto FACT’s ‘proper’ list of top albums, we’re still left with 20 stunning records. From Cassie’s sultry moans to Young Thug’s manic wails, this list sums up the constant push and pull of rap and R&B in 2013, and hopefully offers a look into what the next year might eventually reveal.
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After watching countless producers squeeze the last ounce of juice out of Cassie samples, it was refreshing to hear Ms. Ventura on her first full-length effort since her 2006 debut. Yes, RockaByeBaby leans too heavily on rap middle class features; Pusha T and Too Short are one thing, but French Montana, Wiz Khalifa, and Rick Ross distract a bit too much the main attraction. Still, 12 fresh cuts from the Ice Princess of R&B — especially the Jeremih-penned ‘All My Love’ — got us through the summer.
Nashville’s Starlito is a rapper who can be tough to keep up with, and it certainly didn’t help that his best tape of the year was hastily released in the midst of Thanksgiving. Fried Turkey follows the excellent Step Brothers 2 (with Don Trip) and Cold Turkey, and flourishes immediately, partly at least thanks to some winning beats from Canadian producer Ryan Hemsworth. Lito’s charismatic drawl is well matched with Hemsworth’s shy shimmer, and he manages to retain the spark through the well-pruned 14-track selection. He might be the shadow of his friend and regular collaborator Kevin Gates this year, but Starlito’s put in work, and Fried Turkey is hard to fault.
18. KATIE GOT BANDZ
While contemporaries like Chief Keef and King Louie have (mostly) abandoned drill for greener pastures, Katie Got Bandz stayed true to the unforgiving sound on her eagerly-anticipated Drillary Clinton mixtape. Nearly an hour of trunk-rattling, machine-gunning menace (produced chiefly by BlockOnDaTrack), Katie’s shouted boasts and taunts were as sharp and crystal-clear as ever. With loads of personality and a voice unlike anything in hip-hop, Drillary Clinton does a lot with a little, and on the King Louie-featuring ‘Pop Out’, proves what we already knew: the only difference between male and female rappers is a chromosome.
It took more than a year, but Tinashe’s follow-up to last September’s Reverie was well worth the wait. After working on buzzy collaborations with Jacques Greene and Ryan Hemsworth, Tinashe teamed with hitmakers like Boi-1da, Dev Hynes, and Best Kept Secret for a wide-ranging effort that covers its R&B bases, from the woozy, post-Weeknd tracks she’s favored in the past (‘Vulnerable’, ‘Secret Weapon’) to 90s-reminiscent jams (‘Black Water’, ‘Just A Taste’). In the rare year without a Rihanna album, Tinashe filled the void with style.
16. DA MAFIA 6IX
With Three 6 Mafia continuing to cast a long shadow over hip-hop (in the South and elsewhere), 2013 was a good as time as ever for a reunion. DJ Paul got the band back together for 6ix Commandments, a (mostly) Juicy J-less affair that reminded us what we loved about them in the first place: no one goes harder than Three 6 Mafia, whether preparing for a fight or a homicide (a lesson that Juicy J forgot on Stay Trippy). As much as we enjoy the Raider Klan, 6ix Commandments proves that when it comes to Three 6 Mafia, accept no imitations.
15. FUTURE & FREEBAND GANG
F.B.G: The Movie
Everyone’s favorite space cadet introduces his FreeBand Gang with this soundtrack to an un-filmed blockbuster. Although ostensibly released to highlight New Atlanta up-and-comers Young Scooter, Casino, Slice 9, Mexico Ran, Millionaire Mark, Maceo, Test, and Doe Boy, this heaving, 24-track effort is another episode of the Future show. The rapper and his go-to producer Mike Will Made It continue to churn out hits; Drake proves a potent addition on both ‘Fo Real’ and the Lil Wayne-featuring ‘Bitches Love Me’. Elsewhere, Future teams up with Casino for ‘Karate Chop’, our introduction to nascent Atlanta beatmaker Metro Boomin (before Lil Wayne caused controversy with his gross Emmett Till reference on the song’s remix). While only Young Scooter (who also runs with Brick Squad) and Casino broke out of the pack this year, we wouldn’t count the FreeBand Gang out in 2014.
14. AMBER LONDON
Tru 2 Tha Phonk
Amber London remains the most intriguing member of Spaceghostpurrp’s ever-changing Raider Klan, and for good reason. Tru 2 Tha Phonk stays true to the Raider Klan script, as we noted previously:“an addictive blend of G-funk, Memphis paranoia, and Houston screw where London’s sluggish-yet-serrated flow is as deceptive as a razor blade glued to a fingernail.” If Three 6 Mafia’s semi-reunion didn’t satisfy your Memphis rap needs, Amber London’s most fully-formed project yet will certainly do the trick.
13. PEEWEE LONGWAY
Running Around The Lobby
Sometimes dexterous rhymes and a list of the hottest producers in the game just don’t cut it. Sometimes you actually need a tape that against all odds just works despite its flaws, and Running Round the Lobby iss exactly that. PeeWee Longway isn’t the most engaging rapper, but listening to this tape it’s hard to care – his barks are spread liberally over beats so over-compressed that they often literally conk out entirely. It’s a collection of tunes engineered solely for the purpose of smacking you around the face and the backs of the legs, and sometimes that’s all you need.
12. KEY NYATA
With The Shadowed Diamond, the 18-year-old Raider Klan rapper-slash-producer emerged from a haze of weed smoke with one of the crew’s finest releases yet. Both behind the boards and on the mic, Key Nyata offered an alternative to the work of Raider Klan boss Spaceghostpurrp: there’s plenty of doom-and-gloom, but now it’s just easier to make out, SGP’s trademark lo-fi grime scrubbed away to reveal a cunning lyricist with an ear for soul-laced menace. Key Nyata turns weed-smoking into a Satanic ritual on ‘Tha Garden’, and while like-minded contemporaries Vince Staples, Chris Travis, and Ethelwulf make well-placed appearances, the finest guest spot comes from Phlo Finister, whose sultry vocals bring some balance to ‘Phonk in the Backseat’.
A year removed from a raft of “queer rap” thinkpieces, Le1f proved there was more to his game than his sexuality with not one but two mixtapes: Fly Zone and Tree House. We’ll give the nod to Fly Zone for relying on mostly-unknown producers (DJ Hoodcore, DJ Blood Everywhere, LOLGurlz) to craft tracks that fuse cloud rap uneasiness with sinister club beats. With as many lyrical nods to X-Men as to ballroom functions, Le1f’s sex-fueled punchlines are lurid come-ons designed to turn heads, whether tongue-twisted (the chiptuned ‘Spa Day’) or laidback (the Matrixxman-produced ‘Air Max’). Le1f has carved out his niche in the world of underground dance/rap hybridization, and he knows it: “Some of these silly evil people don’t wanna see me thriving / Damn, well, they can go get lost in the fog I left their minds in / It don’t matter cuz I know that I operate in zones they probably couldn’t survive in.”
10. RICH HOMIE QUAN
Still Goin In
As its title suggests, Still Goin’ In Reloaded is an expanded version of 2012’s slept-on Still Goin’ In. No matter: the mixtape finally got its due, largely on the shoulders of bonus cut (and Song of the Year contender) ‘Type of Way’ — and we’re better for it. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Rich Homie Quan owes plenty to Future, and Reloaded is the closest thing we had this year to Pluto. Produced by Atlanta up-and-comers, the mixtape is heavy with sunglasses-required synth orchestras (‘Sacrifices’ sounds like Europe is about to break into ‘The Final Countdown’) whose jubilance is tempered by Quan’s sensitive thug croon-raps. With a Zone 6-sized chip on his shoulder, Quan takes on haters (‘Investments’), hoes (‘Pass Around’), and happiness (‘Finally Made It’), and in his finest moment, all three on ‘Type of Way’, which became a meme unto itself this year.
09. LIL DURK
Signed To The Streets
It’s tough to talk about the last few years in rap and avoid going into detail about Chicago, and as drill posterboy Chief Keef quickly slipped into routine of chucking out half-finished tracks and aggravatingly patchy tapes, it was left to Lil Durk, among others, to pick up the pieces. Durk managed to sum up the Chicago streets even more efficiently even than Keef with his anthemic ‘Dis Ain’t What U Want’, and while Signed To The Streets doesn’t entirely live up to that single’s early promise, it’s undoubtedly the year’s most successful selection of drill.
There’s been no shortage of R&B crooners in 2013, but TeeFlii has managed to take a few steps from the crowd by positioning himself as the perfect voice for DJ Mustard’s white-hot ratchet beats. AnnieRUO’TAY 2 stands as the best example of this (better, we reckon, than ‘official’ DJ Mustard/TeeFlii collaboration Fireworks), and even when TeeFlii takes on production duties himself, it sounds as if he’s conjuring the spirit of Mustard, before lavishing the simple, stripped-down rhythms with his well-mannered wails. Who knows where “ratchet ‘n b” will go from here (if anywhere), but with TeeFlii at the helm there’s the sense that the genre’s in good hands.
07. CALEB JAMES
Thanks to the success of Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap mixtape, the Chicago-based Save Money crew have commanded plenty of well-deserved international attention in 2013. Caleb James however has managed to stay just under the radar, despite being responsible for a record that in many ways blows Acid Rap out of the water. James isn’t just an accomplished rapper and singer, but he’s a damn fine producer too, lavishing a sequence of smart nods to rap history with engaging beats and nifty vocal touches. The Jones is mercifully free of 2013’s most obvious rap tropes, and in its nostalgia and warmth for an older, simpler age manages to avoid simple comparison.
06. GUCCI MANE
Diary Of A Trap God
Man of the year? Almost. Gucci has been unavoidable in 2013, and while it’s his extra curricular activities that have secured him the most generous coverage, his musical output has been surprisingly consistent. Remarkably, none of the tapes have been dissapointing, but it’s Diary of a Trap God, released at the height of Gucci’s embarrassingly public meltdown, that takes the gold medal. Where else are you going to find Atlanta’s lean-addled anti-hero dueling with cyber goth loser Marilyn Manson and actually coming out smelling of roses? Gucci’s a twisted genius, and we love him for it.
In a year when the New Atlanta dominated hip-hop, Migos seemed to have more than their share of fun. Y.R.N. is an hour of amped-up trap-rap, scored by some of the finest names in the scene (Zaytoven, Dun Deal, C4) and marked by the group’s distinct vocal style: glottal chirps, staccato blasts and triplet rhymes that don’t flow as much as they pummel and punch like machine gun fire. Steeped in the work of their Atlanta forefathers (Gucci, Jeezy, Future), Migos take big, brash street rap to its logical conclusion, with a focus on form and repetitive-yet-irresistible hooks. The tape’s finest moments were also some of the year’s finest: Zaytoven’s synth-percolated, knob-twisting ‘Versace’ beat quickly became the freestyle of the summer (with everyone, including Drake, aping Migos’ style), and ‘Hannah Montana’ turned Miley Cyrus’ zeitgeist-grabbing transformation into a brick-pushing anthem. While Takeoff begins Y.R.N. claiming that he’d rather be rich than famous, Migos might have to “settle” for both.
04. GORGEOUS CHILDREN
Underground rap has had a difficult decade. Collapsing under the weight of its own supposed high quality, it’s been hard to regain respect for a scene that for so long has struggled to wrench itself out of its long-running obsession with the ‘90s, so it’s astonishing to see this young duo rebuilding from the ground up. Producer Gila Monsta owes as much to Zaytoven’s Atlanta trap as he does El-P’s grizzled Funcrusher-era dystopian noise, and Face Vega’s dexterous growl works as the perfect foil. The two have ended up with the year’s most appealing underground tape – a disarming collection of gloomy samples and disembodied rhymes that sounds refreshingly relevant. It succeeds not by threatening to cut down commercial rap, but instead by simply attempting to better it with a wealth of fresh ideas and punishingly strong concept.
03. KEVIN GATES
Stranger Than Fiction
Stranger Than Fiction might not be Baton Rouge rapper Kevin Gates’ finest tape of the year (that accolade would go to the exemplary The Luca Brasi Story) but it comes damned close. A smoother collection than its spiky predecessor, Stranger Than Fiction is the tape that humanizes Gates even further, with disturbing, paranoid industry warnings like ‘Smiling Faces’ and ‘Tiger’ next to unashamed sex jam ‘Strokin’ and party cut ‘Thinking With My Dick’. In a world of hasty, disposable chant-led rap, Gates holds it down with thoughtful lyricism and often horrifying honesty – thankfully the songs themselves don’t buckle under the strain.
02. YOUNG SCOOTER
It would be safe to say that in terms of rap music at least, 2013 has been Atlanta’s year. The neon-drenched strip club sound has broken free of its regional shackles (mostly thanks to the efforts of surprise star Future), with even bored starlets Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus looking to take a slice. Still, with all the popular interest in the city and sound, Gucci affiliate Young Scooter’s firmly ATL-rooted Street Lottery keeps things shockingly close to the bone.
Befuddling club hit ‘Colombia’ is the obvious highlight, but there’s more to Street Lottery than a big single and a few smart, well-managed guest appearances. This is rap at its decadent Tony Montana-idolizing best, and Scooter’s candy-nosed screams and bizarre hooks are as addictive as the record’s industrial strength set of beats. Street Lottery might not be as unexpected and rewarding a proposition as 1017 Thug, but there’s no arguing with its ridiculously consistent flow of hits.
01. YOUNG THUG
Of the hundreds of rap tapes that emerged in 2013, 1017 Thug is well and truly out on its own. Stylistically, Young Thug might be positioned somewhere alongside unpredictable Atlanta veteran Gucci Mane, but he takes what Brick Squad helped forge and shatters it into tiny pieces. His fragmented rhymes and diverse, sing-song style might initially sound like nails on a chalkboard for some listeners, but it’s to Thug’s credit that he’s actually made the sound his calling card. Out of the litany of rappers that attempted to take Future’s successful Pluto blueprint and run with it in 2013, there’s really only Young Thug who emerged with something startlingly original, and there’s the sense that it might have been accidental. Listen to ‘Picacho’, ‘2 Cups Stuffed’ or ‘Nigeria’ a few times and you’ll either be an addict or a hater.