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UK dance-rap, Ty Dolla $ign, and '90s-facing R&B: the week's best mixtapes

Each week, FACT’s Mixtape Round-Up trawls through the untamed world of free mixes, radio specials and live blends so you don’t have to.

We’ve now decided to break this into two features: the week’s Best Free Mixes (think Soundcloud, Mixcloud) and the week’s Best Mixtapes (think DatPiff, LiveMixtapes). Naturally, there’ll always be some level of crossover between the two, but for now we’ve split the columns up, with Mixes running every Thursday, and Mixtapes every Friday.

There’s something for everyone in the round-up this week: radio-ready offerings from Ty Dolla $ign and Rico Love, an R&B newcomer that reps HBK Gang, rap weirdos that bridge the Atlanta-Chicago divide, and a guest-loaded, UK-meets-US rap tape.

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Mixtape of the week:
TY DOLLA SIGN
SIGN LANGUAGE

L.A.’s Ty Dolla Sign has seen his star steadily rise over the last few years, working in a lane parallel to that of frequent collaborator DJ Mustard. Ty follows his Beach House series with Sign Language, an 11-track effort that shows off his bass-heavy and radio-ready style. Ty is a versatile artist, blessed with a gruff singing voice, the ability to rap a few bars and well-honed production chops. The tape is loaded with woozy, slo-mo, ATL-meets-LA sex jams in the style of breakthrough singles ‘Paranoid’ and ‘Or Nah’, and we could see songs like the seasick ‘Drank N Cranberry’ and the angsty ‘Type of Shit That I Hate’ turning up on radio or in the club.

It’s not perfect, though. It sags under the weight of too many guest verses: for every Casey Veggies, YG or T.I., there’s a rapper like Rick Ross, Wiz Khalifa, or Big Sean whose star power doesn’t outweigh their phoned-in offering. Also, pro-grade production and songwriting is sometimes marred by cringeworthy lyrics: on ‘Stretch’, he should spend more time thinking of new ways to say “having sex” than “thinking of new ways to beat that pussy down.” And while we know it’s a mixtape, FKi reusing (and/or reselling) a Rome Fortune beat from last summer on ‘Issue’ is still lame.

Still, it’s another solid effort from Ty that — despite the press blurb — is the perfect length at 11-tracks. And with his forthcoming debut album, Free TC, dedicated to his incarcerated brother, it’s a nice touch to close the tape with TC’s ‘In Too Deep’; you might remember TC from My Krazy Life stand-out ‘Thank God’, which was also recorded from prison.

RICO LOVE
I SIN

Fresh from a US tour with Atlanta megastar Future, Rico Love’s flying high. He’s still primarily known as a songwriter and producer, and that’s arguably where his greatest talents lie, but I Sin is a well-crafted tape that serves as a reminder that he can hold his own as a rapper and singer too. That said, his guests often threaten to snatch the limelight – Big Krit owns opener ‘Spend It’, Future’s personality dominates ‘He Got Money’, young New York talent Bobby Shmurda does his thing on ‘Bank Roll’ and Baton Rouge’s Kevin Gates gets not only a feature on ‘Sick’ but a two-minute skit, too.

This is an observation you could make about countless tapes, but it seems blindingly obvious here, especially with an artist so noted for his work behind the boards. Still, it doesn’t mar the tape enough for it to be a massive problem – far from it, Love clearly knows his shit, and his selections are smart and bang up to the minute. I Sin isn’t going to change to world, but it’s solid, and at twelve tracks is impressively free of fat.

KEHLANI
CLOUD 19

Oakland’s Kehlani is the HBK Gang’s resident R&B singer, because — let’s face it — what’s a rap clique without one? Kehlani’s impressive debut is packed wall-to-wall with sunny pop-R&B, if mostly without the Bay Area slap that characterizes most HBK material. Kehlani flashes a maturity beyond her years both over smokey, ’40’-ish beats and lush neo-soul instrumentation, and while she’s generally straight-forward and wholesome (‘As I Am’, ‘Tell Your Mama’), her courting of a woman on ‘1st Position’ might surprise listeners with its exploitation-free honesty.

As is de rigueur, there’s plenty of nostalgia on display, from lyrics about Musiq Soulchild and “Jada in her prime, 1990s fine” to ‘How We Do Us’, which nods to Montell Jordan’s ‘This Is How We Do It’. The latter has been sampled plenty, but Kehlani and company make it their own.

LEEKELEEK
STILL GEEKIN

King Louie-affiliated rapper/producer LeekELeek returns with this drug-themed mixtape, straddling his city’s hard-edged sound and the narcotic warble of new, weird Atlanta (think Young Thug or Lil Silk). It’s an initially jarring mix as LeekELeek strips down bop on ‘Drug Paraphernailia’, retaining the chirpy cellphone melodies but losing the breakneck tempo.

Once you get to grips with the blend however it begins to make sense – King Louie starrer ‘Birthday Drugs’ is a particular highlight, sounding so brittle that it could collapse at any point. Still Geekin is ragged, and no doubt hastily sequenced but LeekELeek’s been worth watching for ages now, and this latest offering is no different.

MANMANSAVAGE
FREEMANMANSAVAGE

ManManSavage reps both Chicago and Atlanta, and on first glance, his lethargic, Gucci-like flow and the 808-heavy beats of FreeManManSavage suggest a rap tape influenced by the two cities. But a closer listen reveals a rapper closer in style to risers Makonnen, Father, and Key! (who’s featured throughout) and an oft-kilter approach to Atlanta street rap that we can get behind.

ManMan is best when he pushes his vocals into the red, letting out metallic growls on ‘Who tf u is’ and ‘Just A Dream’ and surpassing fellow yellers Casino and Waka in the process. It’s not all screaming, though: the moody, half-sung ‘My Life’ sounds like something Tree would record. The mixtape also showcases Brandon Thomas, who crafts a handful of hypnotic beats that feature piano and synth melodies unlike anything on the scene; he even mans the hook on ‘No Reason’. There are a few standard-issue tracks (‘Santana Bandanas’) but for the most part, ManManSavage earns his spot on the ever-growing list of Atlanta rappers to watch.

STAR.ONE
ELEMENTS

Production duo Star.One are onto something with their debut mixtape Elements. They’ve managed to get an enviable selection of guests for a start – P Money, C4, Doctor, Mica Paris, D Double E and loads more – and yet the tape never seems held together by a thread. The two producers also manage to drizzle in a wealth of influence, drawing from British dance music (jungle, garage and grime) and US rap and never sounding cynical. Their talent in selection and sequencing no doubt comes from their background in DJing and radio, and from beginning to end they’ve put together a varied blend of tunes that sounds like it could just as easily be a mix. All killer, no filler.

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