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The week's best mixtapes and free mixes, featuring Lil B, Lil Herb, Shy Glizzy, Nguzunguzu, Brenmar and more

Listening to the deluge of mixtapes and free mixes from hip-hop artists and electronic producers alike is often an insurmountable task. That’s why we scour Datpiff, LiveMixtapes and beyond, separating the wheat from the chaff each week.

Finally, some parity: thanks to fast rising rappers Lil Herb and Shy Glizzy, club slayers Nguzunguzu, Brenmar and DJ Q, R&B diva K Michelle, electronica duo Lakker and, yes, even Lil B, we’ve got one of the best round-ups in weeks.

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Up until now, it’s been difficult to consider young Chicago rapper without taking into account sparring partner Lil Bibby. Bibby pipped Herb to the post on the mixtape front, releasing the excellent Free Crack tape at the end of November last year, and successfully revealed another color in the spectrum of contemporary Chicago rap. A few shades from the incessant rattle of Chief Keef and his GBE crew, and even further from Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa’s blog-fuelled art-rap, Herb’s tape successfully asserted that it was possible to retain an air of thoughtful reflection when recounting painful stories of Chicago’s notorious streets.

Lil Herb (or G Herby, if you prefer) adapts the theme possibly even more successfully with Welcome to Fazoland, and builds confidently on Free Crack’s impressive groundwork. Herb’s voice itself might not be as instantly arresting as his counterpart’s, but his harrowing tales are illustrated with a deftness that’s often assumed to be a thing of the past. He’s uninterested in gurning, Molly-addled stripper anthems or drunken, autotuned Vine stings, and rejects the colored strobe lights in favor of ugly back alleys and tales of hunger, fear and family, when criminality is an unfortunate last resort.

This makes it sound like Welcome to Fazoland might be a struggle to wade through, but you’d be surprised. The album’s sample-heavy backdrop recalls simpler times, and is gripping throughout – from the soulful twang of ‘Fight or Flight’ to the dramatic near-drill of Herb’s third ‘4 Minutes of Hell’ – rarely missing a beat. It’s not a million miles from fellow Windy City staple TREE’s self-styled “soul trap,” but where TREE imbues his tracks with mournful nostalgia, Herb sounds decidedly youthful and eager to wrestle the world head-on.

Herb’s lyrical dexterity is imposing, and even when offering his interpretation of a street banger on ‘On The Corner’ he manages to pack more into a few bars than most of his peers manage on an entire tape. It’s an admirable feat, and Welcome to Fazoland sets an impressively high bar for Chicago rap in 2014.

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Nguzunguzu’s first Perfect Lullaby mix is a classic, from the duo’s harp edit of ‘The Boy Is Mine’ on down. Thankfully, Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda are back with another dembow-heavy take on bedroom R&B, with the same approach that has made previous mixes so essential. As always, their approach to sourcing club tracks reinforces why they’ll never be tagged as appropriators: their own excellent zouk and kizomba edits sit comfortably next to those by producers from around the world, not by johnny-come-lately “global bass” fetishizers. The tracklist should have serious Internet crate-diggers heading for Soundcloud, Hulkshare and Sharebeast. Politics aside, authentic music just sounds better.

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DC’s Shy Glizzy continues his rise to prominence with his latest tape, Young Jefe. From its Scarface-nodding cover to its King of New York-quoting intro, you should know what to expect here: blustery trap rap from a guy who’s had his share of real life experiences (his “got my GED in the penitentiary” boast is true). Unfortunately, by doubling-downed on Atlanta-styled street rap, he’s had to sacrifice some of the lyrical and sonic variety that made Fuck Rap and Law 2 so exciting.

Still, in-between the relentless snow/cola/white girl metaphors, there’s still some of the world-weary lyricism that Glizzy has flashed in the past. “I coulda been a lawyer or a doctor / I said fuck that, I need mula / I’m a robber,” he raps on ‘I’m on Fire,’ adding: “I coulda went to Howard but I’m a trapper / I didn’t go to Howard so I became a rapper.” Elsewhere, the synth-laced, sing-song ‘Ungrateful’ hints at crossover aspirations, while the languid ‘Awwsome’ is already a hit in his hometown.

Glizzy clearly has one eye on Atlanta with this one, and he’s linked up with the scene’s best. Zaytoven produced the Young Scooter-featuring ‘Medellin’ and provides a surprisingly elastic, buoyant beat for the grim ‘Catch a Body’. Best of all, the Laurel and Hardy of New Atlanta, Young Thug and Peewee Longway, show up on ‘Living It Up’ and ‘Glizzy’ (while Glizzy reworks Thug’s ‘Stoner’ chorus for the mournful ‘I’m A Star’). Young Jefe might not break any new ground, but Glizzy makes it look easy.

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Brenmar has been at the forefront of the US club music underground for a few years now, and his first mixtape of originals mines the same club-rap-R&B triple point as his excellent DJ mixes.The eight-track effort has something for every part of the night. Rush Davis shines on mix highlight ‘Medusa’, a filtered slow jam reminiscent of The Roots’ ‘Break You Off’, while contemporary Ian Isiah offers his most clear-eyed song yet on ‘Expensive’; ‘Super Fly’ and ‘Trouble Girl’ are hyperactive rap-anthems in the making.

Brenmar reunites with a couple of artists he’s worked with before — Mykki Blanco (along with Mad Decent survivor Maluca) shows up on the brittle ‘All This Green’, while Calore does similar things at a higher tempo on the vogue-ready ‘Payroll’ — and some of this sounds familiar: ‘Like A Ho’ is a he-said-she-said update of Brenmar and Blanco’s ‘Kingpinnin’. Like his contemporaries, the big step forward is moving from samples to singers with a crew of similarly-minded talent that breathe life into these songs, all of which are welcome addition in your Serato crates.

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It’s hard to begrudge a tape that comes draped in a parody of Kanye West’s unmistakable My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy artwork, but without a comedy cover it’d hardly be a Lil B mixtape would it? Berkley’s Based God is still at it – still belching out an insurmountable amount of tracks and still rapping like few others in the game. He’s still got it too – that certain je ne sais quoi that sets him apart from his throng of imitators. Whether its his ability to latch onto a selection of beats that highlight his rhythm-baiting free-associating rhymes or his unshakable charisma, those who assumed Brandon McCartney would sink without a trace couldn’t have been more wrong.

Basedworld Paradise might not offer anything particularly new, but it’s oddly polished, and B’s raps sound markedly sturdier than usual. When we’ll be treated to a “proper” Lil B album he alone knows, but he does at least appear to be heading in a direction that might make him more palatable to fans that don’t already own a “Thank You Based God” tee and multiple pairs of skinny jeans. ‘The BasedGod Is Perfect’ reminds fondly of B’s Imogen Heap-sampling glory days, and tracks like ‘How the Girls Sound’ and ‘All Day’ remind us that B sounds surpringly at home over backdrops that even the most blinkered backpacker might mistake for being “real hip-hop.”

It’s too long, and as uneven as you’d expect if you’ve been following B’s output, but Basedworld Paradise is another reminder of not only the fact that Lil B is still out there, plying his trade, but also that he’s still got the spark to actually break free of his blog-rap shackles. If that’s actually what he wants, of course.

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Ahhhhh this is what we’re talking about – bassline legend DJ Q has done the world a solid here and slapped together an hour of the best UK garage you’re likely to hear this side of Ayia Napa circa 1999. It’s got it all – chopped vocals, canned flamenco guitar plucks, tough-as-you-like subs, cheeky hooks and of course the all important 2-step rhythms. Blending new cuts like Flava D’s and his own productions ‘Happy’ with classics like Artful Dodger & Craig David’s ‘What Ya Gonna Do’ and Todd Edwards’ ‘Show Me A Sign’ Q has managed to come up with an hour of garage that doesn’t just pine for an era of garish flyers, tape packs and cheap rum specials, it actually does a damn good job of showing why we should still care in 2014.

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K. Michelle continues to forge her own path, from major label outcast to reality TV star to chart-topping (if slept-on) mainstream R&B artist. With her sequel to 2011’s 0 Fucks Given mixtape, she offers another testament to why she’s “not your average R&B singer.” While the first few songs will make you wonder if struggle R&B is a thing, Still No Fucks Given eventually reveals some stellar moments, once she moves beyond taking shots at everyone from her old label and “the industry” to a flight attendant who wouldn’t give her another drink (seriously).

Like the finest moments on Rebellious Soul, K. Michelle is best at full-throated approach to R&B classicism, on songs like ‘Put You On Game’ and ‘She Can Have You’ — albeit while staying true to her “no fucks given” mantra: on ‘10 Minutes with God’, she maintains that “I wanna be Christ-like but y’all keep fuckin’ with my life.”

Open-book songs about broken relationships are her bread-and-butter (on ‘Devil In You’, her “no God-fearing man would treat me like you do” lyric is just heartbreaking), while the songs that imitate the recent works of mentor/collaborator R. Kelly (‘I Love This Way’, ‘I Love The Money’) are less revealing. And while heartstrings-R&B dominates Still No Fucks Given, the interludes, skits, and a sarcastic song like ‘Justin Bieber’ (“I know you’s a little black boy / down in your soul… date a black girl, don’t be afraid”) offer moments of levity. Still, 26 tracks can be daunting; like it’s predecessor, a few more fucks should have been given to track selection.

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Call it IDM, braindance, electronica – whatever you want to label it, the sound’s been due a revival for some time now, and it’s fitting that R&S should be on the front lines. Newly signed Dublin duo Lakker aren’t afraid to dive into the past and dig out some of the best sounds to emerge from the Artificial Intelligence era, and it’s a good look for them. Just as their own productions weld together elements of Autechre, Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada, RSMIX004 does similar, blending familiar electronica anthems (Aphex’s ‘Xtal’, Boards’ sizzling bootleg of Midnight Star’s ‘Midas Touch’ and Universal Indicator) with noisy analog monsters from the likes of Demdike Stare and Robert Hood. We approve.

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Comedy rap can be a hard sell, but more importantly, it’s damned hard to get right. YouTube has taught us that anyone can throw a few jokes over a beat, but to maintain interest across an entire album without sounding grating is surprisingly difficult. Thankfully Boston rapper Michael Christmas doesn’t only rely on his comic smarts, instead peppering his thoughtful, spidery rhymes with cynicism and self-deprecating honesty. Sure, Christmas raps about being like Michael Cera and an overweight Drake, but in-between the nods and winks, there’s a refreshing aptitude for punchlines that would put Weezy to shame.

Christmas has also managed to rake in some impressive collaborations, grabbing beats from Detroit beatmaker (and FACT fave) Thelonius Martin, Cloud9, Childish Major and Goodwin (among others) and guest verses from Mr. Muthfuckin’ eXquire and current man-of-the-moment Rome Fortune. eXquire’s turn is especially worthy of a closer look, and producer Victor Radz manages to flip a sample of Vangelis’s ‘Wait For Me’ (from the Blade Runner soundtrack, natch) while Christmas and eXquire highlight their inadequacies. It’s far from perfect, but Is This Art? is surprisingly polished and actually quite funny.

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#100Trill is the Chicago duo of MikeJaxx and Grade Aplus, and their Muzik 2 Check Yo Bitch 2 showcases their left-field, smoked-out, and not-entirely-serious approach to ratchet rap (just check out that excellent cover art!). It’s 14 tracks about doing drugs and/or having sex, and not much more. Highlights include the WorldStar meme-referencing ‘Sharkeisha’, with its “all this dope should be illegal” hook, the half-lidded ‘Feel Like It’, and ‘Bring yo Bitch Thru’, which features a soulful, water-logged groove reminiscent of vintage MF Doom. Not for the faint of heart, the hazy ‘Fuk U Rite (Thot Management)’ gets outrageously and hilariously explicit: unprotected sex with pregnant women, and whatnot. For those with a close eye on Chicago’s rap scene, MikeJaxx’s fellow Treated crew members St. Millie and ShowYouSuck make appearances.

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