Best Hip-Hop Mixtapes of 2012
When listing the best hip-hop releases of the year, why add a separate list for mixtapes? What is a mixtape exactly? What makes a mixtape different than, oh, I don’t know, an album? And shouldn’t mixtape be spelled as two different words—mix and tape—or, at the very least, have a hyphen in it like, say, mix-tape? These are questions a rap novice might ask. Hell, these are questions a rap scholar should ask. But like many things in the universes of rap music, there is really no good answer; it’s just the way it is. In case you begin to ask yourself another question—“Why the hell am I still reading this?”—I will do my best to answer the question that opens this very paragraph—why a separate list for mixtapes? This straightforward answer is that basically it’s a way to include some more (or in this case, double the amount of) notable releases. The slightly more convoluted answer, which also addresses the second question—what makes a mixtape different than an album?— is that typically (and I want to stress the importance of typically here) there a few key elements that distinguish them from each other, lest they should not be judged by the same criteria. While albums are official releases on record labels with a price tag, mixtapes are by and large available for free download. Albums are slimmed down to artist’s best songs, while mixtapes are normally collections of twenty plus songs; many of which are freestyles over recycled beats and/or tracks that didn’t make the cut for the album. In fact, often times the sole purpose of a mixtape is to promote the artist’s upcoming album. Furthermore, some artists only do mixtapes because that’s just how they like, keep it real ‘n’ stuff. So, in the interest of keeping it real ‘n’ stuff, here are the 20 Best Hip-Hop Mixtapes of 2012…
Action Bronson – Blue Chips
This project—which borrows its title, imagery, and some key samples from the 1994 Nick Nolte, Shaq, and Penny Hardaway basketball film of the same name—brings together Brooklyn producer Party Supplies and the Flushing-Queens emcee-on-the-rise Action Bronson. At his brightest moments Bronson sidesteps his oft-scatterbrained lyricism, to shine some light on his storytelling ability. On “Hookers at the Point” he weaves a misogynist-leaning tale of the street-level sex trade by assuming the roles of a cast of characters—pimps, johns, prostitutes, etc. Peculiar movie samples and Party Supplies’ near-harrowing beat lend the song an authentically disturbing feel. Although Blue Chips came as a free download via all the normal outlets, it plays more like an actual album than it does a mixtape.
Action Bronson & Alchemist – Rare Chandeliers
Bronson’s first verse on Rare Chandeliers, his collaborative project with journeyman producer Alchemist, and his second album-worthy mixtape of the past year, is indication that he’s not about to stray far from the eccentric word-association rhyme style he’s perfected in the short period of time since he abandoned a culinary career in favor a shot at the rap game—“All I wanna do is buy boots, ride Coupes, hide loot, flick chives in the soup, stick knives where you poop, backflips of the ledge, hang glide of the roof.” In a year that already saw him release his solo record, Russian Roulette as well as collaborative projects with Oh No and Domo Genesis, Alchemist continued by churning out another druggy soundtrack for the finest emcees to rap on—Roc Marciano, Mayhem Lauren, Evidence, Styles P, and Schoolboy Q all make appearances on here. One of the tape’s standout tracks, “Blood of the Goat,” features Bronson, Big Twin and Sean Price, going all ‘90s-gorilla-rap on a hard-knocking beat that will remind old-heads of the cypher-ish parts from Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus.
A$AP Mob – Lord$ Never Worry
Harlem’s A$AP Rocky broke out in 2011 with his LiveLoveA$AP tape, so it’s appropriate that while the release date for his first official album, LongLiveA$AP continued to get pushed back into, well, sometime in 2013, that he would appease eager fans with a crew tape in 2012. Lord$ Never Worry shines the spotlight on other emcees in his collective, the A$AP Mob—A$AP Ferg, A$AP Twelvy, A$AP Ant, A$AP Nast—as well as a handful of producers; the majority of which apply a liberal amount of Southern hip-hop worship in their methodology. While the best songs are the ones in which A$AP Rocky and his cohorts are featured prominently, some of the more memorable ones feature members from outside the A$AP Mob. “Coke and White Bitches: Chapter 2” features oddball Danny Brown and mixtape regulars Fat Trel and Gunplay, while Flatush ZOMBiES show up on “Bath Salts.”
Domo Genesis & Alchemist – No Idols
While Tyler the Creator seems to get all the press, it’s Odd Future’s lesser-known members (see: Mellow Hype, Earl Sweatshirt) that turn in some of the crew’s finest work, and Domo Genesis, perhaps their best-kept secret, is no exception. Teaming up with beatsmith Alchemist resulted in No Idols, an album-worthy tape that not only features SpaceGhostPurrp, Action Bronson, Smoke DZA, WWE samples, and a song called “Elimination Chamber”, but the following line: “I’m raw like Monday nights.” Even if pro-wrestling isn’t your thing, likely—seeing as how you’re still reading this—rap music is. And you needn’t look any further than “Til the Angels Come,” the final song—guest starring Freddie Gibbs and Prodigy—to find a perfect example of some supreme rap music in 2012.
Eric Sermon – Breath of Fresh Air
Whether it be one half of EPMD, a solo career or behind the boards for other emcees, The Green Eyed Bandit has somehow managed to remain one of the more pivotal people in the rap game for twenty plus years. Breath of Fresh Air is not entirely all new stuff—some of it is rarities and unreleased tracks from previous projects—but it is still an aptly titled tape. Aside from his recognizable voice, it’s got all the signature Sermon production you’ve come to expect—more or less, traditional East Coast boom-bap. And as per the usual , it is ripe with guest spots—KRS-One, Method Man, Too $hort, Rick Ross and Def Squad alums Redman and Keith Murray all make appearances, as do newbies Twone Gabz, the mysterious Lockness Monster.
Fat Trel – Nightmare on E Street
Washington D.C.’s Fat Trel is a heavily-tattooed sorta fat guy who calls himself, ah, Fat Trel, rarely wears a shirt, and has a photo floating around the Internet of him tossing the proverbial salad of some random girl. If that doesn’t automatically make him one of your favorite people ever, the fact that he also puts out exceptional mixtapes, in which he raps really well over Harry Fraud, Big K.R.I.T. and Lex Lugar trap beats should do it for you.
Flatbush ZOMBiES – D.R.U.G.S.
Closely affiliated with A$AP Mob, Flatbush ZOMBiES blew up the underground this year, ripped to the tits on forties, LSD, Molly, kush, and any other mind-altering substances that were within’ arm’s reach. D.R.U.G.S. is an impressive outpouring of blunted, trap-tinged, psychedelic horrorcore.
Tracks like “S.C.O.S.A.” and “Remember, I Got Money” are downright creepy, thanks in part to their eerie beats and molasses-slow screwed vocals. “Laker Paper” has an undeniably sing-a-long-able hook: “Purple in the blunt; Swishers be the paper. Mouth full of gold; I’m feeling like a Laker.” And of course, there’s “Thug Waffle”; the song whose video almost broke the Internet last summer.
Freddie Gibbs – Baby Face Killa
Gary, Indiana’s Freddie Gibbs is a hip-hop chameleon. That is to say, he easily adapts to any beat and drops verse after impressive verse on top of them, cross-pollinating without a hint of the gimmicky-ness that oft-befalls other rappers who attempt a multi-regional approach to rap music. “Kush Cloud” is a hazy ode to the herb, in which Gangsta Gibbs brings along SpaceGhostPurrp and Krayzie Bone for the ride. Young Jeezy and Gibbs go the Molly route on “Go For it”, while Gibbs is in full-on trap mode for “The Diet”, “Bout It Bout It” and the Z-Ro feature “Boxframe Cadillac.” Frequent collaborator Statik Selektah laces Gibbs, Jadakiss and Jay Rock with one his signature laid-back boom-bap beats for “Krazy.”
Gigs510 – I Need Food, Swishers and Papers
While Oakland rapper Gigs510’s I Need Food, Swishers and Papers does have its faults—it’s twenty songs long, has a few amateurish rhymes (Like putting two words together in a song just because they sound the same.), some R&B-ish hooks, and questionable beat selection—it still makes the list because the things it has going for it outweigh those going against it. Mainly, when he’s focused, he’s an able-bodied emcee on par with many of the other highly applauded emcees on this list. (See: Joey Bada$$) And when he blatantly indulges the exemplary Bay Area sound, he does it really well. Stripper pole-ready bounce tracks like “Throw it”, “Go Girl” and “Ass Cheeks” are the type of thizzle/hyphy songs that predated (and subsequently outlasted) the jerkin’ movement.
Guccie Mane – Trap God
Guccie Mane is determined to stay relevant to the game, even if he has to do so one ubiquitous trap beat and Waka Flocka Flame feature at a time. And here’s the thing: it’s kinda, sorta, OK, pretty much is, working. (See also: Trap Back mixtape, I’m Up mixtape, Free Bricks mixtape w/Young Scooter.)
Gunplay – 601 & Snort
Perhaps more famous for off-mic antics like going one-on-four against members of G-Unit at the BET Awards and delivering beatdowns to his accountant, Maybach Music Group's Gunplay shows he’s a force to be reckoned with on wax as well. 601 & Snort is a short ‘n’ sweet, yet impressive collection of freestyles, remixes and new songs. It’s been said many times, but that doesn’t make it any less worth repeating, that Gunplay is the Old Dirty Bastard of MMG. I can’t take credit for that realization, but I certainly endorse it. And apparently Gunplay does too, or at least recognizes it, as he goes over the top of a classic Wu-Tang beats for a few tracks, including “Criminology Freestyle” and “Gullitine Swords Freestyle.” While the runtime on this tape is brief, it leaves a lasting impression, thanks in large part to Gunplay’s wildin’ out approach to rapping and the fact that he's oozing personality. (See also: Bogota Rich mixtape)
I Self Devine – Culture Series
In the months leading up to the release of his album The Sound of Low Class Amerika, Rhymesayers veteran I Self Devine released a succession of mixtapes known as the Culture Series. Featuring production from a number of producers, including Vitamin D, Alchemist and Oh No and guest spots from the likes of Twin Cities mainstays Budda Tye and Muju Messiah, each tape tackled a different subject matter of cultural significance. LA State of Mind, The Uplift Struggle, Reports From the Field: in the Trenches, and The Shining Path proved I Self to be not only a prolific artist, but a man with a lot to say. Not surprising considering it had been seven years since the release of his last solo record, the excellent Self-Destruction. (See also: The Sound of Low Class Amerika album)
Joey Bada$$ - 1999
Early on 1999, Joey Bada$$ states, “I’m tryin’ to go global…tryin’ to be a mogul” and later, “I won’t stop ‘til I meet Hova and my moms is driving a Rover.” And if this tape is any indication—as well as extramural things like calling out Kanye on his current mediocre-ness and (purportedly) beefing with Odd Future—it may not be long before he finds himself sitting in the front row of the BET Awards with a Kardashian on his arm. The Brooklynite, at just 17 years old, has crafted a surprisingly remarkable mixtape that recalls some of the most revered hip-hop in history. Over the course of fifteen tracks, Joey, along with his rhyme partner Capital STEEZ and the rest of the producer/emcee/artist conglomerate Pro Era, breathe new life into the tried and true ‘90s NYC rap formula. 1999 isn’t just the name; it’s the whole style—featuring production from J-Dilla, Statik Selktah, MF Doom, and Lord Finesse to boot. This cat has all the potential in the world to be H-to-the-UGE. (See also: Rejex mixtape)
Mayhem Lauren – Respect the Fly Shit
Action Bronson’s running mate and fellow foodie, Mayhem Lauren’s tape Respect The Fly Shit comes with no purchase point, but at only twelve songs and with the majority of the beats handled by a singular producer—Harry Fraud— it presents itself in album format. It also boasts an impressive guest list—Action Bronson, Heems, Roc Marciano, Sean Price—connecting the dots to what’s really exiting about current NYC rap. Regular Harry Fraud collaborator Smoke DZA tag teams with Lauren on “Radioactive Tuna”, one of the tape’s standout tracks. (See also: Mandatory Brunch Meetings mixtape)
Meek Mill – Dreamchasers 2
In anticipation of his solo album Dreams and Nightmares, Maybach Music Groups’s Philadelphian cornerstone Meek Mill dropped the second installment of his Dreamchasers series. The tape features production from Jahlil Beats, All-Star and a number of other beatsmiths. Beat Bully lays the foundation for the “House Party (RMX)”, which is the first time in recent memory that I can recall being able to actually tolerate Mac Miller. Meek goes the emo route a few times with personal stories of struggle and whatnot, but it’s most enjoyable when he unabashedly indulges the listener with sex raps and stereotypical gangsta shit; such as “Str8 Like That” and the Sam Sneaker-produced “Facedown.” (See also: Dreams and Nightmares album)
M-Phazes – Phazed Out (Mixed Version)
This is a playlist of tracks from Coalmine Records’ recent catalog that have been remixed by Australian producer M-Phazes. The whole thing has been superbly beat-matched and scratched into a non-stop party-rockin’ joint by DJ Rhettmatic of the World Famous Beat Junkies. Veterans like Heltah Skeltah, Inspectah Deck, Phil Da Agony, Masta Ace, and CL Smooth rap alongside up-n-comers Torae, Bekay, Saigon, Skyzoo, and Termanology. This reminds me of the ‘90s when mixtapes were actually cassette tapes of various rap songs mixed together by a DJ without the use of Serato. That’s not to say there isn’t some sort of mixing software at work here—I literally cannot tell—but if there is, it’s cleverly disguised by Rhettmatic’s impeccable turtablism. Fans longing for the days of hip-hop live-mix radio shows will dig this.
Showbiz & AG-Mugshot Music: Preloaded
Bronx vetarans Showbiz & AG returned this year with both a new album, Mugshot Music and the precursory mixtape, Preloaded. Riding on the strength of Show’s signature boom-bap and AG’s poignant and complimentary flow, this tape proved these Diggin’ in the Crates crew members still maintain a reputable presence in hip-hop some twenty-two years after first debuting on Lord Finesse’s Funky Technician album. In some ways, especially due in part to the R&B hooks that dictate the official album, Preloaded is the superior release—it’s straightforward East Coast rap music. (See also: Mugshot Music album)
Tree – Sunday School
Sunday School is a labor of love, detailing life in the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Chicago, entirely written and produced by the emcee known as Tree. Despite being a Midwesterner, his beats are crammed with mournful soul, rigid bass line and multi-layered samples that recall the bounce ‘n’ roll of classic Southern hip-hop. In stark contrast to his production are his vocals. He has an odd pitch to his voice that might not immediately grab the listener, but given time it works its way into your conscious and sets up shop, demanding your full attention. He effortlessly switches from hostile patterns to churh-esque crooning, to raspy barking, and back again.
Various Artists – Closed Sessions Vol. 2
Preseted by Chicago’s Soundscape Studios and rap & culture blog site Ruby Hornet, the second volume of Closed Sessions (named after the small record label run by Soundscape's owners) dropped this last summer and it has held a favorable place on my iPod ever since. Recorded from the spring of 2010 through the winter of 2012, this tape features an impressive cross-selection of present day underground hip-hop. Each track features a meticulously-selected paring of emcees and producers. Among the many unique combinations, you’ll find L.E.P. Bogus Boys, Action Bronson, Raekwon, Mr.MFN eXquire and Freddie Gibbs tag-teaming with beatsmiths The Olympicks, Thelonious Martin, DJ Babu, Mike Jaxx, and Million $ Mano. The most pleasantly surprising result comes courtesy of Ninjasonik, Million $ Mano, and Hollywood Holt (whom I personally hadn’t heard from since his ‘07 ode to mopeds, “Throw a Kit”)—and producer Roofeo on the club-ready bouncer, “This Is How We Treat ‘Em.
Various Artists – Rock the Bells
Rock the Bells is a mixtape sponsored by DatPiff, Guerilla Union, Boost Mobile, and the Soul Assassins (Did I miss anyone?) that was put together to promote the annual traveling summer hip-hop festival of the same name. The tape features mostly new and unreleased tracks from artists spanning the spectrum of indie hip-hop. This artist selection is literally all over the place—KRS-One, Supernatural, Murs, Sick Jacken, Chali 2na, Tech N9ne, and Everlast are all on the title track—but it works well, thanks in part to the continuous playlist mix courtesy of DJ Muggs. While it is beset with the type of between-song shoutouts that will sound familiar to listeners of ‘90s Funkmaster Flex or DJ Honda tapes, it’s not to the point where it disrupts the feeling of a live mix. Some of the most bracing verses belong to Cassie Veggies, Sean Price and Atmosphere, whose song “Millenium Dodo 2” features a return to form for Slug, as he goes harder than anything on 2011’s The Family Sign. Also of note is surprising appearances from Deltron 3030 and Keith Murray.
Top 5 Hip-Hop EPs of 2012: Freddie Gibbs & Madlib - Shame, Gangrene - Odditorium, Mr. MFN eXquire - Power & Passion, Quelle Chris - 2 Dirt 4 TV, Smoke DZA - Cuz I Felt Like It