Mixtape culture has a history in hip-hop that is pretty much unprecedented in any other genre of music. I like to think of rappers releasing mixtapes in the same light as bands that would build up their notoriety by playing live shows at famous underground venues, long before they ever put their music to wax. In a way, both methods have serve the same purpose: creating some buzz in the public and also serving as a test ground for musical and artistic ideas.
This concept is still very much alive and well. Newer rappers like Lil Yachty, 21 Savage and Lil Uzi Vert have become superstars off mixtapes alone. While most rappers do not see the immediate success those guys have seen, mixtapes are still a great way to build your fan base and hone your skills as a young developing artist.
Perhaps the most prominent era for mixtapes and their popularity was the 2000s. By this time the internet was starting to become a powerful promotional tool and artists were now able to release music for free download over thousands of different websites and blogs. It was around this time that I became a “consumer” in this market and music has not been the same since.
The mixtapes on this list were all very prevalent in my music listening at or near after the time which they were released. Many of them I absorbed within the same time period, some at a younger age, others a little older when I started college. I had initially planned to only include 10 projects, but after finishing the write ups I decided they were all deserving in their own right.
I also wanted to give a nod to Lil’ Wayne, as none of his mixtapes made the list even though he was one of my favorite rappers in the late 2000s. As much as I loved Wayne, there wasn’t one singular release that stuck out as being more important to me than the rest, but rather it was his catalog as a whole that had a strong impact on me. There was plenty of other mixtapes that I listened to a lot growing up as well, but I feel the ones below were the most important.
One way or another, each tape on this list made a significant impact on me and grew my affinity for hip-hop in a big way. In a few sentences or less, these are the most important mixtapes of my adolescence.
Honorable Mentions: J. Cole – Friday Night Lights, Kid Cudi – A Kid Named Cudi, Lil’ Wayne – Dedication 2/No Ceilings
Kendrick Lamar – Overly Dedicated
I discovered OD just before the release of good kid, mA.A.d City. In the years following, Kendrick would go on to make some of the most profound hip-hop music of the last two decades, but this tape was a preliminary taste of what he was truly capable of. The time I heard Overly Dedicated was the moment I bought into Kendrick Lamar.
Favorite tracks: The Heart Pt. 2, Ignorance Is Bliss, Average Joe
Ab-Soul – Long Term 2: Lifestyles of the Broke and Almost Famous
Ab-Soul’s witty wordplay has always been his most identifiable characteristic as a rapper. His second mixtape Long Term 2 was a mainstay in my iPod during high school. It’s another one of many early TDE releases that’s loaded with great songs. Lyricism second to none from an underdog MC looking for his big break and an old school vibe that embodied everything it means to be “hip-hop”.
Favorite tracks: Soul Cry, Turn Me Up, Mayday
A$AP Rocky – Live.Love.ASAP
One of the best ‘high’ mixtapes in modern rap. It personifies what Rocky’s all about – drugs, excess, fashion – to the fullest extent, and does so with production that has been matched by few since. A blueprint for cloud rap and one of the best mixtapes to listen to for pure bass. It just sounds amazing. One of the first times that album’s aesthetic as a whole stole my attention.
Favorite tracks: Palace, Bass, Kissin Pink
Wiz Khalifa – Kush & OJ
The mixtape that turned Wiz Khalifa into what we all know him as today. You couldn’t find too many high schoolers who weren’t listening to this tape after it dropped in 2011. Drugs can play an integral part in shaping the sound and message of an album, and this was one of my first experiences with that as a listener.
Favorite tracks: Mezmorized, Never Been, In The Cut
Frank Ocean – Nostalgia Ultra
The soul-R&B fusion of this mixtape sounded like nothing else out at the time. Frank Ocean has grown immensely as an artist since his debut project, but when he first came out, his voice was so unique and easy to obsess over that it didn’t really matter what he was singing about.
Favorite tracks: Strawberry Swing, Songs For Women, Swim Good
Drake – So Far Gone
As I was already a pretty big Drake fan at the time of this release, So Far Gone simply confirmed that he was next in line to be rap’s next monster in pop culture. It also marked Lil’ Wayne officially passing down the torch to his successor of sorts, and naturally I gravitated towards Drizzy as my new go-to-guy for contemporary rap.
Favorite tracks: Best I Ever Had, Sooner Than Later, Congratulations
Joey Bada$$ – 1999
I was a year late on this tape, but as soon as I discovered it I became hooked on Joey’s mic skills. From sharing the same birth year, to seeing him live for my first rap show, I’ve connected with his music on multiple levels. His talent always suggested he was destined for greatness, but the fact that we’re the same age added even more value to watching him grow up as an artist.
Favorite tracks: Waves, Hardknock, Funky Ho
Fashawn – Higher Learning 2
I loved Fashawn’s debut album Boy Meets World so much that I dug anything with his name on it from 2010-2013. Higher Learning 2 got a ridiculous amount of plays from me during my high school years and it remains one of my favorite mixtapes to date. I could relate to Fashawn in ways that I couldn’t relate to Kanye West or Lil’ Wayne; he was a down-to-earth regular guy, but he could rap his ass off with the best of them.
Favorite tracks: Down That Road, Do What I Gotta Do, Going Home
The Weeknd – House of Balloons
On his debut mixtape House of Balloons, The Weeknd took R&B to dark and depressing depths by singing over a bunch of moody, high-tech instrumentals. Music about addiction, sex and drugs was nothing new but The Weeknd did it in a way that was way more edgy than most people in contemporary music. The pain and loneliness of this tape were something I became attached to deep inside, even though I could hardly relate.
Favorite tracks: House of Balloons, The Morning, Wicked Games
Danny Brown – XXX
The first time I listened to XXX I couldn’t make it through 2 songs. 6 years later, it’s one of my favorite albums ever and Danny Brown might be my favorite rapper in the game. The shock value of this project was something I had never experienced before. It took me a long time to come around to it, but once I did, it opened my eyes to a whole new side of music. It taught me that you can be weird and dark, but still be a great rapper.
Favorite tracks: Die Like A Rockstar, Monopoly, DNA
Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap
Chance’s last project turned him into an international star but Acid Rap was him at his most unconstrained fun. The druggy, melodic nature of the beats, coupled with Chance’s extraordinary flows and deliveries resulted in some of the most addictive songs of 2013. His voice was an acquired taste, but his talent was undeniable. With Acid Rap Chance paved out a new path in hip-hop that many young Chicago artists have since followed.
Favorite tracks: Cocoa Butter Kisses, Lost, Chain Smoker
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Featured image via NPR.