Hello and welcome to a new regular column documenting hip hop through the mixtape, and other loosely released rap records that I decide to include. Because let’s face it, the term mixtape has become basically meaningless in recent years other than being synonymous with being given away for free. Importantly to this column, though, the ready availability of mixtapes says nothing of their supposed quality, many of them bettering the content on official albums made by the very same artists.
This can be especially true of underground rappers breaking through into the mainstream, with the age old inevitability of big label pressure baring down on young talent. Take the rise and rise of Wiz Khalifa, for example, whose debut on a major this year fell way short of his independent releases and superb 2010 mixtape, Kush and OJ. It’s easy to criticise Khalifa’s seizing of the moment, but while major label albums are made for the masses, the mixtape is an opportunity to release new material free from these commercial pressures. Meanwhile, there are those artists whose mainstream fate has yet to be decided, such as southern rap starlets Yelawolf and Big K.R.I.T., whose exceptional recent mixtapes have demanded debut albums on Interscope and Def Jam respectively. Let’s hope these two live up to their full potential.
It’s not just stars of the underground that are producing exciting mixtapes either; rap veterans are also releasing free material that equals or exceeds what makes it onto their records. The Game is a prime example here, with two recent tapes Brake Lights and Purp & Patron that could just as easily have passed for his hotly anticipated The R.E.D. Album. It’s not as if these two releases were even low-key affairs, featuring high profile producers from Rza to The Neptunes and guest verses from the likes of Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne. One has to wonder when The Game’s new record finally drops this summer, whether it will achieve the highs already chucked out for free over the course of the two mixtapes.
In this series I shall be highlighting some of the more noteworthy mixtapes doing the rounds, and hopefully filtering out those not worthy of the file hosting site they’re uploaded to. I shall also be using this space to look at trends within the hip hop community, as well as the importance of the mixtape in today’s industry.
So without further ado, try these mixtapes on for size, all available for free and worthy of your attention.
Curren$y & The Alchemist - Covert Coup
Blurring the fine line between mixtape and album, this collaboration between Curren$y and The Alchemist started life as a mixtape project but has now been labelled as a free EP. What’s the difference? I couldn’t really tell you.
What I can say is that the record contains ten finely produced new beats from The Alchemist, which marry nicely with Curren$y‘s lazy, stoner rap style. While I’m yet to be completely sold on Curren$y, it’s evident from the off that these two share some chemistry. Clocking in at under half an hour, too, the tape breezes by leaving behind a trail of brilliantly blunted beats and woozy rhymes. Stylistically, Covert Coup is not too dissimilar from Gutter Water, The Alchemist’s collaborative record with Oh No from last year, but it’s probably on the whole more consistent. Where the producer pairing had relied on big name guests to spice up the verses, Curren$y and The Alchemist feel like a more organic duo with better defined roles. Curren$y’s style is not showy, he’s not going to dominate a track with his flow or concepts, but his attention to detail is engaging and makes him very listenable over these 10 tracks. While this is the first time the two have worked together directly on a project, it’s unsurprising there’s already talks of a follow up in the pipeline.
XV - Zero Heroes
In many ways Wichita born rapper XV, affectionately known as Vizzy, is indicative of a new model for young rappers breaking through. Having been prolifically releasing material since 2006, Zero Heroes is his 16th mixtape in those five years without any major album release. While XV has chipped away, raising his profile with every tape, last year he was rewarded with a Warner Music record contract yet here we are with another freebie. If allowed this continued freedom, It makes sense for XV to sit tight and build his following with mixtapes before rushing into an album.
Zero Heroes, then, is a mixtape which finds XV making all the right connections. Joining him here are the likes of CyHi Da Prince and Clipse’s Pusha T (both signed to Kanye’s G.O.O.D music imprint), while there are also production credits from the likes of Just Blaze and J. Cole. The latter of which produces one of the tape’s best beats, sampling Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘To Forgive’ in a way which is not at all as cringe inducing as it sounds. As for XV himself, he has been carving out an interesting niche for himself as a purveyor of a sort of ‘nerd rap’. While admittedly this is not always convincing, in principal it’s an interesting position and his songs are lit up by references to Final Fantasy, Wayne’s World and Jimmy Neutron. Elsewhere it’s a bit of a mixed bag, and for all that is unique about XV, there are also some fairly tired narratives of growing up dreaming of making it in hip hop. Even so, for an artist who has been so prolific over the past five years we can forgive a little repetition, and this is another solid, upbeat effort from the man from Wichita.
Big K.R.I.T. - Return of 4eva
Following last year’s impressive breakthrough mixtape K.R.I.T Wuz Here, Big K.R.I.T has returned even stronger in 2011 with what I consider to be the best rap release of the year so far. It’s for this reason that I’ve decided to include it in this column, despite being released at the end of March.
Entirely self produced and with just a modest selection of guest spots, Return of 4eva has everything I want from a hip hop record. It’s rich, vibrant production is a breath of fresh air at a time when rap music is dominated by larger than life beats with all the volumes whacked up to full. Not that there aren’t plenty of lively tracks here, but they’re built from a wide variety of different instruments and textured sounds, rather than go-to beats made from stock synths and cheap drums.
Lyrically, too, K.R.I.T. is funny and engaging, knowing when to rap about cars and girls, but also taking on more serious themes in the latter half of the mixtape. This is a very difficult balance to get right, and it’s a rare for a rapper to switch from rapping about blowjobs to tackling poverty and race relations and be completely convincing doing both. K.R.I.T isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said many times before, but for some reason his delivery seems remarkably honest, giving him an instantly likeable persona. His influences are obvious, OutKast references are rife throughout the mixtape, and the few guest appearances are reserved for southern rap legends David Banner and Ludacris; no doubt heroes of K.R.I.T’s growing up. But while Return of 4eva is very aware of its heritage, it stands proudly on its own without feeling revivalist. There really are no excuses for not owning this mixtape.
Self Scientific - Trials of The Blackhearted
Having always enjoyed DJ Khalil’s beats as they invariably turn up on records, this collaboration between the Los Angeles producer and rapper Chace Infinite offers a chance to see his talent stretched over a more sustained period. It’s been a long wait for new material from Self Scientific, having gone quiet since the release of 2006’s ‘Gods and Gangsters’ while Khalil steadily built his own profile, most notably producing beats for Eminem on Recovery as well as Dr Dre’s long awaited comeback single, ‘Kush’.
On the whole this pairing gel nicely together, as Chace Infinite’s socially conscious raps bounce brilliantly off of Khalil’s powerful, authentic drums. There’s variation too, as over the course of just eight songs they manage to concoct a mixture of lively Clipse-esque club tracks (‘Peaceful: Justice for Oscar‘), chilled out introspection (‘War Stories‘) and traditional backpack rap (‘God’s Language‘). While Chace Infinite is not exactly brimming with personality as an emcee, he has an eloquent delivery and is joined on the EP by guests including Talib Kweli, The Game, Big K.R.I.T. and Freddie Gibbs. Let’s hope this duo don’t leave it too long before deciding to follow this up with an album.
Death Grips - Ex Military Mixtape
Straying slightly further leftfield than I intended to with this column, I’m finding it difficult to ignore writing about Death Grips; a new group fronted by a powerhouse of aggression known as MC Ride, and perhaps more recognisably to the indie community, Hella’s Zach Hill. The mixtape probably sounds much like you’d expect a hip hop project involving Zach Hill to sound. It’s loud, uncompromising and wildly experimental, yet despite undoubtedly leaning on punk and avant garde influences, is very much built around a hip hop template.
On my first play through of this dense yet fascinating mixtape, I really had no idea whether or not I’d enjoyed what I heard. It’s nice to feel genuinely confused by a piece of music, and as my ears began to relax to its noisy outbursts and lo-fi aesthetic, I began to realise how much I was enjoying it. It’s rare to find a record that seems so completely of itself, and during the likes of standout tracks ‘Guillotine’ and ‘Takyon (Death Yon)’, feels capable of inspiring some mass uprising against traditional musical forms. I suppose this is true of anything which sounds ‘new’ in music, even when you strip it down to its bare bones to find it’s comprised entirely of things you’ve heard before. From the guttural stabs of low end that you may relate to today’s bass music, to the glitchy drum patterns that you might find in UK grime, there are even a number of direct samples, albeit reconceptualised, such as Black Flag’s ‘Rise Above’ on ‘Klink’. Even so, these elements have all been fused together in a way that sounds startlingly alive, and while this mixtape won’t be for everyone, you won’t hear another one like it this year.