In recent years, some of the most interesting and exciting hip-hop music has arrived via mixtapes. 2014 was no exception.
Without the pressures and burdens of labels, bosses, execs and chart-topping desires, the mixtape format continues to provide rappers the space to experiment, be weird, have fun and do what they do best: rap.
This year gave us excellent projects by household names (Gangsta Boo, Mac Miller, Boosie), quick climbers (Young Thug, Migos, Tink), internet legends (Lil B) and thrilling newcomers (Makonnen, Lil Herb). After meditating in the lab and listening to dozens of 2014 mixtapes, we narrowed the list down to 15 essentials. Here they are.
15. Gangsta Boo & BeatKing - 'Underground Cassette Tape Music'
Legendary rapper Gangsta Boo, formerly of Three 6 Mafia and its spinoff Da Mafia Six, continued her steady output this year with 'Underground Cassette Tape Music,' a ferocious, driving collaboration with BeatKing. The "club god" himself already had quite the year with two solid mixtapes — 'Gangsta Stripper Music 2' and 'Pole Sex' — but his gruffy voice unexpectedly found its most natural pairing alongside Gangsta Boo's nasty snarl. Across 15 trunk-rattling tracks, these Southern rappers used incisive rhymes and deep bass to pay homage to their respective home cities (Memphis and Houston) and with the tape's focused mission and choice guest features, 'Underground Cassette Tape Music' turned out to represent one of this year's best rap duo performances. We also go to see Gangsta Boo do her thing in the flesh this year when she took the stage with Run The Jewels at Red Bull Sound Select: 30 Days In LA. It was a good year for Boo.
DOWNLOAD/LISTEN: Gangsta Boo & BeatKing - 'Underground Cassette Tape Music'
14. Kevin Gates - 'By Any Means'
After a breakout year with 'The Luca Brasi Story' and his debut 'Stranger Than Fiction,' Kevin Gates returned in 2014 with the critically acclaimed 'By Any Means.' With thicker production and less seams, the mixtape once again shined light on the darker corners of the Louisiana rapper's mind, providing much-needed release for his brooding, ill-tempered skepticism. But if Gates can make even anger and paranoia sound transcendent, imagine what he can do when his hangups are no longer stifling his mindset. Or maybe that's been his trick all along.
DOWNLOAD/LISTEN: Kevin Gates - 'By Any Means'
13. Lucki Eck$ - 'Body High'
Lucki Eck$, Chicago Westside rapper and Red Bull Sound Select artist, defied expectations by following up last year's 'Alternative Trap' with a woozy, foggy, swirling follow-up, titled 'Body High.' The mixtape wasn't just inward-looking, but also inward-sounding, with Lucki Eck$ feeling the very shapes of his inner-self with a psychedelic expression and lackadaisical articulation that gave new definition to the word lethargy. He sounded both free and trapped, a victim of his mind but emancipated in a sense through his dragging delivery and illogical through-lines. Rather than hyping you up or shaking your ride, 'Body High' made you lay back and close your eyes. Also, don't forget his collab with Danny Brown, 'Weightin On.'
DOWNLOAD/LISTEN: Lucki Eck$ - 'Body High'
12. Migos - 'No Label II'
Wanna hear 2014 rap embodied by three Atlanta troublemakers? Look no further than Migos, whose triplet rhyme schemes, oppressive soundworlds, and audacious personalities have come to define much of what gave rap its edge in 2014. And of all their releases this year, the unrelenting, id-driven 'No Label II' was their most effective at bringing that point home. But who knows how long it can sustain? Rappers have imitated them so thoroughly in 2014 that the "Migos sound" is no longer tenable as a descriptor, and come next year, the trio might just take a trip through the mainstream grinder via their backers at 300 Entertainment (distributed by Atlantic Records). But that Migos has still largely commanded the spotlight in 2014 says much about both their potential longevity and our confirmed addiction to them.
DOWNLOAD/LISTEN: Migos - 'No Label II'
11. OG Maco - 'OG Maco'
OG Maco sideswiped the rap world with the most minimal viral jam of the year in 'U Guessed It.' But that track, as incredible as it is, was just one song from a multi-pronged talent, one whose Atlanta credentials and through-the-roof hype has him in line to be the next big thing. Each of his releases this year — from his 'Give Em Hell' EP with Key! to his excellent 'Live Life' series — one-upped the previous, with his latest, self-titled mixtape being by far the strongest and most versatile of the batch. It's also the tape that plays most like an album proper, with exquisite sequencing and masterful pacing. It even has a remixed version of 'U Guessed It' with 2 Chainz dropping some bars. OG's still honing his style, but with a hit single, this banger of a release, and his trademarked hoot, it's no wonder why Maco's got the attention of the rap world.
DOWNLOAD/LISTEN: OG Maco - 'OG Maco'
10. Mick Jenkins - 'The Water[s]'
Of all the mixtapes released in 2014, perhaps its most refined transmission came from Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins. Titled 'The Water[s],' which follows last year's 'Trees And Truths,' Jenkins somehow crafted a mixtape that didn't come off like your typical mixtape. It was so well-produced, so well-constructed, so well-conceptualized it sounded like it had to have come from major label backing, as if this were the release that he was banking on to propel him one step closer to widespread recognition. And maybe it will. While his heavy-handed idealism might've grated on those with their own moral convictions and ideas about the word, Jenkins's unencumbered reach, old-school aesthetic, and stylistic fluency put him in a lineage that extends from fellow Chi-Town rappers like Common all the way to modern conceptualists like Kendrick Lamar.
DOWNLOAD/LISTEN: Mick Jenkins - 'The Water[s]'
9. Boosie Bad Azz - 'Life After Deathrow'
After nearly five years in prison, Boosie Bad Azz — the artist formerly known as Lil Boosie — returned to the rap conversation not only with a bunch of features (with DJ Mustard, 2 Chainz, Young Jeezy, etc.) and an announcement of a forthcoming double-disc album, but also with an 18-track mixtape called 'Life After Deathrow.' If there were any concerns over the Louisiana rapper's ability to stay lean and mean after all these years, they were obliterated as soon as the first beat dropped: Boosie immediately worked the room with his gripping tales of deception and betrayal, occasionally punctuated with moments of levity but always delivered with the trademark bite that we've come to know and love.
DOWNLOAD/LISTEN: Boosie Bad Azz - 'Life After Deathrow'
8. Tink - 'Winter's Diary 2'
While, overall, Atlanta overpowered Chicago this year in terms of breadth and innovation, the proportional quality of Windy City mixtapes put the two cities neck and neck. Tink's 'Winter's Diary 2' was perhaps the most surprising of these releases. The teenage rapper/singer, who grew up nearby DJ Rashad and other footwork practitioners in Chicago's Calumet City suburb, has already hooked up with the more experimental side of the rap/electronic/dance spectrum — Future Brown, Sasha Go Hard, etc. — but it was this mixtape that showed how incredible she could be when left to her own devices. No lyrical revelations can really be found in her tales of love and lust, but her intonation is saying much more than her words ever could. This tape was only part of Tink's 2014 rise: she's also now working with hitmaker Timbaland, she made a track and video with Sleigh Bells, and we had the opportunity to see her rock a few stages this year, including an opening set for Juicy J at Red Bull Sound Select: 30 Days In LA. Keep it up, Tink!
DOWNLOAD/LISTEN: Tink - 'Winter's Diary 2'
7. Ethereal - 'Cactus Jack'
No underdog rap story in 2014 resonated better than Atlanta's Awful Records. But even without a marketing plan, or even a general game plan at all, the DIY collective managed to release some of the most engrossing, exciting, and varied rap of 2014. While Father's 'Look at Wrist' (feat. iLoveMakonnen and Key!) was their breakthrough jam, Ethereal's 'Cactus Jack' was their most realized artistic statement. Sparse and flowing yet shot through with a forward-momentum that kept the haze fleeting, Obie Rudolph waxed philosophical amid his own hypnotic, left-field beats. But the payoff wasn't in its story; it was in its moods and in its contours, reflecting the warped mind and brilliant nuance of a rapper/producer who is poised to have a big 2015.
DOWNLOAD/LISTEN: Ethereal - 'Cactus Jack'
6. Young Thug & Bloody Jay - 'Black Portland'
After a brilliant mixtape in '1017 Thug' and some equally brilliant singles ('Danny Glover,' 'Stoner'), Young Thug was primed to takeover 2014. Due to contractual issues, that didn't quite happen. But Young Thug still had a dominating year, with a plethora of incredible features, collaborative projects, and even some unofficial mixtapes, every one of them worth hearing. Despite Rich Gang's 'Tha Tour Part 1,' his collaboration with Birdman and Rich Homie Quan, being cleaner and more cohesive, the project that resonated the most was his joint tape with Bloody Jay, who here provided more backup than counterpoint, matching Thugger's intensity with his own vicious bark. The mixtape was patchy in a good way — its inclusion of 'Danny Glover' was delightfully awkward — and probably could've used some proper mastering, but 'Black Portland' rose above the competition on the strength of their performances alone.
DOWNLOAD/LISTEN: Young Thug & Bloody Jay - 'Black Portland'
5. Lil B - '05 F__k Em'
If rap mixtapes provide artists more freedom of expression, then it also provides them more chances to fail. Lil B fails a lot, but that's a good thing. The BasedGod has always thrived on taking risks, and on '05 F__k Em,' he took his biggest risk of the year by dropping this 101-track monster. There are, of course, songs that could be singled out as "the best" or tracks that are "the funniest," and we could certainly make a case for the superiority of his other 2014 mixtapes, notably 'Basedworld Paradise' and 'Ultimate B____h.' But when it comes to Lil B, excess is key, and on '05 F__k Em,' we discovered that hedonism sounded beautiful when it was pummelling at us relentlessly, one song after another.
DOWNLOAD/LISTEN: Lil B - '05 F__k Em'
4. Sicko Mobb - 'Super Saiyan Vol. 1'
If the nihilistic tendencies of Chicago rap point to a surrealism that's hard to rationalize outside of Chiraq, then so too does the overflowing positivity of bop. No artists more effectively harnessed the bubbling energy of this party-centric, all-inclusive collision of rap and dance than Lil Trav and Lil Ceno of Sicko Mobb, the Red Bull Sound Select artist whose 'Super Saiyan Vol. 1' has since become its most defining, most visible statement to date. This one was for the youth, for those watching the violence from the outside, for those who needed escape from the studied, choreographed landscape of Chi-town music. It was relentlessly cloying, replete with a disgustingly liberal use of auto-tune, and featured more DJ drops than Gucci Mane's entire 2014 discography. It was perfect.
DOWNLOAD/LISTEN: Sicko Mobb - 'Super Saiyan Vol. 1'
3. Mac Miller - 'Faces'
Mac Miller (seen above playing guitar with SZA at Red Bull Studios LA) is undoubtedly charming, and that he released his latest mixtape 'Faces' on Mother's Day also makes him incredibly sweet. So how did someone so charming and so sweet drop one of the hardest mixtapes of the year? Because Mac Miller is also weird, also batshit crazy, and also conflictingly multi-faceted: a little happy, a little sad, a little too zoned-out and self-aware to fully embrace happiness or sadness. But his rap persona is beyond infectious, small in stature yet towering above the competition with clever wordplay, biting metaphors, and a dexterous flow that feels natural yet idiosyncratic. 'Faces' showed Mac Miller getting even deeper, more complex, and less predictable than his fantastic 2013, a feat pulled off with frightening ease.
DOWNLOAD/LISTEN: Mac Miller - 'Faces'
2. Lil Herb - 'Welcome to Fazoland'
While many of Chicago's rappers have found themselves defined in part by the infamous battle ground of Chicago, artists like Lil Herb subsumed the violence in a way that gave it an artistic purpose beyond its localized realities (i.e., Terror Town). 'Welcome to Fazoland,' a dedication in part to the Red Bull Sound Select artist's fallen friend, was the sound of Herb coming out on his own, this time without relying on mic-passing to frequent collaborator Lil Bibby. It was an ecstatic and delirious ride through Herb's masterful, cinematic storytelling, blasting through drill's simplistic simulations with a gut-wrenching, emotionally-driven style of street spitting. With 'Fazoland,' Herb slyly re-inserted the dexterity and complexity that was just waiting for new forms of expression, and the rap world couldn't help but perk up.
DOWNLOAD/LISTEN: Lil Herb - 'Welcome to Fazoland'
1. iLoveMakonnen - 'iLoveMakonnen' EP
iLoveMakonnen was releasing incredibly weird, daring works for years now, but it wasn't until Mike WiLL Made-It got hot Atlanta producers like Sonny Digital and Metro Boomin on the boards when Makonnen starting getting noticed. And after Drake jumped on 'Club Goin Up on a Tuesday' and subsequently signed him to his OVO Sound imprint, Makonnen's trajectory whiplashed from obscure outsider to underground sensation to man-of-the-moment, a move that's already led to a collaboration with Miley Cyrus off the strength of this self-titled EP. His meteoric rise was inevitable though: beneath the cosigns, cover stories, and trendy name-drops lay incredibly confessional, keyboard-based songs that transcend the typical signifiers of Atlanta rap, capturing something more progressive, earnest, and based than we'd dare expect. In 2014, Makonnen gifted rap with a much-needed rupture. This is just the beginning.
DOWNLOAD/LISTEN: iLoveMakonnen - 'iLoveMakonnen' EP