20 Best Hip-Hop Mixtapes of 2015
The year's hottest mixtapes by Drake, Future, Erykah Badu, Chance the Rapper, G Herbo and more.
And rap in 2015 was a special one. In addition to the incredible commercial releases that poured out — from Dr. Yen Lo to Dr. Dre, Mick Jenkins to Mac Miller, Rae to Fetty Wap — the mixtape world not only produced some of the best rap releases overall, but it also received a ringing endorsement from the mainstream.
More than in any other year, the mixtape became a promotional way for artists and labels to sell what were actually "albums" in the conventional sense — a testament to how far the format has come in 2015.
Since the line between an "album" and a "mixtape" will only get blurrier, we decided to make the so-called "retail mixtape" eligible. Which, this year, just so happened to encompass some of the best of the year. Check 'em all out below.
20. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment: "Surf"
"Surf" is the best mixtape on this list to feature a trumpeter. It's also the only mixtape to feature a trumpeter. Fronted by Chance the Rapper, Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment found a way to be different, not through alienating audiences or challenging taste, but by going the opposite route: through an inclusive, all-encompassing approach that emphasized themes of positivity and self-responsibility. This was incredibly un-cool thematic material for artists who could care less about being cool (and specifically sang about it), and between this and his mixtape with Lil B, Chance the Rapper proved how some of the biggest risk-taking this year involved skewing your own sense of cool. It paid off.
19. Katie Got Bandz: "Zero to 39th"
While Katie Got Bandz has been experimenting with just how much reach she has with her latest singles ("Make Me Rich," "P-E-T-T-Y"), the Chicago rapper also released one of this year's hardest-hitting, no-BS mixtapes. "Zero to 39th" wasn't about breadth, it was about sustaining a singular rage across 13 tracks (11 proper) without respite. And it sounded easy for her: she kicked and screamed until the very end, with the noisy DJ drops, disruptive sound effects, and oppressive production doing nothing to slow her down.
LISTEN: Katie Got Bandz, "Zero to 39th"
18. ILoveMakonnen: "Drink More Water 5"
After topping our list last year, ILoveMakonnen (seen above performing at Red Bull Sound Select: 30 Days in LA) was set to take over 2015 by signing to Drake's OVO Sound, receiving a Grammy nomination for "Tuesday," and collaborating with the likes of Rihanna, Miley Cyrus and Skrillex. But that didn't happen. His debut record was replaced by an unexpected EP, and he hasn't quite gained the traction one might've hoped for after all the hype last year. But ILoveMakonnen kept things going strong throughout, with the highlight being "Drink More Water 5." Beyond affirming that the Super Chef has retained a degree of independence from mainstream influence, the tape features some of his best songs, like "No Ma'am," "Other Guys" and "Leave U 4 Myself," with everyone from Migos, Rome Fortune and Yung Gleesh joining in on the fun. It wasn't a landmark release, but it was certainly a reminder of what Makonnen is capable of.
17. Gangsta Boo: "Candy, Diamonds & Pills"
Gangsta Boo never fails to deliver. On "Candy, Diamonds & Pills," the Three 6 Mafia affiliate continued her unrelenting streak with an economical 10 tracks of fury, banger after banger stacked on top of each other. Unlike her previous offerings, Gangsta Boo distilled her most ferocious cadences into bite-sized transmissions, complementing the driving, forward-momentum of the production with her unique Memphis stylings. Frequent collaborator and club god BeatKing was there for most of the tape, just like he was when she made our list last year. But Stunt N Dozier stole the show this time around, showcasing the kind of beats that felt tailor-made for Boo's hypnotic hooks and infectious delivery.
16. Ho99o9: "Horrors of 1999 EP"
As heavy as most rap mixtapes are, no release this year could compete with the pure, thrashing horror of Ho99o9 (pronounced "horror"). The Red Bull Sound Select group dropped a vicious six-song EP called "Horrors of 1999." Mixing punk, hardcore, noise, and rap, Ho99o9 held nothing back on this release, prodding their listeners with an uncompromising, confrontational sound. We had two choices: watch from the sidelines with jaw agape or immerse ourselves in its undeniable energy. We chose the latter, losing all sense of etiquette somewhere in that violent battlefield.
LISTEN: Ho99o9, "Horrors of 1999 EP"
15. Bricc Baby Shitro: "Nasty Dealer"
Amazing cover, amazing music. Bricc Baby Shitro's "Nasty Dealer" was one of 2015's dirtiest releases, a supersized mixtape that featured a bevy of collaborators. Assists came from the likes of Young Thug, Casey Veggies, Metro Boomin, Sonny Digital and Alia Rose (daughter of the late Teena Marie), with plenty more coming in and out of this wretched party. But all eyes were on Bricc. The scope was wide too, with the rapper wedging his hyped flow into a variety of moods and tempos, somehow always rising to the top of the heap, arms raised, fingers in the air, taunting us.
14. Tink: "Winter's Diary 3"
Tink lands on the list for the second year in a row, this time with "Winter's Diary 3." Compared to last year's installment in the series, the Red Bull Sound Select artist polished her R&B side even further, highlighting her sultry melodies and soft utterances among 10 slow-motion tracks. There were no bells and no whistles, no frills and no filler. Instead, the Chicago native was left to carry the tape almost solely with her voice alone, a test that she passed with frightening ease. Now where's that debut we've been promised?
LISTEN: Tink, "Winter's Diary 3"
13. Ty Dolla $ign: "Airplane Mode"
Ty Dolla $ign finally released his debut album "$ign Languge" this year. But despite the crisp production and star-studded guestlist ( Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, R. Kelly), it was his "Airplane Mode" mixtape that really showcased his talents. Don't get us wrong, his commercial release was pretty solid. But "Airplane Mode" thankfully saw Ty flying solo, and it suited him well. He had no problems carrying the whole tape with his trademark delivery, and there were no concessions to mainstream tastes throughout. This was Ty keeping it raw and real, a special treat for those following the mixtape world.
LISTEN: Ty Dolla $ign, "Airplane Mode"
12. YG, Blanco, & DB Tha General: "California Livin"
No contemporary West Coast vibe could be better than the one "My Krazy Life" unleashed on us last year. That's just science. Perhaps YG realized this when he hooked up with Blanco and DB Tha General to drop "California Livin." On this mixtape, the rappers forwent the pressure of trying to best the DJ Mustard sound and instead tapped production team Cookin' Soul to produce a G-funk throwback, taking Dre's and Snoop's classic albums from the 1990s and adding their own modern twist. The result was surprisingly fresh, despite it being a near-verbatim homage with similar jokes, skits, and cover art. It had everything working against it, but the tape's quality was through the roof — of a '64 Chevy convertible, of course.
11. G Herbo (Lil Herb): "Ballin Like I'm Kobe"
Harnessing the devastating weight of Chicago drill while adding dexterous virtuosity is no small feat, but G Herbo (formerly known as Lil Herb) has somehow made it his trademark flow. On "Ballin Like I'm Kobe," the Red Bull Sound Select artist pays tribute not to the soon-retiring basketball star, but to his fallen friend, much like his debut mixtape, "Welcome to Fazoland" (which made our list last year). It made for a dark, moody listen, but this sublimation of pain was expressed with the kind of maturity you'd expect from a 10-year vet, not a rising young gun. But Herbo somehow laid it all out there like a consummate pro.
10. Lil B x Chance the Rapper: "Free (Based Freestyle Mixtape)"
After topping our 2013 list, Chance the Rapper returned in 2015 with two solid releases. Both featured Chance toiling out of his comfort zone, but it was "Free (Based Freestyle Mixtape)" that made the uncomfortableness actually audible. And it was no surprise: On "Free," Chance hooked up with the one and only BasedGod, Lil B, who pulled him away from his polished zones and threw him in his beautiful world of based freestyles, where rough edges and spontaneous creation replaced virtuosity and calculated rhyming. Chance stumbled and mumbled and showed all his weaknesses (not many), but what we got instead was a breath of fresh air. Lil B, no stranger to these lists himself, guided him along with the kind of love you'd expect from him.
09. Drake & Future: "What a Time to Be Alive"
With listeners consuming music at such a breakneck pace, it makes sense that the promotional machine would play to that sensibility. No other release this year — mixtape, rap, or otherwise — managed to compress the rumor/tease/hype cycle into such a short time span, so we were surprised no one got hurt when "What a Time to Be Alive" finally exploded on the scene. But the digital dash to its release was actually matched by both the quality of their raps and the brilliant production by Metro Boomin. An odd balance was struck between the jarring nature of Future's corrupted, hazy delivery and Drake's refined lyricism, with the legroom afforded by the production allowing these two rappers to sprawl out, elongating hooks and infiltrating unexpected spaces. They did it dirty, we listened lovingly.
08. RetcH: "Finesse the World"
While Dr. Yen Lo's incredible album from this year served as a new benchmark for rap minimalism; RetcH's "Finesse the World" was its brilliant mixtape counterpart. No mixtape this year even came close to its brand of enveloping terror. Replete with spacious bass, airy tones, and all kinds of "wrong" notes punctuating the suspense-filled production, the tape saw the New Jersey rapper's gruffy snarl finding comfort in a looping unease. It resulted in a hazy soundtrack for a 3AM half-memory, with a figure behind you just out of view.
LISTEN: RetcH, "Finesse the World"
07. Lil Ugly Mane: "Third Side of Tape"
Lil Ugly Mane used 2015 as an opportunity to drop the final edition of his "Three-Sided Trilogy." And as expected, "Third Side of Tape" was a complete and utter mindmelt. Appropriately titled yet inappropriately executed, the release had no coherency, no modus operandi, no grand scheme. It instead acted as an aesthetic dumping ground for whatever the enigmatic Richmond rapper desired, with rap, noise, garage and electronics mixing haphazardly and awkwardly into his impossibly stinky sonic stew. It was all action, no plot; all confusion, no thought. And it was absolutely beautiful/terrifying.
06. Denzel Curry: "32 Zel / Planet Shrooms"
The best mixtape to come from South Florida was also one of the best mixtapes of the year. Denzel Curry returned this year with the one-two punch of "32 Zel / Planet Shrooms," two EPs that offered a compelling look into his twisted mentality. While "32 Zel" boasted Denzel's slightly-off take on trap, "Planet Shrooms" found him in transitional forms, floating between states with psychedelic results. It was both a hallucination of being and a deterioration of identity, but there was a clarity of vision throughout. It was "the mind revealing itself to itself," as a wise man once said.
05. Slug Christ: "The Crucifixion of Rapper Extraordinaire, Slug Christ"
After a hype-centric 2014, what did Atlanta's Awful Records crew offer us in 2015? Way more than expected. Fantastic releases came from the likes of Tommy Genesis, Father, ABRA, Ethereal, Archibald SLIM, Lord Narf and many more. But it was Slug Christ's peculiar, lackadaisical delivery that sliced through the mix like a paper cut, the drawl of all drawls looming ominously (and nasally) over the clattering production from an all-star cast of Awful affiliates. "The Crucifixion" was his most inaccessible tape of the year, featuring plenty of dissonance and a religious (pun intended) commitment to its concept, but it was also Slugger's boldest, most refined statement yet. Who knows where he'll be going next. That's the best part.
04. Erykah Badu: "BUT YOU CAINT USE MY PHONE"
After a five-year waiting period, Erykah Badu came back in late 2015 with an understated but enveloping "hello." On "BUT YOU CAINT USE MY PHONE," Badu's mixtape/not-a-mixtape greetings submerged our already-overloaded senses in the silent din of a networked economy, a simultaneous critique and acknowledgement of our increasing reliance on phones in modern communication. But her approach was far from overbearing itself, using singing bowls and tuning forks and hotline blings to aid in her soft, simple demand: to also be heard without having to be channeled through a cellphone's earpiece. The result was equal parts sultry and psychedelic, with her "symphonic vibrations" reaching 'round the world sans transaction fees and carrier add-ons.
03. Sicko Mobb: "Super Saiyan Vol. 2"
After breaking through with "Super Saiyan Vol. 1," Sicko Mobb had somehow created a space in the mainstream for the bouncy, energetic sound of Chicago bop. Thankfully, the trending hype aspect has died down since then, and now the Red Bull Sound Select duo of Lil Ceno and Lil Trav have only their music to continue to spread the word of bop. And spread they did in 2015, releasing two new mixtapes in as many months. While "Mulah" was an unexpectedly mature achievement itself, it was the second volume of "Super Saiyan" that really encapsulated what these two precocious artists were capable of: earworm melodies in the context of technological play and an exaggerated rhythm attuned to the pulse of the Chicago youth.
02. Young Thug: "Barter 6"
One listen to opening track "Constantly Hating" and you'll realize just how special Young Thug is. On this slow, ecstatic banger, Thugger and Birdman trade verses in a stunning display of versatility, with elastic melodies, innovative phrasings and rhythmic experimentalism that, above all, prove just how adaptable he is. And it made sense: Thug's songwriting methodology is to lock himself in the studio, flick off the lights and freestyle over and over until a song is done. He conforms to the music and, in turn, we conform to his worldview, which on "Barter 6" is seductively pockmarked by the insatiable demands of a rising spitter. Heck, even Elton John is into him. In 2015, this Atlanta rapper has remained one of the hottest, most interesting figures out there. And with a "proper" debut on the way, we don't see any reason to stop believing that the world will be his one day.