The mixtape world is deliriously fast-paced. Blink and you might miss a whole career trajectory, rising and nose-diving like so many fallen rap stories. But this corner of the world was always a safe space for continual replenishing, no matter whether you "made it" or not (just ask Gucci Mane), and 2016 was an especially exciting year.
The crop from this year's best hip-hop mixtapes captures a vitality that has only strengthened over the years with all the promise and struggle and energy that come from artists so talented they can't wait to prove it. The debuts, in particular, were of unprecedented quality, arriving from artists as varied as Kamaiyah and Liana Bank$ to Lil Yachty and Noname.
And then there was Princess Nokia, who destroyed everything in her path. In short, 2016 was a great year for mixtapes. Check out the 20 best below.
20. Jazz Cartier, "Hotel Paranoia"
Sloppy this isn't. Jazz Cartier's "Hotel Paranoia" was a surprise, not only because it was dropped without a promotional buildup but also because it showed an eerily refined growth for an artist who was already coming into his own (he's only 23). On this mixtape, his third, the Toronto rapper didn't stray far from his typical soundworld, coiling his urgent, rhythmically dense rhymes around sparse, moody production. But his comfort behind the mic was more apparent than ever and the potency of his hunger? Downright palpable. He earned this one.
Listen: Jazz Cartier, "Hotel Paranoia"
19. DeJ Loaf, "All Jokes Aside"
The wait continues for DeJ Loaf's debut album (now confirmed for early 2017) but she's been holding things down just fine in the mixtape game. "All Jokes Aside" is the follow-up to the breakthrough smash of her 2014 "Sell Sole" mixtape and it saw the Detroit rapper trying on a more sentimental garb. As she put it, "There comes a time in a girl's life, where she becomes a young woman. It's called growth, it's called maturity, it's called living life to the full potential and being true to who you are. That's what I represent." The result might not've been what we all expected, but who actually wants that? DeJ Loaf put herself in a vulnerable, risk-taking zone while retaining those jaw-dropping hooks and effortless flows. It's about all we could ask for.
Listen: DeJ Loaf, "All Jokes Aside"
18. Joey Purp, "iiiDrops"
Slick, polished and worked-over like a Baldwin coiffure, Joey Purp's "iiiDrops" landed to immediate fanfare. More than any other year, Chicago's Savemoney crew — which counts Chance the Rapper, Towkio and Vic Mensa among its ranks — chipped away at Atlanta's rap-game domination with its own multi-headed modus operandi and Joey Purp's contribution saw him sustaining an unimaginable intensity throughout its consistently hard-hitting, trunk-rattling tracks. It was a smart, taut release that didn't quite sound like a mixtape mixtape, each track so banging you'd think it was a greatest hits collection from a rap vet. But Purp went to great lengths to make sure you felt some sort of narrative exaltation — and it worked.
Listen: Joey Purp, "iiiDrops"
17. Larry League, "Put to Rest"
The hook is key for Larry League and each track on "Put to Rest" served hooks that could kill. On this short seven-cut mixtape, the three tenacious boys in the Atlanta rap/production crew somehow made each track a genuine group effort, playing off each other with ease and complementing rhymes like pros. Some of it was stripped and sloppy, but that's always been part of their charm. Think Yachty, Pollàri and Burberry, but with an infectious, wide-eyes naivety and spirited restlessness that are rarely ever translated to record. Their energy wasn't imposing, it was inviting, and it was gone before it wore out its welcome. But we want more anyway.
Listen: Larry League, "Put to Rest"
16. Bodega BAMZ, "All Eyez Off Me"
Bodega BAMZ comes straight outta Spanish Harlem and he brought with him some of the heaviest, nastiest music released this year. "All Eyez Off Me," a title that riffs on Tupac's classic fourth album, achieved an almost singular energy through Bodega's aggressive vocals, the dense, noisy production only enabling this monster of a rapper. It's dark and oppressive, moody and relentless, but it also had rare moments of reprieve with the straight-up gorgeous track "Actual Love" and the oddball breather that was "Peephole." It also has a song called "Disney World On Acid," which is incredible itself.
Listen: Bodega BAMZ, "All Eyez Off Me"
15. Boogie, "Thirst 48 Pt. II"
Boogie can rap. For real. The Compton rapper has only three mixtapes to his name but each one gets progressively better and much of it was due to his dexterity and malleability. When Boogie raps, he adapts. Which is to say: It doesn't matter whether it's piano-driven melodrama or ratchet-influenced slappers; Boogie finds a way to make every beat his own. "Thirst 48 Pt. II" was nothing if not eclectic. The songs, ultra-slick and lovingly crafted, are consistent enough to sound cohesive, but there is a good variety of tracks here that Boogie has no problem blending into. And beyond his impressive technical skills, Boogie's a masterful lyricist whose true talent is how deep he's willing to go and on this tape, it's all the way. The hyper-introspection and intense musings can be emotionally exhausting but the rewards are plentiful.
Listen: Boogie, "Thirst 48 Pt. II"
14. Liana Bank$, "Insubordinate"
Liana Bank$ released her debut this year and what an entrance it was. Across 12 gorgeous songs, the green-haired Queens artist threw down tracks both silky and sulky, a brand of R&B that nestled in the subdued embrace of its cool, exquisite aesthetics. "Insubordinate" was confident and fearless, and intentionally so: "When you filter your art, you suppress your truths. You in turn, water down your message, your essence is stripped and you mask your identity," Banks told Complex in an interview. And as someone who had already written music for cream-of-the-crop artists like Rihanna, Lilly Allen and Nicki Minaj, you really have no choice but to believe her. Not that you'd need to take Bank$'s word for it — one listen to "Insubordinate" and you could hear it all for yourself.
Listen: Liana Bank$, "Insubordinate"
13. Jeremih, "Late Nights: Europe"
Following last December's incredible yet poorly marketed "Last Nights: The Album," Jeremih hit back with a mixtape called "Late Nights: Europe." The 14-tracker had a solid guestlist — G Herbo, Wiz Khalifa, Ty Dolla $ign — and a solid executive producer in Soundz. But aside from his impeccable curation abilities, what's always been Jeremih's draw is his incredible, versatile vocals, one of the absolute best in the business.Despite being in somewhat the same wheelhouse as croonboys like PARTYNEXTDOOR and Weeknd, Jeremih is levels ahead of them in skill, scope and swag. "Late Nights: Europe" made sure no one forgot that.
Listen: Jeremih, "Late Nights: Europe"
12. Tate Kobang, "Since We're Here"
Where did this guy come from? Having signed to 300 Entertainment and absolutely killing it during his 5 Fingers of Death freestyle on Sway in the Morning, Tate Kobang quickly made waves at the ripe young age of 24. "Since We're Here" is thus far his masterstroke, a succinct 10-tracker that charted the incredible range of this young gun from Baltimore, many of the songs freestyled. He's got brilliant bars, of course, but he's much more than what we heard from his 2015 viral hit "Bank Rolls." Listen to that Gucci swag on "I Don't Need," that boom-bap flavor on "Same Shit," even that mutated pop on "Number 5." Can you believe that's him singing on "Lied To Me"? Why is he not singing on every song? It's astounding how much Tate can do and he's only just getting started.
Listen: Tate Kobang, "Since We're Here"
11. Sicko Mobb, "Super Saiyan Vol. 3"
Chicago bop never became the worldwide sensation that it should've been but that hasn't effected Sick Mobb's artistic output. These still-young Chicago rappers released the third installment of their "Super Saiyan" series this year and it continued to show their maturity as artists, this time taking things even slower and less spastic than before. And it actually worked. Their overlapping, auto-tuned harmonies fit well within the slower, darker trap-esque stylings of "SS3," and while the hyped tempos and whirlwind delivery of yore might be missed, the expansion of Lil Ceno and Lil Trav's aesthetic outside the bop bubble can be heard as a welcomed infiltration. Plus, their collaboration with Jeremih on "Expensive Taste" proved just how capable they are at crafting a bona fide hit record.
10. JP Moregun, "JP Moregun"
When two artists really click, it's obvious. JP Moregun, the duo of Chicago rapper Jeremiah Jae and rising producer/TAR collective head PBDY, showed just how obvious it could be with their self-titled mixtape. On this swift, in-and-out release, the two artists created a symbiotic beast of a record, a reflection of a creative process that felt open-ended and lively without launching into space. It was a quick listen — 11 tracks in 20 minutes — but the impression it made lasted much longer. Noisy, eclectic and hypnotic like the best of Brainfeeder releases yet still incredibly listenable, "JP Moregun" went hard in the paint. Everybody was ducking for cover, admiring the view from below.
Listen: JP Moregun, "JP Moregun"
9. Future, "Purple Reign"
After an unprecedented shower of mixtapes and two No. 1 albums in 2015, Future slowed things down this year. Perhaps it was the near-beefs and unexpected criticisms weighing him down. But in any case, Future didn't slow things without releasing some of his most accomplished statements yet. "EVOL" was solid through and through but it was "Purple Reign" that far better captured what makes the Atlanta rapper so great: Deceptively complex flows, an unending flurry of sound and an almost hypnotic delivery that has been brewed to perfection. Of course, it also didn't hurt that the whole thing was executive produced by DJ Esco and Metro Boomin. This here was a mixtape's mixtape, marked by producer drops, a haphazard release and a cold, hard aesthetic that could only work down in this beautiful mixtape pit of ours.
Listen: Future, "Purple Reign"
8. Kamaiyah, "A Good Night in the Ghetto"
Kamaiyah arrived in full this year and we all felt it in our guts. Riding a wave of hype and anticipation due to "How Does It Feel," her breakthrough hit from 2015, Kamaiyah's debut mixtape doubled down on her monotone, matter-of-fact delivery style and it all felt perfectly befitting of our troubled times. The acclaim for this mixtape was unprecedented but it also wasn't surprising: The Oakland native found a way to simultaneously throwback to 1990s rap and nod to our present infatuation with West Coast ratchet and G-funk, armed with a clunky brick of a phone in one hand and a Henny in the other. She was down to party, and we showed up in droves, arms wide open.
7. Lil Yachty, "Lil Boat"
While the rap world squabbles over what "real" rap supposedly is or isn't, Lil Yachty continues to extend his reach into weird, uncharted territories. Despite being the current poster boy of naive, wet-behind-the-ears rappers everywhere, the Atlanta-based ship captain is sailing toward all sorts of wild destinations, guesting on tracks both good (Chance the Rapper's "Mixtape") and grating (The Americanos's "In My Foreign"), even catching the ears of nobodys like Kanye and Drake. But Yachty is at his best when he's left to his own devices — with help of course from the Good Perry (aka Burberry Perry) — which was best exemplified on his debut tape, "Lil Boat." It was a delicate yet masterful balancing act — strange yet accessible, familiar yet innovative. I mean, who cares what he thinks about the Notorious B.I.G. when he can write a song like "Wanna Be Us"? The music is there. The rest is just click-baiting noise.
Listen: Lil Yachty, "Lil Boat"
6. Babyfather, "419"
No matter what mode it's in, every Dean Blunt project sounds like a Dean Blunt project. While not quite featuring the warped electronics of Hype Williams (no, not the director) or matching the eclecticism of his solo material, his rap group Babyfather played in a similar sandbox, except its damaged synth work, fried dissonance and abstruse sense-making was deliciously couched in rap tropes. Partner-in-crime DJ Escrow took somewhat of a backseat on "419," their most recent mixtape, leaving MC Blunt to shine on his own, his seemingly lackadaisical inflection and relatively calm demeanor at odds with the mostly disconnected production work that pushed boundaries and challenged preconceptions of what a "rap" release could be. If "UK2UK" was their introduction, "Platinum Tears" their proper rap debut and "BBF" (Hyperdub) their magnum opus, where does that leave "419"? Perhaps where it should be: somewhere undefined.
Listen: Babyfather, "419"
5. Noname, "Telefone"
Depressing reality check: Hard work and determination don't always pay off. But in the case of Noname, who took three years to make her debut "Telefone," it all paid off — and then some. You know what universal acclaim is? Not many artists have experienced it but it's pretty damn hard to find a Noname naysayer. This tape isn't divisive or challenging or alienating — it's about unity, growth and love. It's about relaying life experiences, some of it sad and miserable, some of it ecstatic and memorable, yet somehow always ending up sounding inspirational without the chese. It's a tough thing to do — just ask her Chicago buddies Chance and Mick Jenkins. But co-signs and collaborations didn't help this beloved Red Bull Sound Select artist grow into her own. This was all her.
Listen: Noname, "Telefone"
4. Young Thug, "JEFFERY"
Young Thug already proved his prowess on the streets years ago and, over the last couple, showed how he could do the impossible by muscling his bizarre style and insane flow into the wider rap landscape. The only question was what does an artist do under the glaring lights of the mainstream? For Young Thug, he chose to shed the slime and write something that'd appeal to more than just mixtape aficionados and Gucci fanboys. Yes, the "crossover" idea always sounds terrible on paper — artistic suicide, really — but no one expected Young Thug to release one of his most beautiful, cohesive statements yet. We all knew he could write a killer hook but who knew he was capable of something as outstanding as the one on "Webbie"? Who knew he'd keep testing the limits of his voice on songs like "Harambe"? For years, Young Thug has consistently surprised us with his talent; lucky for us, he's still got a bunch up his sleeves, only this time he's funneling the filth into what is somehow now considered "palatable." What a time.
Listen: Young Thug, "JEFFERY"
3. Cousin Stizz, "MONDA"
Talk about a grower. Cousin Stizz's "MONDA" was excellent when it first dropped but it's downright impeccable now that it's had time to breathe. Stizz upped the ante this year, following up last year's "Suffolk County" with some of the hardest yet catchiest tracks of 2016. But don't worry: This ain't mindless Kent Jones/"Don't Mind" type of catchiness. Instead, the Beantown rapper plows through 14 tracks that are heavy on the hooks — no fuss, no muss — all of it delivered with a lethargic intonation and an incredible attention to detail, and all of it given thematic weight from the death of his friend (Damone Clark aka "Monda") from bone cancer. This is the Real Deal Holyfield — street music with brains, smart music with brawn — and it just so happened to be one of 2016's best, most consistent works.
Listen: Cousin Stizz, "MONDA"
2. Chance The Rapper, "Coloring Book"
Chance the Rapper is more than just a cute face with a cool hat. He's one of the most visionary, principled rappers out there and this year's "Coloring Book" — alongside his jaw-dropping performances on Kanye West's "The Life of Pablo" — solidified his place among the top of the heap. But that heap is just a heap: Chance's concerns went beyond hierarchy, aiming for the masses with assists from the elite (Kanye, Thugger, Bieber) while keeping it in a spiritual register not typically heard around these parts. This was a faith-based mixtape, a joyous celebration of life, an ultralight beam from the depths of Chicago. It was an exploration of intimacy and universality, and the inexplicable cross-pollination between the two. With all the dreadful news and events gushing from the second half of 2016, "Coloring Book" is needed now more than ever.
1. Princess Nokia, "1992"
Dodging label offers like bullets and swerving from the spotlight with middle fingers in the air, Princess Nokia has grown into something fiercely independent. Fiercely talented, too. Stepping down from the holy altar that is the NYC stoop, Destiny Frasqueri used the nine tracks on "1992" to flex rhymes about everything from the racialized body and Bart Simpson to gender norms and Mortal Kombat II, destroying the male gaze while repping her favorite food stops. It bordered on a surreal, cartoon-like hallucination, delievered with a nasty cadence and tempered by an entrenched New York City realism: serious and light-hearted, subversive and funny, real and unreal. It also boasted one of the best songs of all time in "Tomboy," a track that'll change your ears. I said it before and I'll say it again: This is brilliant stuff. "1992" was the mixtape of 2016.
Listen: Princess Nokia, "1992"