Free, online mixtapes may be outliving their function to rap music. Buzz is almost exclusively attained with hot singles, and albums are now getting released with no promotional push. It’s hard out here.
For a period, a mixtape uploaded to Datpiff or Livemixtapes could be a showcase for newbies and veterans alike. They could liberally borrow 10 of the hottest rap songs of the moment and embarrass the original artist on his or her own project. In 2015 however, not only would a rapper be hard-pressed to even find 10 recent, hot rap songs, but by the time they finished the project, eight of those songs would be stale as last night’s beer. Just ask Lil Wayne. Instead of jacking for beats on a mixtape, rappers just upload a rushed “freestyle” on their YouTube page before the original hit falls off the trending topic list.
Mixtapes can still serve a purpose. The channel of releasing unencumbered music straight to an audience is starting to find a home in other genres, which is at least in part why three of these five mixtapes below are by rappers who sing or singers who rap. R&B artists can use mixtapes to explore places they can’t go on an album, or to leave unfinished half-thoughts that would never fully be fleshed out. Meanwhile, a lot of rappers are basically uploading 22 outtakes to a single file and calling it a day.
But until fun and great rapping are extinguished from free online rap mixtapes, I’ll keep listening. And after listening this year, these are the best five rap tapes of 2015. (So far.)
1) Future – 56 Nights
After the Atlanta rapper, singer, fire marshal, and astronaut Future released his sophomore album Honest in 2014, there was a widely held sense that he had fallen off. The album had received a fraction of the commercial and critical acclaim of his debut, and Future looked like he’d run out of magic. He cheated on R&B goddess Ciara in real life and in the process lost the “Future mystique” he’d cultivated in dungeons and outer space. But like a supervillain origin story, Future embraced his dark side with whining, brooding, unrepenting mixtapes called Monster and Beast Mode.
The best iteration of this new Future aesthetic, at least thus far, is on his most recent tape, 56 Nights. The title is inspired by the amount of time Future’s DJ, DJ Esco, spent in a Dubai jail, but the theme of the tape is much closer to escapism than incarceration. It’s all drugs and debauchery. Future still wears the monster mask that allows him to be completely uninhibited, and his flows are just as feral. He’s not rapping circles around the competition, he’s rapping in spheres and trapezoids from start to finish.
The production is handled almost exclusively by Southside, head of the sprawling Atlanta production team 808 Mafia. The trippy siren noise from Quincy Jones’s theme song for the 1960s TV series “Ironside” (best known today from appearing in Kill Bill, Vol. 1) that was used like a damn dancehall airhorn on last year’s “Fuck Up Some Commas” is muffled throughout 56 Nights. In the course of nine songs and a fictional three fortnights, the production sounds like science-fiction cinema. Future doesn’t alienate his audience though, with both “March Madness” and “Trap N***as” standing alone as radio singles.
2) T-Pain – The Iron Way
Everyone deserves a second chance, perhaps no one more so than T-Pain. The Tallahassee, Florida, singer became associated with the worst, fake-lowbrow aspects of Auto-Tune just as the voice-tuning technology was accepted as a medium for high art. He was even ridiculed by Kanye West in front of a star-filled studio with backup singers, which is the most devastating act to a person’s confidence imaginable. But T-Pain defied all odds and returned this year with his first release since 2012’s mixed-bag mixtape Stoic.
The Iron Way is beautifully anachronistic to most rap and R&B trends while never sounding outdated, and it’s not just because of the features from younger rappers, more established artists, and others influenced by Caribbean sounds. The tape is fun and full of pent-up bravado, with T-Pain unbuttoning his shirt and hop-scotching all over these club tracks. He’s a much better rapper and singer than most people give him credit for, but he also knows what sounds best. That’s why there’s still Auto-Tune after he showed off how amazing his voice is with no effect, and why Pain handles a lot of the production himself. T-Pain will always deserve another chance, but I’m not so sure society does, after the way we treated him the first go-around.
3) K Camp – One Way
The best rappers in 2015 are intertwining melodies into their wordplay, like Future, Fetty Wap, and Young Thug. Just below that top tier is Atlanta’s K Camp, who had a gold single in 2013 with “Cut Her Off.” Some of that song’s success is because of the 2 Chainz feature on the remix, but Camp has spent the time since then proving he’s a lot more than a one-hit-wonder. He cashed in on “Cut Her Off,” as well as his other early hit “Money Baby,” by sticking those two songs at the end of an EP he released on iTunes last year, which in turn spawned a couple more singles. This year he dropped a new mixtape One Way, which could and should be good enough to force Interscope Records to put out the album that was announced to drop this year then never heard from again.
K Camp is a rapper first, but his biggest talent is writing hooks. Even on his most technical and lyrical numbers, the hook is what leaves the most lasting impression. Camp shows off the full span of his hit-making ability on One Way and maybe paves the way for him to focus on singing. “Lil Bit” stretches a lot out of the chorus and the melody that’s repeated on every bar. “1Hunnid” is still K Camp rapping, but with some added inflection over the bouncy, summery beat. “Marilyn Monroe,” on the other hand, is a fully realized R&B love song with some of his best songwriting. Camp’s newest single “Comfortable” puts all these elements together with multiple flows in his verses and an arresting, soaring hook. Both “Lil Bit” and “Comfortable” are slated to be on K Camp’s debut album, which might come out.
4) RJ & Choice – Rich Off Mackin
The West Coast is still eating off the minimal, futuristic sounds of mid-2000s Bay Area hyphy music. The L.A.-based star producer DJ Mustard has acknowledged the impact of hyphy just as newer Bay artists have accused him of pilfering it. But most every hyphy song, from “Hyphy” to “Super Hyphy,” is on the Internet for anyone’s taking. And until people stop requesting Mustard songs on the radio, the producer hilariously aptly named Dijon will keep eating off this sound. There is a feeling that Mustard has run out of juice with only a couple songs on the radio instead of 10, but there are still a lot more combinations to arrange the handful of synth sounds he uses to make beats.
Both RJ and Choice (FKA Royce the Choice) have been making music with Mustard for a while–RJ has a solo mixtape from earlier this year with production from Mustard–but Rich Off Mackin is a more convenient setting. Rather than carrying 22 songs on his own, RJ shares duties on each of these 15 tracks, nine of which have another featured guest. These are much better serving sizes. It all adds to the party vibe with RJ and Choice’s raps about chasing girls and not fucking with anyone who doesn’t share their perspective. RJ is usually blunt, leaning on his straightforward flow and letting the beat do the heavy lifting, but he sounds like he’s spitting the slickest pimp talk compared to Choice. Still, they get to where they’re going. Even more transcendent than the club bangers are the lidded R&B tracks made for neighborhood park cookouts—smoothing out the two unpolished West Coast rappers. Rough edges don’t belong in a California summer or potato salad.
5) Travis Porter – 3 Live Krew
It has been more than 25 years since the seminal Miami bass album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be by 2 Live Crew. That was before any of the three members of Travis Porter were born, but there is a living spiritual connection between the two groups, if only their shared ambition to get butts to move. Travis Porter could have actually created so much more synergy had they used any 2 Live Crew song as either an instrumental or the baseline for a remix here. That said, there is a dope flip of the Miami bass classic “Scrub the Ground.” Travis Porter tends to get lost in the mix when discussing Atlanta music, but they prove here why the group is so quietly influential. The middle of this tape–with banger after banger recreating the energy from the ground up–is the most fun you’ll have with rap music in 2015. (So far.)
Screengrab via FutureVEVO/YouTube