The 15 Best Mixtapes of 2015

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Illustration: Kristian Hammerstad

Illustration: Kristian Hammerstad

If you’re reading this, it’s too late—Drake’s running your life like a business. But let’s not kid ourselves: you’re already fluent in all of the memes, you recite “Know Yourself” like scripture, Toronto councilman Norm Kelly is your personal hero, you’ve zeroed in on October to be your child’s birth month, and your friends and family are worried about your unhealthy obsession with turtlenecks and sweatpants. It’s okay, we know you can't help it. You’re also a recovering Meek Mill stan who now feels its their lifework to, at all costs, slander Philadelphia rapper’s good name on social media, and apparently whose excellent Dreamchasers mixtape series is no longer worthy of a coveted spot in your pristine iTunes library. But if you’re in the minority of people that still values the ethics of rap music and believes that mixtapes, an undoubtedly integral part of hip hop, should remain free—until the day Gucci Mane says otherwise—then consider yourself lucky because we’ve got you covered. After all, it was LL Cool J’s four words that outlined the rap mixtape’s importance: It’s “straight from the brother’s heart.”

Honorable Mentions: DJ Mustard, 10 Summers: The Mixtape Vol. 1, Future, Beast Mode, G Herbo, Ballin Like I'm Kobe, Waka Flocka Flame, Flockaveli 1.5, Young Sizzle, Free Agent 3

15 Migos, Back to the Bando

Last year, Migos packed their Louis Vouitton bags promptly and moved out of the bando. “Sayonara, suckers!” they shouted cheerily at the top of their collective lungs—boarding a private jet and flying off into the sunset. The trio of Quavo, Takeoff and Offset had just inked a deal with Lyor Cohen’s tech-savvy start-up 300 Entertainment—a subsidiary of Atlantic—and eagerly looked to get the ball rolling on getting their names atop flashy Times Square billboards. But there was trouble in paradise, the label sought to record a debut album that stripped them back-to-basics; three guys in a room rapping songs. Less than two months later, the boys were Back to the Bando and hitting the dab without pesky label execs monitoring their every move. Ultimately, Quavo knew that your favorite rapper “ain't rich as the average trapper.” There’s a sense of paranoid that looms over Back to the Bando and you can just picture Takeoff peering through the boarded windows, ready to protect what’s rightfully his. Two years ain’t shit to us ordinary folk, but that’s essentially a lifetime for the Migos—especially when taking into account their seemingly unyielding careers of ups-and-downs. Here they’re committed to a self-imposed exile; renting bank safe-deposit boxes (“Rich Nigga Still Trappin’”), sleeping on the frigid kitchen floor (“Back to the Bando”), and cutting down on toxic acquaintances (“Asking for Money”). However, not once do the Migos position themselves as fortunate—not even when they inevitably cash in on their troubles (“Came From Nothing”).

14 Bricc Baby Shitro, Nasty Dealer

Young Thug’s place in hip hop is solidified, there’s no plausible argument against that. However, the Atlanta rap phoneme is partly responsible for inadvertently spawning shameless copycats. The second mediocre acts caught wave of Thug’s success they xeroxed his playbook of suis generois rap and blatantly forged careers off of it—cute! But no worries, we can sniff out the bullshit from a mile away. But A-Town rapper Bricc Baby Shitro’s differentiating himself from the pack by pulling the city’s familiar trap rap credo down into the rabbit hole; his perplexing moniker notwithstanding, Shitro’s rap DNA has just enough bells and whistles to keep things fresh and thoroughly engaging. With an impressive all-encompassing reach, Nasty Dealer’s whopping eighteen songs go down with relative ease. There are high-profile features from rappers Young Thug, Casey Veggies and even Lil Debbie, exciting production from established and trusted names like Metro Boomin and Sonny Digital, and rising producers Sam Tiba and Epikh get to showcase their burgeoning talents as well. Shitro takes his bewildering eccentricities and shapes them into swaggering polemics (“Alone”, “Work”) and utilizes optimal breathing room to stretch tire screech ad libs into standalone verses (“6 Drugs”). Ultimately Shitro remains faithful to his word and Nasty Dealer keeps things distinct in the ostensibly messy post-Thug rap climate.

13 King Louie, Drilluminati 3 (God of Drill)

In Spike Lee’s terribly misguided new film Chi-Raq, actor Nick Cannon not only plays the lead role of a reputed gang member but contributes to the official soundtrack with a pair of Lil Durk-inspired melodic rap ditties. On “Pray 4 My City” Cannon cries out “on the block with my brothers” over Young Chop’s noticeably diluted production—Cannon, ladies and gentlemen, whose only prior connection to the Windy City was an R. Kelly collab from 2003. But besides Nick Cannon, the most shameful aspect to Chi-Raq is its questionable lack of names from the Chicago drill scene—not Chief Keef, G Herbo, or any of the other dozen or so young rap talents who could further the conversation about the city’s appalling bloodshed. Then there’s veteran rapper King Louie, who hails from those notoriously violent neighborhoods Lee’s attempting to probe onscreen. Like his native Chicago, the rap music of 27-year-old Louie is often brutal and uncompromising. It rumbles, storms, and swirls—sometimes all at once. It’s also jagged, capricious, and unrelenting in its pursuit to raise awareness of the ills plaguing his city. But make no mistake, it has to be this brutal. And with Drilluminati 3: God of Drill Louie further utilizes his city’s distinct regional slang, bleak language and imagery, and obstinate soundscapes to carefully craft striking action paintings that revolve around everyday life in the Chi. In particular, its the mixtape’s first five songs that let off more rounds of hallow-point ammunition than some of the more critically-acclaimed “gangsta rap” albums in recent memory. “Johnny Tapia” may be the best display of Louie’s prowess as a rapper to date; nonchalant but dour and amusing while remaining one hundred percent stone-cold serious. This is the Chicago Spike Lee’s deathly afraid of.

12 Young Dolph, 16 Zips

Amidst his most tumultuous personal year to date, Young Dolph pulled up his big boy pants and exhibited flashes of superstar potential. After a streak of dropping subpar mixtapes—barring the occasional deep cut—he returned with a surprisingly well-balanced tape in 16 Zips. For once dumping a Dolph tape into the recycle bin after a few spins wasn’t an option, which is a feat in it of itself considering all twelve songs were quality street rap anthems. The sort of anthems that have crossover appeal, suitable for both ratchet Memphis strip clubs and hip Bushwick rooftop parties. Furthermore 16 Zips isn’t a fluke, Dolph’s refined his no-frills d-boy raps—elevating them beyond just lumbering along to a monolithic beat. His rapping hasn’t just improved, but the use of the slurred Memphian draw—drop rolling Rs into certain words—is impeccable, and every single word he raps is as cool as a cucumber and, perhaps most important, distinctively Dolph’s. The grimace he’s making on the cover is exactly the sort of face you cannot help but make while bumping songs like “Ask Your Bitch” and “Trap Niggas.” The way Dolph raps seemingly nonsensical shit like, “Sneakers by Margiela, matching Burberry sweater/ And it match the coupe, I kill ’em how I put this shit together” makes even Jay Z’s ostentatious brags appear totally swaggerless and antiquated. It’s also the only rap music released this year that brought out the very best in shelved veterans like T.I. and Jadakiss, both whom sounded comfortable and inspired on “No Matter What” and “Addicted” respectively.

11 Gucci Mane, Trap House 5 (The Final Chapter)

“In my office I probably got like, three hard drives worth of Gucci [Mane] music that ain’t been released,” says Curtis Daniels, CEO of Atlanta’s Patchwerk Studios. Although Gucci Mane’s been locked up in a state penitentiary for much of the past two years—serving time for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon—that hasn’t stopped him from flooding the rap market with his releases. On Trap House 5 (The Final Chapter)—his supposedly final installment to the series—Gucci goes back to home to the mixtape format. There is a clear distinction with Trap House 5, that it’s a mixtape in contrast to a studio or digital release, and it’s important to note that while listening. Gucci’s a rare conceptualist in the street rap game and he’s peculiar about conveying his tapes with the same vivid imagery that’s in his head. The fifth installment also continues the longstanding Trap House tradition in stitching together all of the best dark and menacing production Gucci could possibly get ahold of. Here he’s reunited with his trusty entourage of Atlanta producers; Honorable C-Note drops off an absolutely sublime synth-laden beat on “Constantly”, Mike Will Made-It makes an appearance, and veteran keyboard wizard Zaytoven handles the bulk of the project’s production, most notably on the strikingly auburn “Draggin’.” While Trap House 5 won’t press you to rearrange that disorganized Gucci Mane power ranking you’ve got going, it’s an overall excellent effort from a rapper whose entire rap career is essentially based around rapping from the point of view of an unstable drug dealer.

10 Matti BayBee, So Abnormal

Unlike the bleak worldview of his older cousin Chief Keef, Matti BayBee isn’t conflicted with living a Technicolor existence. Matti BayBee is not so much conflicted by shades and hues as his good foot genetics are positively seething with them, and So Abnormal is a spiral dance of cascading colors. If the title of his mixtape isn’t designed to be risible, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the 17-year-old Chicagoan has either confronted the Pantone demons and emerged unharmed, or benefited from a chromatic intervention. BayBee’s music is bursting with life, downplaying the seemingly trigger-happy bravado popularized by his bloodline. In a striking contrast to his grisly peers, he’s also an enthusiastic supporter of local anti-violence movement 500 Campaign; you won’t hear a single gunshot, set claimed, or body dropping on So Abnormal. Instead he’s largely concerned with his unwavering ambitions and cheerful innocence. The self-proclaimed valedictorian of his eight grade class flexes and finesses his aspirations to dress better than his peers (“All That”), one day drive shiny cars and own a house (“Marvelous”), and even muses about turning a rap career into a full-time job (“Rappin Stackin”). His youthful exuberance propels So Abnormal past localized drill and bop clichés and makes a strong argument for cynical adults to start taking young artists like Matti BayBee seriously.

09 Shy Glizzy – For Trappers Only

Throughout its rich history, rap music’s had a fair share of booming baritone voices. At once a hulking voice in rap, like that of Dr. Dre or Chuck D, can convey a sense of authority over the listener. But these rappers with commanding voices will often overcompensate for their glaring lack of emotional honesty, and in turn their music’s usually more imposing than engaging. While Washington D.C. rapper Shy Glizzy doesn’t share Dre’s signature strong-arm tactics, his hyponasal, sharp voice is so street-level that it resonates with humanity and humility. And when teaming with Atlanta’s Zaytoven—who handles all of the soulful, multi-layered production on For Trappers Only—Glizzy’s hood confessionals reach soaring poetic heights. On “Going Thru It”, Glizzy achingly discloses, “Don’t ask me why I be with the niggas that I be with or why I ain’t postin’ pictures/ That’s ’cause I’m still in the trenches.” In his own words, Glizzy’s going through “some shit.” There’s hardly any tension across For Trappers Only’s brief forty minutes; Glizzy outright accepts the harsh reality he’s been so tragically dealt and approaches rap music with a clear street consciousness. When Glizzy’s not hoping “all snitches go to hell” (“Do It”) or pursuing inconsequential opulence (“Out the Block”), he’s retaining fiscal responsibility for his “grams, moms, bros, and aunt” (“Hunnit Hunnit”). The overall simplicity and gentleness of For Trappers Only is a glimpse into the humble life of 23-year-old Shy Glizzy, even when in times of great frustration, dire circumstances and uncertainty.

08 Kevin Gates, Luca Brasi 2

In case you haven’t already heard, Kevin Gates doesn't get tired. Some other facts about Mr. Gates: he’s unashamed about cry-reading Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook, shares a drug habit with his infant son, endorses and participates in anilingus, has randomly kicked a female concertgoer, and when he recently discovered that the woman he’d been sleeping with is a cousin, he announced no such plans to stop “fucking her.” But this behavior—whether honest or repulsive—is coming from a rapper whose breakthrough mixtape was titled Stranger Than Fiction. Indeed, you can’t make this stuff up. Additionally Gates’ many idiosyncrasies are what set him apart from the dime a dozen or so listless rappers currently crowding the spotlight. Like it or not, his Luca Brasi 2 mixtape confidently struts and frets his vibrant personality traits—more than pretty much anyone else in the recent collective American rap consciousness. Gates’ music inhabits the good, evil, and the delightful grey areas in between; he can be strikingly sensitive (“Emotionally I’m an introvert but it comes off as aggression”), overtly brash (“’ll punch a nigga down when I’m pissed off/ Wanna wrestle, had to put him in a hip-toss”), and completely unreadable (“Would I be wrong to wanna fuck you with one of my niggas?”). Gates has enough personality to more than fill Luca Brasi 2 by himself, and Lord knows he needs the room. Don’t crowd him.

07 Johnny May Cash, My Last Days

Johnny May Cash’s latest mixtape starts out with a prayer to God and finishes with a shrug of the shoulders. In between we are introduced to a young man who went to school to avoid the temptations of the street life (“I’ll Solve It”), given vivid 35mm snapshots of gangster paranoia (“Ok”), and glimpses into May Cash’s urban vulnerability (“Cry”). As its title suggests, My Last Days is about self-inspection and May Cash lays bare the truth behind the oft-mythologized South Side of Chicago. He reveals himself to be conflicted, susceptible to pain, and just as much in need of guidance as—if not more than—anyone else. There’s also nothing fake here, hearing a rapper like this is more shocking than a thousand “Ante Up”'s. My Last Days is unlike anything you’ve heard all year, but it’s everything that makes rap music relatable and applicable to the challenges of everyday life. Furthermore, the harrowing visuals for the title track, which depicts a young black man being mistakenly shot in cold-blood as May Cash walks away unscathed, further outlines the tape’s theme of untimely death—it comes as it does and no other way. Any way you cut it, My Last Days—in spite of being only slightly more straightforward than peers Chief Keef, Chance the Rapper, or G Herbo—really solidifies May Cash’s tender, poet’s heart.

06 Kodak Black, Heart of the Projects

Despite being seated roughly 35 miles north of Miami, Pompano Beach doesn’t share Magic City’s pastel color code or yacht club membership. Such disconnect that the mid-sized city’s dime a dozen local talent detour the plush luxury rap of Florida’s uncontested Bawse, Rick Ross, however tempting it may be. But for 18-year-old Kodak Black being ahistorical in the Florida hip hop scene isn’t calculated, it’s a gift—unburdened by an antiquated framework to create art according to ones own volition. While Pompano Beach’s downtown district goes through an economic revitalization—fattening the pockets of real estate developers and investors—the Golden Acres Projects he calls home is comparative to “living in hell.” Like many young men before him, Kodak’s path to salvation is through rap music, and he’s finally looking to break out of hell’s constricting shackles. Kodak’s voice is distinctively of his own, a vernacular that’s more indebted to Pompano’s Haitian population—the most in the country—than any singular verse from Ricky Rozay or Trick Daddy. In turn his Heart of the Projects mixtape is built around years of pent-up frustration (“18”, “Skrt”), lost culturally and spiritually in the smoke and confusion of institutionalized racism (“Heart of the Project”, “Better Days”) and Florida’s messy judiciary system (“Skrilla”, “Yung Niggaz”). Heart of the Projects breathes new life into street rap’s formula, flipping old tales of drugs, crime and random acts of violence that can soundtrack both nights of juvenile wildin’ and cordial summertime cookouts.

05 Sicko Mobb, Super Saiyan Vol. 2

Where Sicko Mobb mistakenly dropped Super Saiyan Vol. 1 in the proverbial dumping ground month of December, they bounced back by releasing Vol. 2 in a year likely to be the hottest on record. After all, the group’s sickly-sweet, ADD-riddled sound is practically tailor-made for the summertime fe fe. But it appears that brothers Lil Trav and Lil Ceno are feeling the affects of growing pains—that or bag after bag of Sour Patch Kids just isn’t that appetizing anymore. On Super Saiyan Vol. 2, the duo—still recovering from a sugar rush—offers palate cleansers in a crystalline veneer and introspective songwriting. On songs “Kool Aid” and “On Fire”, Sicko briefly trade-in their warp-speed BPMs and chipmunk vocals for infectious croons and slow-burning melodies. Furthermore “Trending Topic” and “Back Then” fleshed out the group’s individual personalities, rapping circles around their haters and laying down dynamic sing-rap hooks in the process. While Vol. 2 is significantly slower in pace and slightly more wistful in sound than Sicko’s usual formula, the new appliqué does retain the duo’s joyous predisposition and confection resonance. And although they have yet to drop the “Lil” monikers, Sicko continues to venture further from the localized Chicago bop movement they helped bring to the spotlight—diving headfirst into musical refinement and maturation. At once Super Saiyan Vol. 2 is an exhilarating experience without exhausting the listener. Insulin pump not required.

04 Doughboyz Cashout, BYLUG World

Five albums, four mixtapes, a compilation, and a combined one hundred sixty songs, that’s how much Doughboyz Cashout care about bossing your sad life up. But DBC are gentlemen, always looking out for the little people; the less fortunate. Most observers would posit the group, formed from two separate Motor City cliques, as some kind of ruthless street gang, and while we won’t get into that—because stop snitching—an extent of their deliciously layered and textural music is much more about frightening soundscapes (“So Serious”, “In the Sky”), exploding the tropes of rap music through uncompromising brags (“My Life”, “Raw Shit”) and stone-faced reflections on hardships (“Ball on Hoes”, “Conquered It All”) then it is about making rap palatable for Twitter fingers and fickle bloggers. Get a load of the clusters of diamonds that consume the composition of “OVL”; add in-house DBC producer Payroll’s exquisite and enormous array of techniques and timbres; their use of dynamic flows and distinct personalities; their penchant for pouncing on beats and mood-sustaining rhymes; and confident raps that reveal the innards of the songwriting process, and you get something truly badass and inspirational. In case you weren’t hip to the acronym, that’s Boss Your Life Up Gang—fitting for both the haves and the have-nots. We all belong in Doughboyz Cashout world.

03 Young Thug, Slime Season

For someone whose been pegged as a rap weirdo, Young Thug sure has a lot of heart. In many ways, Slime Season cab be seen as the companion piece to his breakthrough 1017 Thug mixtape that was mysteriously lost in the ebb tide between its release in early 2013 and now. Musically speaking, Slime Season’s dizzying gangsta luv ballads share the same mutant DNA as those tender moments ostensibly littered on 1017 Thug; tracks like “That’s All” shimmer and sparkle as bright as “Miss U” or “Scared of You” before it. However, the balance between nervy ballads and caustic bangers is more apparent on Slime Season than on any of Thug’s other dozen or so projects, solo or collaborative, which unexpectedly makes for a varied listen from start to finish. At eighteen tracks, and with all but three having been compiled from previous leaks and unofficial releases, this sentiment couldn’t possibly resonate. But it’s truly a testament to Thug’s radical talents as a burgeoning songwriter—with seemingly endless vocal dexterity—for keeping the listener thoroughly engaged, even when the studio experiments sometimes aren’t entirely convincing. When they do work, like on the Ricky Racks produced standout “Best Friend”, Slime Season is an exquisite project—one that arrives only in waves of delirious colors and indistinguishable textures.

02 Young Thug, Slime Season 2

The key to appreciating Young Thug’s Slime Season series is appreciating that he’s confidently standing on his own two feet. But is that really a surprise? For Christ’s sake, anytime Thug dresses himself it goes motherfucking viral! Initially billed as as a collaborative mixtape with producer London on da Track, it’s Thug’s personality that gets top billing. At first glance, Slime Season 2 may materialize like a traditional rap mixtape from the LiveMixtapes dustbin, but it actually plays out like a set of miniatures. There are brief glimpses into Thug’s life, capturing and containing frozen moments of electromagnetic energy. That isn’t to say Slime Season 2 regresses from motion into stasis; certainly the action’s slower at first, but the triumphant, knock-em-dead trilogy of “All Over”, the gloriously-buoyant “Twerk It” and the luminous “Phoenix” blend both the sensitive sparkle and the frangible flush with the unkempt, joyous travelogue of Thug’s wilder—and more wide-eyed—side. With all the fuss that’s been made of Young Thug’s long-gestating Hy!£UN35 debut album, it ultimately proves to be moot because apparently it’s still possible to facilitate great music through a free mixtape. Drake, take note.

01 Future, 56 Nights

For Future, perfection is achieved invariably through a series of self-defeating prophecies. Since last year’s monstrous transformation, the honest to a fault rapper has practically aimed to beat himself into bloody submission. And we’ve got front row seats to the madness. However, his seemingly unquenchable thirst for fame and fortune had all but dried out—he was over it. But in turn Future essentially plunged his lifeless body in front of oncoming traffic, unable to shake the status quo. The songs that make up Future’s 56 Nights were conceived following DJ Esco’s imprisonment in Dubai and swirl in grave inner turmoil. Although he finalizes the abandonment of the pop star persona that’s haunted him for over a year, it takes an additional seven months for him to finally stop having flashbacks. 56 Nights is the moment Future jumped off the tracks and started seriously poking around in the bushes. Here was the imperative return of the lone wolf; he shakes off the posers, leering assholes, greedy half-wits, hopeless hopefuls, market-bound bloodsuckers, courtesans, and suit-and-tie pricks. These are the shills that constitute the world. Future’s on the prowl once more, seeking pleasure in the most unruly excesses (“Diamonds from Africa”), and authorities rushed to sound the alarm. He also confronts actual pain (“56 Nights”) and in the process levels scathing indictments on the American criminal justice system (“March Madness”). Despite having already released Honest, he’s never in his career seemed more candid than on 56 Nights—even if that means consuming a perpetual molly, percocet, and codeine smoothie every morning for breakfast.