One of our other major new categories for end-of-year coverage is mixtapes. While a lot of these albums were actually originally going to find their way onto my “Best Albums” list, I realized that they needed a list all their own. Because a mixtape isn’t an album, or an EP, or really anything at all, besides a mixtape. It’s a creature all its own, so it deserves a special list, too. I also felt this was a better way to give a shout-out to some music that might fly a little under the radar. Most mixtapes on the average “best mixtapes” list seem to dwell in the same Chief Keef category of uninspired nonsense, so I decided to focus my efforts on mixtapes that go unnoticed. Of course, I have a serious case of contempt for articles that attempt to unveil music or any art you “haven’t heard of,” because most likely a good majority of the readers already know about it. But I think in some of these cases you might find a surprise or two on this list, or at least something you’ve never encountered before.
I was able to rank my podcast list yesterday, but unfortunately I’ve found it difficult to rank this one. I was going to try, but in some cases, it’s just to difficult. Every tape on this list has something I love about it. The only stipulations really guiding my selections are that they had to be released this year and free.
Busdriver- Arguments with Dreams EP
Busdriver. How do you describe him? He has one of the craziest flows I have ever heard, which is simultaneously off-putting and entrancing. We’ve seen a lot of interesting linguistic deliveries this year, from MC Ride to Milo, but none are quite as original as Busdriver’s flow. And the lyrics aren’t that bad either. Of course, the track I love most of all is “Werner Herzog,” because I love any rap with a hint of cinephilia. And it also contains one of my favorite lyrics of the year: “I eat fair trade cheese and fart fairness.”
Childish Gambino- Royalty
This one took me a little bit to wrap my head around. It’s a tad rambling and excessive and doesn’t have the cohesive organization and flow of Camp, Gambino’s last effort. It felt like Donald Glover’s head might be swelling in a few places. However, I was immediately drawn in by some of the guest appearances on this album, which are as varied as the RZA, Beck, and Tina Fey. It’s obvious that Glover is a man with connections, and he uses them to full effect on this mixtape. While serious fans may be a tad disappointed by the fact that Gambino only appears on about half of the album, it perfectly defines what a mixtape is- an undefinable demonstration of an artist’s talent. If he shaved off the fat and worked on it a little bit more, there’s at least two-and-a-half albums of good material hidden in there. But it’s not an album, it’s a mixtape, a creative medium that allows the artist greater flexibility and freedom. It might not be Camp, but it’s still pretty good.
Heems- Wild Water Kingdom
Another one I didn’t immediately like upon arrival. It suffers from the same problem as Royalty– not as precise as Das Racist’s releases, although I suppose that the medium of mixtapes give Heems the room to play around and experiment. It’s a solid release, one that grows on me with each successive listen. I just can’t help getting prematurely nostalgic for the unfortunately late Das Racist. While they’re great rappers on their own, few groups these days could top them. But I suppose Wild Water Kingdom is just a step in the grieving process, and maybe that’s why I had a hard time with it initially. Maybe my opinion of it will improve as I make peace with their break-up.
Milo- Milo Takes Baths
I’m gonna let you in on a little secret- if I were a ranking man, this would be at the top of my “Best Mixtapes of 2012” list, no question about it. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if Milo hates me thanks to the number of comments I’ve left on his Facebook page (but it’s probably selfish of me to even think he knows who I am), I can’t get over the man’s music. It touches me in a way that almost no other music I have heard in my entire life ever has. It’s like someone cracked the egg of my mind open and poured all the yolk-y liquid into a record press; Rory Ferreira truly knows me better than any other musician, and we’ve never even met. His debut mixtape, 2011’s I wish my brother Rob was here, seemed at first like an exercise in cleverness but quickly revealed itself to be one of the most emotional and moving hip-hop recordings I have ever heard. However, his mixtape Milo Takes Baths, in which he raps and bares his soul over the music of instrumentalist Baths, hides behind no disguises. It still has the same exoskeleton of pop culture ephemera and self-deprecating wit that Milo has adopted as his trademark style, but it is even more emotionally honest, creating an experience that is more moving and “feelsy” than Kendrick Lamar could ever hope to be (which isn’t putting Mr. Lamar down, by the way). His debut album (well, technically it’s a double-EP) dropped today and Milo still has yet to disappoint. I’m extremely glad to see him signed to NoCanDo’s HellFyre Club label, which is assuredly one of the best hip-hop labels today, and I have no doubt that he will continue to develop and expand in scale as an artist. There’s not a single song in his oeuvre that I dislike or don’t relate to on some level. I think it goes without saying that he is the finest lyricist working in hip-hop today and I will champion his work as long as I am living. It probably sounds like the overstatement many online critics find themselves falling into, but I mean it. His music shakes me to my core. Transcendent doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Nicholas J- One of a Kind
Nicholas J, a real-life pal of both Milo and Safari Al, bears an emotional similarity to those two, but differs from them on an instrumental level. His music has a much lighter tone, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less worthy of praise. Musically, he’s incredibly talented, an artist I would offer to anyone as proof that rappers can be just as traditionally trained and talented as other musicians. Using the saxophone skills he demonstrated on DEMOlition Mixtape, he demonstrates a lot of sonic creativity, even at one point sampling a Marina and the Diamonds song. One of my few criticisms is that the last half-to-third of the album is devoted to pandering to some of the heavier and bassier beats that are popular these days. Although I understand why he might do this, and although I think there might be an experimental quality to this, he expresses some doubts and hesitation about it while introducing it on the tape’s intermission track. You don’t need to do what people want you to, Nicholas J. Do what you feel. No matter what, you’ve got a listener in me.
NoCanDo- Zero Hour
Okay, I’ll be honest- I haven’t listened to all of this yet. But just based on the fact that he samples The Crazy World of Arthur Brown in the title track has got me hooked. It’s been a crazy year for NoCanDo, what with him landing in jail and the expansion of the aforementioned HellFyre Club, his excellent, excellent record label. I promise I’ll finish listening to it, because I love what I’ve heard so far, and it’s definitely as good as his label-mates work, and pretty much anything else on this list.
Open Mike Eagle- Rent Party Extension
This is a short one, but it’s still great. Open Mike Eagle is one of my favorites, and he continually shows off his flair for storytelling on some of this album’s great tracks. It also features one of the best songs I’ve heard all year, “Boss Fight,” which is made even better by using a Com Truise track and featuring a guest verse from Milo. Like Milo, Open Mike Eagle is honest, but in a little bit of a different way. Where Milo is more self-deprecating and introspective, Eagle tends to tell more continuous stories. Different styles, but equally great.
Ras G and Open Mike Eagle- Kampala Blackouts EP
Okay, so this list has a lot of Open Mike Eagle. But man, he’s just that great! This team-up between Open Mike Eagle and Ras G, which features many Ugandan MCs such as Mon MC, was recorded by the two artists over a stay in the nation of Uganda, and was an enterprise partially funded by a Los Angeles cultural affairs commission. This tape’s style is totally different from anything else on this list, partially due to the fact that it reflects international style. But if there’s one thing that this mixtape shows it’s that great hip-hop can come from anywhere, regardless of physical or national boundaries. It’s truly an international movement that has taken root all around the world. It makes me want to get out there and devour as many songs and albums by international MCs as possible.
Safari Al- Highlands EP
According to Safari Al’s bandcamp page, this was inspired by two weeks he spent in Guatemala with Engineers Without Borders, an organization that I did not previously know existed. Like Milo’s releases, it demonstrates the pure power of hip-hop, as it hits me in a way that a lot of music doesn’t. Emotional, sweeping, and always honest. There’s really no way I can describe it other than encouraging you to go listen to it.