Though the history of the mixtape endures as one of the most valuable narratives in hip hop, in recent years, the format has been co-opted and repurposed in unexpected ways. With the lines between mixtapes and albums essentially obliterated by the streaming colossus’ ceaseless hunger for new material, major labels have once again found a way to get us to consume more music via a channel they have some level of control over.
With artificially reduced expectations (in comparison to a proper LP), these commercial mixtapes become low pressure test sites for possible singles and even justify multiple releases from an artist in a single year, without it seeming like they’re oversaturating the market. Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late solidified the template, and at the close of 2017, rap is flooded with these non-quite mixtapes.
Collaborative mixtapes were also especially popular this year, including the recent combos of Fabolous with Jadakiss’ Friday on Elm Street and Moneybagg Yo with YoungBoy Never Broke Again’s Fed Babys. Without question, Metro Boomin owned the realm of rapper-meets-producer team-ups, helming Double or Nothing for Big Sean, Droptopwop for Gucci Mane, and Without Warning for 21 Savage and Offset, among others.
With all this premium content coming from some of the most recognizable names in rap music, it was harder than ever for the independent, still striving artist to make their mark in hip-hop in 2017, as their voices and sounds were drowned out of the conversation. But even as commercial mixtapes dominated the field more than ever before, the underground stayed as productive as it was hungry. With the year nearly a wrap, here are ten mixtapes, listed alphabetically, that you may have missed, but are definitely worth your time.
Antwon, Sunnyvale Gardens
As one of the most curious cases in underground rap, this California king is more likely to play a hardcore festival than Rolling Loud. Counting heavy indie groups like Deafheaven and Trash Talk among his tourmates, Antwon plays to an eclectic crowd of listeners on Sunnyvale Gardens, his latest self-release from the burgeoning Nature World brand. His breathy boom suits crisp leftfield beats from indie producers, going in like Big Pun on the rugged “Airplane Mode” and hilariously mocking mooches on “Party Boi.” And Sunnyvale Gardens is probably the only tape with features by both Matt Ox and the late Lil Peep.
Big Baby Gandhi, 27
Queens’ proud rap tradition has been renewed with a diverse new generation repping their respective hoods. This Bangladeshi MC is no exception, as those who heard his Greedhead material can attest. Despite having since departed New York for the West Coast, the easygoing yet engaging Big Baby Gandhi hasn’t lost that Big Apple flair. (Hometown boys Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire and Rekstizzy both guest on 27.) Unafraid to call out the rise in islamophobia in Trump’s America, BBG goes N.W.A for the righteously hostile “Ban This Dick.” With a woozy beat and a stream-of-consciousness flow, the track “Life is Great” packs so much into its running time that it demands multiple rewinds.
Jay Fizzle, Life of a Lul Gangsta
With the ripped-from-the-headlines game changer Bulletproof, Young Dolph became an even more dominant force on the mixtape circuit than he already was. Apart from releasing multiple full-lengths during these past 12 months, Dolph’s Paper Route Empire label put other artists on as well, namely Key Glock and Jay Fizzle. The latter dropped Life of a Lul Gangsta back in February, but it stays topical with its hustler paradoxes. This whole tape packs heat, with the street-level beats and unvarnished bars on “Mo Money” and “What You Gone Do” guaranteed to appeal to lovers of the modern Memphis sound.
By now, savvy NxWorries fans have figured out just how prolific the production half of that duo really is. Knxwledge’s beat tapes and blends come out on the regular through Bandcamp, slyly bucking the copyright cops by avoiding the bigger platforms. Of the eight exclusives he’s dropped there this year, the timely MEEK.VOL1_ set showcases the producer’s genuine appreciation for Meek Mill. Stripped of the distracting contexts of Drake beef and Nicki heartache, these eight laidback cuts represent a fan’s love, one that goes deep into Meek’s discography—ripping bars from obvious projects like Dreamchasers 3 alongside more obscure sources, Knx taps into a troubled soul.
Lil Wop, Wopavelli 3
Signed to the nascent 1017 Eskimos, this croaking young Chicagoan has got both Gucci Mane’s cosign and an October 17th birthday. At first, Lil Wop’s unusual delivery might be off-putting, but paired with the morose vibes of his latest endeavor, his distinctive voice finds a chilling home to invade. Like your favorite SoundCloud rapper, he’s heavy into hedonism and unapologetic about his drug use. With tracks like ”Friday the 13th” and “Walking Dead,” Wop faithfully executes the Halloween-theme of this collection. As Gucci collabs go, “Paid in Full” makes for his darkest partnership since that infamous “Fancy Bitch” session with Marilyn Manson.
OG Boobie Black, Boobie Trapp 3
Representing Kevin Gates’ Bread Winners Association, OG Boobie Black’s Boobie Trapp series has been one of the most reliable and rewarding listens in rap. The unbelievably underrated New Orleans rapper returned this year with a third robust volume that possibly marks the best of the trilogy, which is no small feat. Storytelling prevails here, with thrilling trap tales like “Guapo” and “True Story 2.0” offsetting the more anthemic bassbin rattlers “Banger Wit Me” and “Heartless.” Label head Gates lends his voice to “Bad” and the eerie Three 6 Mafia-esque closer “Hard 2 Kill,” yet Boobie more than holds his own during that healthy homegrown competition.
Ras G, My Kinda Blues
With releases on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder imprint and the Stones Throw-affiliated Leaving Records, it’s downright shocking that this L.A. beat scene mainstay hasn’t outgrown the underground and made it onto your favorite rapper’s album. Like Sun Ra waylaid in Kingston, a space age Afrocentrism pervades Ras G’s largely tape-based catalog. Where 2016’s The Gospel of the God Spell explored the parallels of seemingly disparate faiths, My Kinda Blues takes its titular influence on a soulful, detour-filled road trip. For those used to the whacked out instrumentals of Ras G’s psychedelic Raw Fruit volumes, much of My Kinda Blues may almost sound conventional. Almost.
Siya, 383 – For Roosevelt
With so many rappers quite literally phoning it in in the booth, authentic freestyling on a mixtape feels like a lost art. So this Bed-Stuy native’s decision to let the words just flow from her dome deserves respect. But more than mere exercise, Siya’s proficient execution on the personal 383 – For Roosevelt demonstrates a master at work. While some of her peers and predecessors could attempt it, few would match the engrossing and modern style manifested on “Magic” or “Retro.” A poignant JAY-Z sample at the top lends his spirit to this project, not that she needs it.
Sleep Sinatra, (Adrian)
Straight outta Lincoln, Nebraska, this vibrant spitter is just as confident as an MC from one of hip hop’s more established locales—and rightfully so. With packed poetic flows that will make any Def Jukie or Rhymesayer grin, Sleep Sinatra brings nothing but lyrical fortitude to the too nice “WindMill Oop,” “IceBerg Memoirs,” and others on the brief (Adrian) EP. Beats come courtesy of unheralded types like Ichibanhashface and Sadhugold, hitting the boom bap sweet spot again and again without kicking up too much oldhead dust. If you’re looking for a vintage feeling from a fresher face, Sleep Sinatra is really that dude.
Young Nudy, Nudy Land
Prior to Playboi Carti’s “Magnolia” going viral with its Pi’erre Bourne beat, the producer was already known to fans of this Atlanta rapper. As with last year’s solid Slime Ball tape, Young Nudy’s latest features plenty of “Yo Pi’erre” tags, starting with tight opener “Judge Scott Convicted.” One of Atlanta’s most interesting voices right now, Nudy dazzles on “Loaded Baked Potato” and the Offset-featuring “Cancer Stick No Pressure.” He doesn’t shy away from the lean, molly, and perkies in his raps, yet there’s something about the way in which he does so that conjures a Makonnen type, albeit less performative and more aggressive.