In the music industry climate of 2011, the quality of free music is more important than ever. Whether rappers are crafting the free projects because they need to create buzz to get a label push for their album, because they want some majors to notice them, or simply because they're ready to give fans some solid free music, the expectations for mixtapes have become album-like. That's why, with so many tapes leaking online so regularly—from both established and up-and-coming artists—the ones that rose to the top of the year were truly memorable. Some were entirely original material; some jacked other rappers' beats. Some were highly-anticipated; some came out of nowhere. One thing the best of the year had in common: all 10 were dope. —XXL Staff


10. Freddie Gibbs, Cold Day In Hell
One of a handful of projects released on Halloween day, Cold Day In Hell from Freddie Gibbs avoided getting lost in the shuffle. A tape that Gangsta Gibbs had been talking about for over a year, the gutter release was able to prove what the Gary, Indiana native was working on was worth the wait. Playing into his reputation as one of the fiercest rappers around from both a content and flow perspective, the former XXL Freshman made you believe what he was spitting, no matter the topic. Cuts like the Big K.R.I.T. produced “Rob Me A Nigga,” featuring Krizzle and Alley Boy, as well as the Young Jeezy-assisted “Twos and Fews” had Gibbs authenticating his G. Switching things up, songs like “My Homeboy's Girlfriend” allowed the CTE signee to craft vivid narratives that took the listener for a ride. Through and through, Gibbs continued to carve out his lane as a gangsta rapper with a conscience, with one of the meanest flows around.


9. Pusha T, Fear of God
Even while he was a member of critical and fan-favorite duo the Clipse, Pusha T was praised for his solo abilities. With his brother Malice focusing on his new book, Push A Ton got a chance to shine on the solo tip, linking with Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music and releasing his solo debut, March’s Fear of God mixtape. Mixing his vintage coke raps with shit-talking as well as some reflective joints, the Virginia native confirmed that he could indeed hold his own for an entire project. The 13-tracks body of work balanced original production and Push spitting over other rapper’s songs, but no matter what, the results were the same: that uncut raw. With features from 50 Cent and Pharrell (“Raid”), Kanye (“Touch It”), Rick Ross (“I Still Wana”) and Pusha T’s stand alone single “My God,” Fear of God solidified Pusha T as a solo force to be reckoned with.


8. Wale, The Eleven One Eleven Theory
No matter how you slice it, Wale put in work in 2011. Once he linked with Rick Ross's Maybach Music Group in February, the D.C. native suddenly had a new battery in his back, and assaulted the internet and the streets with loads of new music and videos. After his standout showing on the crew compilation Self Made, Vol. 1, Wale was determined to keep the summer hot and continue to build momentum towards his sophomore album, Ambition, and did so with his The Eleven One Eleven Theory mixtape. Not only did the August release have an unprecedented online impact—the 18-track project crashed popular download site Hulkshare for the first time ever—but it also made a substantial impact musically. The thumping “Chain Music” would ultimately make his official album, while “Bait,” another energetic banger, would be included as a bonus track. It wasn't just about the clubs, though. Wale again showed his deeper side on cuts like “Passive Aggres-Her,” Underdogg,” and “Varsity Blues.”


7. A$AP Rocky, LiveLoveA$AP
Who was this ASAP Rocky kid? That’s what plenty of people were wondering after the Harlem native’s videos “Purple Swag” and “Peso” became viral hits and their author inked a reported multimillion dollar deal with Sony/RCA/Polo Grounds. An early step in answering that question came with LiveLoveA$AP, released on Halloween day this year. The 16-track offering honed in on the musical identity that Rocky had been crafting for himself with his two online smashes. With beats from fellow up and comers like Clams Casino and Rocky’s own crew-mate ASAP Ty Beats, LiveLoveA$AP was equipped with a spacey vibe, as the 23-year-old’s flow melted into the production with greasy talk about bitches, blunts, and fashion.


6. Wiz Khalifa, Cabin Fever
Surprises are usually awesome. Count Cabin Fever as another example of that. Exactly one week after his “Black and Yellow” became the No. 1 song in the country on Billboard, and just over a month before his anticipated Warner Bros. debut Rolling Papers hit stores, Wiz Khalifa took to Twitter to liberate his Cabin Fever mixtape. With Lex Luger taking the lead on the bulk of the production, the drop showed a harder side of Wiz sonically—not spacey like his Kush & OJ mixtape from 2010, nor overly poppy like the “Roll Up” single he had released shortly before. The tape included features from Big Sean, Juicy J, Trae Tha Truth and Chevy Woods (it actually proved to be a bit of a coming out party for the fellow Taylor Ganger). Cuts like “Taylor Gang,” “Phone Numbers” and “Gang Bang” became fan-favorites and mainstays at live shows, as Wiz reminded any detractors of his rap roots.


5. 2 Chainz, T.R.U. Realigion
The kickstart of 2 Chainz’s reinvention and emergence as a solo artist can be credited to Codeine Cowboy (A 2 Chainz Collective) released in February. At that time, he was still widely known as Tity Boy, and widely unknown as a solo act outside of Atlanta. But with some records from that tape picking up through the summer, as well as memorable features after it, the dredlocked rapper set himself up perfectly for a larger breakout with T.R.U. Realigion. The tape, released at the beginning of November, was an album style offering, including all original production from the likes of Drumma Boy, Lex Luger and Mike Will. The guests were star-studded, as well; T.I. (“Spend It Remix”), Meek Mill (“Stunt”), Young Jeezy, Yo Gotti, Birdman, Big Sean, Jadakiss, Trey Songz, Raekwon and Kreayshawn all came along for the party. But what made this project hold up was the way that, no matter who laced him with the beat or which rapper was by his side, 2 Chainz’s personality and humor overtook the track and gave the project an identity.


4. Elzhi, Elmatic
The art of the remake is often a tricky one from the get-go. Couple that with attempting to reimagine one of hip-hop’s undeniable classics—Nas’s Illmatic—like Elzhi did, and that’s one hell of a task at hand. Miraculously, though, the May-released Elmatic was able to accomplish that undertaking, and did so remarkably. Offering ten songs, just like its inspiration, the XXL presented tape was particularly notable in Elzhi’s ability to simultaneously pay homage to Nas’s esteemed work and completely make it feel like his own. The ability to achieve this, on the whole, relied on two primary factors: first, Elzhi usually employed his own song structure and flows, so it wasn’t impossible to hear no one else’s voice but Nas’s in your head when listening, as is often the case when someone goes over an Illmatic beat. Moreover, the Detroit native warped the feel of the project by bringing along Will Sessions to provide live instrumentation throughout. It may not duplicate the religious following that Illmatic achieved, but Elmatic was an impressive remake, reminding that Elzhi is an elite lyricist in the process.


3. Fabolous, The S.O.U.L. Tape
Somewhat quietly, Fabolous has become one of the most consistent, seasoned rappers around. More than a decade deep into his career, Fab didn’t drop an album this year, but he was able to make his mark thanks to April’s mixtape The S.O.U.L. Tape. Evolving into one of the go-to guys for an R&B feature and raps for the ladies, the Brooklyn native focused his efforts on—you guessed it—soulful production, on the release. With a mix of original production and mixtape style beat-jacking, the project was far from a soft offering for the ladies, though. The smooth rhymer turned things up on cuts like “Phone Numbers” and the New York voltron record “Mo Brooklyn, Mo Harlem, Mo Southside,” featuring Vado and Lloyd Banks. Kicking his signature wit and sneaking in some subliminal shots, Fab proved that he doesn’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon, no matter what kind of beat he’s riding.


2. Meek Mill, Dreamchasers
It’s been a grind for Meek Mill. After spending a few years churning out mixtapes to get his home city of Philadelphia behind him, the rhyme slinger signed to Maybach Music Group in February and became a 2011 XXL Freshman the next month. By May, he was holding his own on the MMG compilation Self Made, Vol. 1, and then gained a stranglehold on the summer with “I’ma Boss.” The 24-year-old got his solo moment to shine in the limelight with Dreamchasers, his highly anticipated August mixtape. The tape lived up to the hype, displaying Meek’s frenzied, hungry flow over exciting production from Jahlil Beats, Lex Luger, All Star and more. The DJ Drama-hosted tape found the Philly spitter kicking inspired raps about life on the street, coming from the bottom, living good and not letting up. In addition to “I’ma Boss” and “Work,” also alongside Ross, highlights included linking with fellow Philly natives Beanie Sigel (“Dreamchasers”) and Young Chris (“House Party”), with the latter collab becoming a radio hit.


1. Big K.R.I.T., Return of 4Eva
Thanks to his 2010 project K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, Big K.R.I.T. became a mainstay in any discussions about who had next, especially among Southern circles. Following a signing to Def Jam, touring, and a 2011 XXL Freshman cover, the Mississippi native re-emerged in March with Return of 4Eva. The free album—like the previous one, entirely self-produced—displayed K.R.I.T.’s keen ear for soulful sounds as well as steady growth in his content. From ride around anthems to conscious approaches to deeply personal moments, the release was immaculate in its depth and passion. To compliment Krizzle’s own skills, he brought along guests like David Banner and Chamillionaire, as well as Ludacris and Bun B, who helped with the Billboard charting single “Country Shit (Remix).” This opus is sure to continue to hold fans over as the Cinematic signee preps his debut album for 2012.