There’s a great deal of preparation that goes into choosing XXL Freshman. Research. Attending shows. Debates over whom are the hottest. However, sometimes the deciding factor is over who has the streets talking with their mixtapes.

Tapes are the best way to gauge how your music is doing. It’s a melting pot of your talents to showcase your progress, as well as who you align yourself with in the rap industry. A lot of the times, tapes that have an MC rapping over other people’s instrumentals catapulted them into the conversation of who’s next. Few of our Freshman picks like Jon Connor and Fashawn have made undeniable classics in the underground by jumping on beats rapped on by Jay Z and Nas.

There are plenty of tapes to choose from when highlighting the best mixtapes by XXL Freshman. Some rappers have year’s worth of mixtape before their debut albums, while others have made a dent in the rap game by having one extremely well received release. The formula for what a mixtape is these days keeps changing rapidly. To be clear though, Isaiah Rashad doesn’t have tape out, so he is excluded from this list. We still fuck with Cilvia Demo heavy.

So, with that said, from Lil Boosie to J. Cole, these are The 73 Best XXL Freshmen Mixtapes.—Complied By Eric Diep, Dan Rys, Marvin Jules And Jeffrey Whaley

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Lil Boosie, Superbad: The Return of Mr. Wipe Me Down

Release Date: March 2009
Notable Songs: "Levis" (featuring Webbie and Lil Phat), "Loose Off The Goose," "Take You Down" (featuring T-Pain)
Why It's Dope: This mixtape is a massive helping of 100 percent realness from one of the South's most revered artists, arriving at a time when Boosie's future was very much up in the air. Now that his great legal nightmare is over, it still stands as a capsule of the greatness that we missed in the five years between.

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Joell Ortiz, Covering The Classics

Release Date: May 2009
Notable Songs: "T.R.O.Y", "Rappers Delight", "4,3,2,1"
Why It's Dope: Mr. Yaowa himself hopping on classic instrumentals from the Golden Era of hip-hop was a match made in musical heaven.

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Papoose, King of New York

Release Date: October 2011
Notable Songs: "Otis", King of NY", Party Bout 2 Pop"
Why It's Dope: Papoose giving us his normal formula of street life rhymes and a mix of original and industry beats made for an overall solid offering, even if the tape's title left something up for debate.

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Lupe Fiasco, Enemy of the State: A Love Story

Release Date: November 2009
Notable Songs: "Say Somethin", "Fireman", "Turnt Up"
Why It's Dope: Hearing Lupe Fiasco, who usually shuns conventional mainstream production on his own albums, hopping on industry beats and absolutely wrecking the mic, was something that everyone can enjoy.

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Crooked I, Psalm 82:06

Release Date: June 2012
Notable Songs: "Nikki", "Monsterous", G.A.N.G"
Why It's Dope: Raw and rugged rhymes was what we expect from Crooked I, and that was exactly what he delivered on this mixtape.

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Rich Boy, Gold Kilos

Release Date: June 2012
Notable Songs: "She Bad", "Hard Work (Remix)", "Hater Curse"
Why It's Dope: This mixtape showcased an improved Rich Boy from his "Throw Some D's" beginnings. Features from Dom Kennedy, YG and Ty Dolla $ign added to the quality of this tape and brought Rich Boy to a younger audience who stopped checking for him after his initial breakout success.

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Plies, On Trial

Release Date: February 2012
Notable Songs: "Some Money", "Can't Let Em Bury Me", "Heart So Cold"
Why It's Dope: Plies made up for what he lacked in pure lyricism with infectious energy, leaving his loyal fans happy at the end of the day. It's an example of an artist playing their lane and doing it well.

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Young Dro, Equestrian Dro

Release Date: February 2011
Notable Songs: "Make A Movie (Remix)", "Lotta Money (Remix)", "Grand Hustle Kings"
Why It's Dope: A jam packed mixtape in regards to features, Dro knows just what buttons to push to create a bumping mixtape from top to bottom.

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Saigon, Warning Shots

Release Date: 2004
Notable Songs: "NY Streetz", "Let A Nigga Know", "L.O.V.E"
Why It's Dope: This was the tape that solidified Saigon as a shining light on the New York mixtape circuit and introduced the rest of the world to his no-nonsense rhyme style.

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Gorilla Zoe, Gorilla Zoe World

Release Date: March 2012
Notable Songs: "Them Niggas," "Dope Boys," "Obsession"
Why It's Dope: Gorilla Zoe stuck to the script and delivered the fans a healthy dose of songs about the streets, partying and introspection. The perfect trifecta.

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Wale, More About Nothing

Release Date: August 2010
Notable Songs: "The Guilty Please No Hands," "The Breakup Song," "The Friends Stranger"
Why It's Dope: This mixtape was Wale at his best, a goodie bag of songs that references love, money and the conquests of the rap game. It's been such a rich vein of success for him over the years that he returned to the Seinfeld-themed concept for his fourth album, The Album About Nothing, this year.

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Curren$y, Drive In Theatre

Release Date: February 2013
Notable Songs: "Godfather Four," "Hi-Top Whites," "10 Gs"
Why It's Dope: Curren$y's signature slow flow, drawling raps about cars, money, and hoes and bumping production made for a terrific recipe. Take your pick from his myriad projects, but this is ours.

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Charles Hamilton, It's Charles Hamilton

Release Date: October 2008
Notable Songs: “Lacey Duvalle,” “Emotional Distress,” “Mr Perfect”
Why It's Dope: Charles Hamilton’s quirky style matched with dope beats definitely worked on this tape. His insanely prolific output during this period was impressive and hopefully he can unleash his top-level lyricism on the hip-hop world once again.

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Kid Cudi, A Kid Named Cudi

Release Date: July 2008
Notable Songs: "Day 'N Nite,” “Man On The Moon (The Anthem),” “Is There Any Love”
Why It's Dope: This was the mixtape that introduced the entire world into the mind of Cudi, leading to the debut album that turned him into a household name.

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Blu, Below The Heavens

Release Date: July 2007
Notable Songs: “Show Me The Good Life,” “Cold Hearted,” “The Narrow Path”
Why It's Dope: This project sent shockwaves through the indie rap scene. It's still widely regarded as one of the best indie projects of the past 10 years and is the perfect soundtrack to a rainy day stuck inside. Think of it almost as the Kind Of Blue of West Coast backpack rap.

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B.o.B, No Genre

Release Date: December 2010
Notable Songs: “Cold As Ice,” “Grand Hustle Kings,” “Higher”
Why It's Dope: B.o.B’s unique, slick rap/sing combination made for an enjoyable tape from top to bottom. He perfected the formula on this one and launched a big career following.

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Asher Roth, Pabst & Jazz

Release Date: December 2011
Notable Songs: “In The Kitchen”, “Choices”, “Pabst & Jazz”
Why It's Dope: The “I Love College” rapper showed us he could do more than rap about frat parties on this tape. The smooth soundscapes and even smoother rhymes he showcased on her changed a lot of peoples’ minds about the Pennsylvania rapper and was, on the whole, a creative step in a positive direction.

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Ace Hood, Starvation 2

Release Date: January 2013
Notable Songs: “This n That,” “It’s Going Down,” “Got Damn”
Why It's Dope: 19 tracks of hype music was just what we expect when we hit play on an Ace Hood mixtape and that was exactly what we got. Features from French Montana, Meek Mill and Plies made this tape a certified banger.

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Mickey Factz, Mickey MauSe

Release Date: March 2012
Notable Songs: “The Factory”, “Hulk Hogan & Crack”, “Crowded”
Why It's Dope: This tape took listeners on a crazy ride that hip-hop fans and visual art enthusiasts alike appreciated, using clever allusions to articulate his vision.

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Cory Gunz, Son Of A Gun

Release Date: July 2012
Notable Songs: “Speed,” “Bedtime,” “Know My Name”
Why It's Dope: The Bronx-bred rapper released this mixtape shortly after getting his big break in the mainstream through his feature on Lil Wayne’s “6 Foot 7 Foot” and for the most part, he didn’t disappoint. The project, his first after signing with Lil Wayne and Young Money, pulled in top notch guest spots from Meek Mill, 2 Chainz and ScHoolboy Q, allowing Gunz to test himself against some of the swaggiest MCs in the game.

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J. Cole, Friday Night Lights

Release Date: November 2010
Notable Songs: "In The Morning" (featuring Drake), "Blow Up," "Looking For Trouble"
Why It's Dope: Though most people knew that J. Cole had the skills to go toe-to-toe with anyone on the mic, Friday Night Lights was the mixtape that made sure everybody knew that he was the real deal. As close to a flawless project as you'll get these days.

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Wiz Khalifa, Kush & Orange Juice

Release Date: April 2010
Notable Songs: "Glass House" (featuring Curren$y, Big K.R.I.T.), "The Statement," "Still Blazin"
Why It's Dope: Wiz Khalifa's laid back demeanor paired with smooth instrumentals made for optimal wake and bake music, inevitably drawing comparisons to another marijuana enthusiast, Snoop Dogg, along the way. The two wound up working together extensively, of course, but Kush & OJ still stands as perhaps Wiz's most cohesive project in any form to date.

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Big Sean, Detroit

Release Date: September 2012
Notable Songs:"Higher," "24 Karats Of Gold," "Mula"
Why It's Dope: This mixtape caused Datpiff to crash on the day it released, showing how anticipated it was. Star-studded collaborations with artists like J Cole, French Montana and Common made for a solid offering from the Detroit native. More importantly, it got Sean back on track after the lukewarm reception to his debut album Finally Famous and proved that he still had the fire to prove himself within him.

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Nipsey Hu$$le, Crenshaw

Release Date: October 2013
Notable Songs:"Checc Me Out," "The Weather," "U See Us"
Why It's Dope: Nipsey made headlines with this mixtape prior to its release, with various media outlets reporting that it would be selling for $100 apiece. However, what many people overlooked was that the $100 price tag was only for the special edition hard copy of the tape and it would still be available for free online. Crenshaw was filled with the type of quality songs that fans of Nipsey have come to expect over the years, with its gritty-yet-atmospheric production making it feel almost anthemic at times.

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OJ Da Juiceman, Culinary Art School 2

Release Date: March 2011
Notable Songs:"Bought A Chicken", "Gahlee", "Jack Boyz"
Why It's Dope: This mixtape from OJ delivered what everyone knows OJ is good for: More trap tales from the Atlanta spitter.

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Freddie Gibbs, Baby Face Killa

Release Date: September 2012
Notable Songs:"Tell A Friend," "Go For It," "Krazy"
Why It's Dope: Freddie Gibbs' songs about struggles and street life struck a chord with almost anyone who listened to this tape. Features from artists such as Curren$y and Young Jeezy only serve to improve the project, though Gibbs rarely needs any help getting his points across.

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Kendrick & Jay Rock, No Sleep Til NYC

Release Date: September 2012
Notable Songs:"Dead Presidents III", "New Pimpin", "Halfway Crooks"
Why It's Dope: Showcasing a young Jay Rock and Kendrick Lamar going back and forth on classic beats such as "Shook Ones," "Big Pimpin", and more, this tape was a great listen for those wanting to hear what greatness in the making sounds like.

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Donnis, Southern Lights

Release Date: April 2011
Notable Songs:"Blackberry Molasses", "PSA, "Penthouse Suite"
Why It's Dope: Donnis' smooth flow paired with a wide array of topics ranging from partying to attempting to break into the mainstream made for a solid all-around tape.

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Pill, The Epidemic

Release Date: February 2012
Notable Songs:"Why It Gotta Be Like Dis (Mama)," "It's So Hard," "Scarface"
Why It's Dope: This was Pill's first project post-MMG, and his rhymes filled with emotion gave many fans of Pill what they wished he had the opportunity to do on MMG.

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Fashawn, Ode To Illmatic

Release Date: June 2010
Notable Songs:"Life's A Bitch", "C.A State of Mind", "It Ain't Hard To Tell"
Why It's Dope: California-bred Fashawn's Ode To Illmatic was a new age twist on a classic, all while paying homage to one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time.

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Kendrick Lamar, (O)verly (D)edicated

Release Date: September 2010
Notable Songs: "The Heart Pt. 2," "Ignorance Is Bliss," "Michael Jordan"
Why It's Dope: Since its release, Kendrick Lamar’s (O)verly (D)edicated has made its way up to must-listen among TDE supporters. The Compton native delivered a variety of high-energy songs laced with witty wordplay as displayed on "The Heart Pt. 2" and "Ignorance is Bliss." He also maintained a fun and laid-back attitude on songs "P&P 1.5," as well as "H.O.C."

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Big K.R.I.T., Return Of 4Eva

Release Date: March 2011
Notable Songs: "R4 Theme Song," "Country Shit (Remix) (featuring Ludacris, Bun B)," "Dreamin'"
Why It's Dope: One of Big K.R.I.T’s best qualities as an artist is his ability to maneuver himself as a rapper and producer. Being able to channel many of his influences within his music, from UGK, OutKast and more, K.R.I.T delivered this self-produced project full of soulful vibes as he brings you into his world of Cadillac whipping, lean sipping, Pimp C blasting through speakers and everyday living in his home state of Mississippi.

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Mac Miller, K.I.D.S

Release Date: August 2010.
Notable Songs: "Nikes On My Feet," "Senior Trip," "Good Evening"
Why It's Dope: Mac Miller's most memorable mixtape, K.I.D.S, was a fun project and a fan favorite among many. With help on the production side from Big Jerm, The Watcherz and ID Labs, Mac rapped about hanging out with friends, experiencing good vibes and enjoying life as a youth. Mac Miller rarely misses the mark when it comes to releasing mixtapes and this was one of those projects you can listen to from start to finish.

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Yelawolf, Trunk Muzik

Release Date: November 2010
Notable Songs: "Pop The Trunk," "Good to Go," "Mixin’ Up the Medicine (Remix)" featuring Juelz Santana
Why It's Dope: Trunk Muzik was Yelawolf’s fourth mixtape and many would argue this project served as an introduction to the man the Alabama-based rapper is today. With this tape, Yelawolf proved he wasn't just another fast-paced MC, but more of a well-rounded artist with the ability to make catchy songs and tell vivid stories.

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YG, Just Re’d Up 2

Release Date: January 2013
Notable Songs: "I’m 4rm Bompton," "Good to Go," "Mixin’ Up the Medicine (Remix)" featuring Juelz Santana
Why It's Dope: YG was one of the many artists responsible for bringing the West Coast back in hip-hop. Some would say YG’s Just Re’d Up 2 served as a prelude to the success we see from him today because of popular songs like "I’m 4rm Bompton" that helped YG transition from underground rhymer to mainstream success. Also, production from DJ Mustard on this tape made the music that much enjoyable to listen to.

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CyHi Da Prynce, Royal Flush

Release Date: October 2010
Notable Songs: "Ring Bellz," "Hero," "Fast Lane"
Why It's Dope: Cyhi Da Prynce has yet to release a debut album since signing to G.O.O.D Music but every now and then, he releases a brand new mixtape to cater to fans. If we were to go down the list of every mixtape released from Cyhi, nothing compares to his earlier work especially his tape Royal Flush. The Atlanta rapper didn't hold back when speaking about being one of the best.

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Diggy Simmons, Airborne

Release Date: September 2010
Notable Songs: "Airborne," "Big Bad World," "Oh Yeah"
Why It's Dope: Queens' own Diggy Simmons first stepped onto the scene back in 2009 with his first tape, The Flight School. Since then, a level of growth has been shown from the young freshman with his third mixtape Airborne. On this tape, it was interesting enough to see him alongside great MCs like Lupe Fiasco and Pharrell Williams on "Oh Yeah" and Raekwon on "Super Hero Music." This project lived up to the hype, as promised.

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Fred The Godson, Contraband

Release Date: March 2013
Notable Songs: "Call Me The God," "Poetic Justice," "ShotGun"
Why It's Dope: At a time where New York hip-hop wasn't as prevalent as the golden age of the past, you can always count on artists like Fred The Godson to deliver an East Coast aesthetic of rapping and sound in his music. Fred The Godson teamed up with The Heatmakerz to create a solid project describing New York street life from his perspective with gritty and clever lyricism.

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Meek Mill, Dreamchasers 2

Release Date: May 2012
Notable Songs: "Amen (featuring Drake, Jeremih)," "Burn (featuring Big Sean)," "A1 Everything (featuring Kendrick Lamar)"
Why It's Dope: It wasn’t hard to tell why Dreamchasers 2 would be considered Meek Mill’s best mixtape until this date. Starting off the project with an intense intro featuring an excerpt from a Mike Tyson press conference speech, the Philly MC didn't turn down anytime soon as he kept the energy high. Another great element about this tape was the competitiveness between Meek, Drake, Kendrick and Big Sean as each MC tried to ether one another on the tracks they were on together.

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Lil Twist, The Golden Child

Release Date: December 2011
Notable Songs: "Light Up," "Godzilla Twist," "Getting Crazy"
Why It's Dope: Young Money has a roster full of talented artists from Drake to Tyga to Nicki Minaj and when discussing Lil Twist, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. His mixtape, The Golden Child, was packed with the perfect combination of lyrical content over party tracks. This mixtape proved Lil Twist was more than capable of standing alone as a solo artist, even with help from his mentor Lil Wayne as well as his labelmates. He's disappeared since, but things had seemed bright after this project.

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Lil B, Red Flame: Devil Music Edition

Release Date: February 2011
Notable Songs: "Don’t Let Me Die," "Devil Music," "Prayer To Music"
Why It's Dope: Before pressing play on any Lil B material, it's highly unlikely to predict the direction he’ll go in with his music. The good thing about Red Flame: Devil Music Edition was you don’t have to be a Lil B fan to enjoy it. This was one of Lil B’s better mixtapes.

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Danny Brown, Hot Soup

Release Date: July 2008
Notable Songs: "Ten G’s A Week," "Sittin’ So High," "Swagger To The Max"
Why It's Dope: Danny Brown has come along way since signing with Fool’s Gold Records and releasing his critically acclaim project XXX back in 2011. Most of Danny Brown’s songs today have a darker tone to it but if you weigh in on his mixtape Hot Soup, you’ll be surprised his sound was totally different. With this tape, Brown rapped over more soulful sounds and jazz sampled instrumentals which can be heard on songs like, "Ten G’s A Week" and "Swagger To the Max." If you want to hear a different side to Danny Brown’s music, definitely give this a listen.

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French Montana, Mac & Cheese 3

Release Date: November 2012
Notable Songs: "Ocho Cinco" (featuring Los, MGK, Diddy, Red Café), "Water," "Sanctuary"
Why It's Dope: French Montana has been on the underground circuit for some time now, but Mac & Cheese 3 was the tape that garnered the most attention. This tape came shortly after French signing his deal with Bad Boy/MMG and elevated his career from underground to mainstream success. The tape featured hit radio records like "Ocho Cinco" and "Water" which helped boost the status of the BX native.

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Future, Streetz Calling

Release Date: September 2011
Notable Songs: "Same Damn Time," "Never Be The Same," "Unconditional Love"
Why It's Dope: Since coming onto the scene with his popular hit record "Tony Montana" featuring Drake, Future has done no wrong when it's come to releasing new material. One of his most profound mixtapes to be released was Streetz Is Calling. The tape featured one of Future’s major hits, "Same Damn Time," which most could say took his career to a whole new level and prepared the Dungeon Family member for the mainstream. A strong case could be made for any of his three latest mixtapes—Monster, Beast Mode and 56 Nights, all of which are excellent—but it's tough enough to come to a consensus among those three, much less unseat the one tape that truly put him on.

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Kid Ink, Rocketshipshawty

Release Date: November 2012
Notable Songs: "OG," "Poppin’ Shit" (featuring Los), "Bossin’ Up"
Why It's Dope: If you never heard a Kid Ink record or body of work before, it's recommended you start with his mixtape Rocketshipshawty. Without a doubt, every song on this project was a worthwhile inclusion. Kid Ink shined for his fusion of pop and hip-hop records, which meant he had the potential to be a threat on the charts. History has played scenario into fact.

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Machine Gun Kelly, 100 Words And Running

Release Date: February 2010
Notable Songs: "Arsonist," "Can’t Stop Me," "Still Get It In Ohio"
Why It's Dope: Machine Gun Kelly doesn’t hold back as he delivered one great freestyle after the next on his mixtape, 100 Words And Running. The Cleveland rapper took it upon himself to rap over popular beats from Jay Z, Lil Wayne, Kanye, Waka Flocka Flame and more. This was one tape that should not be slept on.

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Don Trip, Guerrilla

Release Date: February 2012
Notable Songs: "Trap’d In The Trap," "Human," "Spread Out"
Why It's Dope: Guerrilla was one of the better mixtapes from Don Trip not only because of his clever lyricism but also for production reasons. Don Trip connected with fellow producers, The Renegades and Drumma Boy, to create some memorable songs on here like "Ruff," "Trap’d In The Trap," "Human" and more. Don Trip did a great job of keeping your attention with this tape and there was never a dull moment after pressing play.

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Iggy Azalea, Ignorant Art

Release Date: September 2011
Notable Songs: "Pu$$y," "My World," "The Last Song"
Why It's Dope: With so many female MC's popping up every now and then, Iggy Azalea was one of the few who really had staying power. Iggy connected with YG, Chevy Jones and Problem for Ignorant Art, as she rapped over mostly trap and some EDM-inspired beats here. Her song "My World" was her biggest record from the project.

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Roscoe Dash, Roscoe Dash 2.0

Release Date: August 2012
Notable Songs: "Sativa," "Zodiak Sign," "It’s My Party" (featuring Lil Jon and MGK)
Why It's Dope: Roscoe Dash was the epitome of the term “Turn Up” and had a wide range of songs to choose from his popular mixtape Roscoe Dash 2.0 to prove this theory. One of many standout tracks on this mixtape was his song "It’s My Party" featuring Lil Jon and MGK. Whether you were riding around with friends or at a party function, you can never go wrong playing this mixtape.

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Macklemore, The Unplanned Mixtape

Release Date: September 2009
Notable Songs: "The Town," "Church," "Letterhead"
Why It's Dope: Before releasing his Grammy Award-winning album, The Heist, with Ryan Lewis, Macklemore created an awesome free project entitled The Unplanned Mixtape. This tape was packed with ten songs with features from Geologic, Sapient, and Illmaculate and production assisted by Jake One. The tape was very impressive as Macklemore delivered fun and witty lyrics on tracks like "Letterhead," but also showed his serious side on songs like "Church," which involved sensitive subject matters about religion.

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Hopsin, Raw 2.0

Release Date: February 2011
Notable Songs: "Animal Instinct," "Tomorrow Never Comes," "Ruthless"
Why It's Dope: If you’re looking for a project with dark lyrics over rugged instrumentals, then Hospin’s mixtape Raw 2.0 was the tape for you. The West Coast rapper didn't hesitate to speak his mind about how he feels regarding the music industry as well as his feelings towards other rappers on this tape. The project contained 17 songs and featured guest appearances from SwizZz, Vice Grip, Abyss and more.

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Ab-Soul, Longterm 2: Lifestyles Of The Broke & Almost Famous

Release Date: June 2010
Notable Songs: “Long Term,” “MayDay,” “Turn Me Up ” (featuring Kendrick Lamar)
Why It's Dope: It’s widely known that TDE doesn’t release mixtapes, but rather independent albums. Still, those rare occasions when the West Coast juggernaut offers free material, you know you are in for something special. When Soul was an up-and-coming spitter, he released the second installment of his Longterm series, which showcased hip-hop at its finest with meticulous lyrics, banging beats and an overall sense of purpose to be greater than his peers. At this early stage of his career, he was already on track to becoming a big deal out of Cali.

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ScHoolboy Q, Setbacks

Release Date: August 2011
Notable Songs: “Druggys Wit Hoes” (featuring Ab-Soul), “Say Wassup,” “iBETiGotSUMWEED”
Why It's Dope: Q’s first major mixtape/free album would be a major turning point for the Black Hippy crew. While they were relatively under the radar, Q’s confidence as the next rapper to blow up garnered the right attention for them. On Setbacks, he painted his hood tales with a laidback style that was easy to get lost in. Nowadays, Q is rubbing elbows with 50 Cent and 2 Chainz and just came off a No. 1 album, Oxymoron, on the Billboard 200. Good things come to those who wait.

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Joey Bada$$, 1999

Release Date: June 2012
Notable Songs: “FromdaTomb,” (featuring Chuck Strangers), “Survival Tactics,” (featuring Capital STEEZ) “Hardknock” (featuring CJ Fly)
Why Its Dope: Joey Bada$$ was just a teenager when he made 1999. At 17, Joey had a unique gift of channeling the 1990s era of hip-hop with a modern flair. Over breezy beats by MF Doom and J Dilla, he showcased his talents alongside promising Pro Era spitters Capital STEEZ and Chuck Strangers. At the same time, Joey was able to create a relaxing, tranquil vibe that sums up the “Beast Coast” perfectly. It kept fans waiting at the edge of their seats for his debut album, B4.DA.$$, which arrived this January.

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Action Bronson, Blue Chips

Release Date: July 2008
Notable Songs: "Ten G’s A Week," "Sittin’ So High," "Swagger To The Max"
Why It's Dope: Action Bronson’s grind was pretty admirable up to this point. After numerous collaborative mixtapes with Tommy Mas, Statik Selektah, and Harry Fraud, the Queens rapper found his sweet spot with Party Supplies. Blue Chips paired him up with the Brooklyn producer who laid down hazy loops that fit perfectly with Bronsolino’s grainy voice and whirlwind wordplay. The results were a foolproof product that they’ve entirely made as their own thing. This tape was where Ghostface Killah comparisons came to die.

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Dizzy Wright, Free SmokeOut Conversations

Release Date: June 2012
Notable Songs: “Independent Living” (featuring Hopsin, SwizZz), “Can’t Trust Em (Remix) (featuring Jarren Benton, Angel Haze)” “Funk Volume 2012”
Why It's Dope: Dizzy Wright came into his own after a successful debut in SmokeOut Conversations. Never to leave the mixtape game behind, Dizzy dropped a follow-up to his album called Free SmokeOut Conversations. Keeping everything in-house with smooth beats by DJ Hoppa, Hopsin and SwizZz, Dizzy holds it down with charismatic rhymes all over. “Brother, Las Vegas won’t have another / Tell XXL I want the motherfuckin’ cover!” he raps on “Can’t Trust ‘Em (Remix).” Foreseeing the future.

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Angel Haze, Classick

Release Date: July 2008
Notable Songs: “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Cleaning Out My Closet”
Why It's Dope: Angel Haze’s Reservation EP set the stage for her to bubble out of the underground with tracks like “New York” and “Werkin’ Girls.” With all eyes on her, Haze dropped an inventive mixtape called Classick, which found her remixing tracks by Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott and Eminem. The best showcase of both her talent and vulnerability came in “Cleaning Out My Closet,” where she recalled her own sexual abuse and overcoming the trauma. The introspective track cemented her as a female rapper walking on the path to something greater.

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Trinidad Jame$, Don’t Be S.A.F.E.

Release Date: October 2012
Notable Songs: “Females Welcomed” (featuring Reija Lee), “All Gold Everything,” “Southside” (featuring Fortie Bowie)
Why It's Dope: Who didn’t turn up when “All Gold Everything” first dropped? Just off the strength of the song, the viral video and its remix, many listeners tuned into his debut mixtape Don’t Be S.A.F.E. Jame$ was pretty capable of delivering catchy hooks, and several of these songs show that he was positioned as hip-hop’s next big hitmaker. Evolving from random Atlanta rapper to capable rap star, his success story couldn’t be duplicated in 2012.

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Logic, Young Sinatra: Welcome To Forever

Release Date: May 2013
Notable Songs: “On The Low” (featuring Kid Ink, Trinidad Jame$), “The Come Up,” “Man Of The Year”
Why It's Dope: Why Logic? We answered the question when we placed the Maryland MC on 2013’s XXL Freshman cover. Based on his tireless work ethic, endless tour schedule and impressive lyrical talent, Logic became our secret weapon we shared with a mass audience. Fresh off making the cover and inking a deal with Def Jam, he dropped his biggest mixtape to date, Welcome To Forever. It was a refreshing take on conscious rap that helped him rise to prominence. His debut album, last October's Under Pressure, announced him as a legitimate threat in the hip-hop world.

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Kirko Bangz, Progression 2: A Young Texas Playa

Release Date: January 2012
Notable Songs: “Drank In My Cup,” “Knowmtalmbout (featuring Paul Wall),” “The Crew”
Why It's Dope: Drop any comparisons to Drake or Lil Wayne. Kirko Bangz carved his own lane after his smash “Drank In My Cup” broke him out of regional popularity to the mainstream. Progression 2: A Young Texas Playa was his best display of both singing and rapping, especially on deep cuts like “Play Me” and “Touch My Sky.” H-Town stand up.

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Travi$ Scott, Owl Pharaoh

Release Date: May 2013
Notable Songs: “Upper Echelon” (featuring T.I., 2 Chainz), “Uptown” (featuring A$AP Ferg), “Quintana”
Why It's Dope: After several high profile co-signs from the likes of Kanye West and T.I., Travi$ Scott had a lot of hype going into his debut mixtape, Owl Pharaoh. It certainly lived up to expectations with sharp production, strong rhymes and an overall atmosphere that banged. From rider-friendly tracks (“Hell Of Night,” “Dance On The Moon”) to bouncy joints (“Quintana,” “Blocka La Flame,”) Scott showed that he wasn’t going anywhere soon.

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Chief Keef, Back From The Dead

Release Date: March 2012
Notable Songs: “I Don’t Like” (featuring Lil Reese), “Designer,” “3Hunna (Remix)” (featuring Soulja Boy)
Why It's Dope: Keef was already an anomaly in hip-hop before his breakthrough mixtape, Back From The Dead. At 16, Keef’s video for “Bang” invited us into his troubled world in Southside Chicago through raw lyrics that reflected everything around him. Months later, Back From The Dead served as Keef’s shining moment. Backed by explosive beats packed with gunshots from producer Young Chop, the aggressive nature of Sosa attracted everyone who was intrigued to learn more about his street topics. Rap’s next big thing had the game on lock, a huge feat for someone his age.

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Jon Connor, The Blue Album

Release Date: February 2012
Notable Songs: "Takeover," "Best In The World"
Why It's Dope: For a tape written in only four days, Connor put his Best In The World series on full-on display, showcasing his rapid-fire rapping skills over much of the production that Jay Z rode toward becoming the greatest rapper alive. Connor's released more installments in the series—including his fantastic Kanye West-inspired project he dropped earlier this year—but his rhymes over Hov's multi-talented producers proved early on that he was not to be dismissed.

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Lil Bibby, Free Crack

Release Date: November 2013
Notable Songs: "Water," "How We Move" (featuring King Louie), "Whole Crew"
Why It's Dope: For a kid that is still entrenched in his teens, Lil Bibby has the voice of a man in his third decade in the game. But that was just a surface observation; any closer look reveals a kid particularly in tune with his surroundings who was willing to tell the street life the way it was, complete with all the drama, hardship and struggle that comes along with it. Bibby's Free Crack connected because it was different than the rest of the street rap flowing out of the gutters of Chicago; it was more perceptive, more lyrical in a sense, and it provided a more detailed look at a scene that had for so long seemed one-dimensional. "Trying to keep my head above water" has become a catchphrase that has extended beyond the confines of just his own neighborhood today.

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Lil Durk, Signed To The Streets

Release Date: October 2013
Notable Songs: "Dis Ain't What U Want," "Traumatized," "Bang Bros"
Why It's Dope: Durk’s tendency to craft effortlessly catchy hooks that still reflect the no mercy Chicago drill sound in which he crafts his tales sets him apart from his friends in the game, but it might be his ability to easily and simply describe the problems and issues surrounding him that will set him on a trajectory toward stardom. This entire tape was filled to the brim with club-worthy bangers, but Durk's pop sensibility—and by that we mean his ability to turn the street narrative that he's known for spitting into an easily-digestible sound bite—has always set him apart from his Southside Chicago partners in drill. If Durk was one of many before, this tape put him among a very select few.

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Troy Ave, Bricks In My Backpack 3: The Harry Powder Trilogy

Release Date: June 2012
Notable Songs: "Red Cup," "Chiddy Chiddy Bang Bang," "Merlot" (featuring Fabolous, Mila Brown)
Why It's Dope: New York City has had an uphill struggle to regain the dominance it once held over the hip-hop landscape, and Bricks In My Backpack 3 was Troy Ave's most definitive claim to "Bringing New York Back" since the young Brooklyn rhymer emerged on the scene. Blending the street toughness of 50 Cent with the pop sensibilities of Ja Rule—and yes, that's no typo, though he may have to keep looking for his own Ashanti—Troy oozed the New York swagger that kept so many salivating at the feet of the New York OGs in their heyday.

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Jarren Benton, Freebasing With Kevin Bacon

Release Date: June 2012
Notable Songs: "Billion Bucks" (featuring Rittz and Jon Connor), "Skitzo"
Why It's Dope: With the Atlanta hip-hop scene dominated by the likes of 2 Chainz and Future and upstarts in that vein such as Rich Homie Quan, Jarren Benton has flown largely under the radar during his years in the game. But this tape put him firmly on the national radar, as influential independent label Funk Volume came calling based off the viral success of his single "Skitzo." Aligning himself with Hopsin, Dizzy Wright and the Funk Volume crew, Benton was able to catapult the success of Freebasing With Kevin Bacon into even greater national acclaim the following year, with this tape marking the turning point between well-respected underground rapper and nationally-touring main stage act.

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Ty Dolla $ign, Beach House

Release Date: October 2012
Notable Songs: "My Cabana" (featuring Jeezy)
Why It's Dope: Dolla $ign's first real introduction to the mainstream as a lead artist set the tone for the ratchet R&B-esque tunes that he would eventually ride to bigger success with "Paranoid" and "Or Nah." "My Cabana" became one of the go-to tracks of the summer of 2013, proving that even if a mixtape doesn't catch on initially, sometimes the raw emotion and infectious energy of a project will have legs beyond many people's initial reactions. If his Beach House EP was his thesis statement, then Beach House was Dolla $ign's hypothesis, the one that put him on many a radar and helped catapult him into becoming one of the most exciting artists in hip-hop today.

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August Alsina, Tha Product 2

Release Date: May 2013
Notable Songs: "I Luv This Shit" (featuring Trinidad Jame$), "Downtown" (featuring Kidd Kidd)
Why It's Dope: If you hadn't heard of the young Def Jam crooner before then, he was nearly impossible to escape following the release of Tha Product 2. With features from Juelz Santana, Curren$y, Kidd Kidd, The-Dream, Roscoe Dash and Jazze Pha—as well as his Trinidad Jame$-assisted, gold-selling single "I Luv This Shit," which peaked in the top 50 on the Billboard 200—August proved he was more than just another singer in the mold of Chris Brown or Trey Songz. The New Orleans singer isn't quite R&B and isn't at all a rapper, and he's defining the new wave of hip-hop with every new release.

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Kevin Gates, The Luca Brasi Story

Release Date: February 2013
Notable Songs: "Paper Chasers," "Wylin'," "Narco Trafficante"
Why It's Dope: For many in the South, Gates' ascent has been little surprise; to those outside his Louisiana home, The Luca Brasi Story was the first indication that hip-hop had another budding star on its hands. With an uncanny knack for storytelling and a seemingly effortless ability to craft a catchy hook, Gates took his tales of the streets to new heights and new audiences, announcing himself as one of those rare talents who can break out of the hometown bubble and really connect with a wider audience. Who needs a YMCMB co-sign when you've got all the talent in the world to tell your story in any way you feel necessary?

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Rich Homie Quan, Still Goin' In (Reloaded)

Release Date: February 2013
Notable Songs: "Type Of Way," "Choices," "Differences"
Why It's Dope: Were you, by any chance, alive in the summer of 2013? Then you know who Rich Homie Quan is. His ubiquitous "Type Of Way" became the go-to song of the summer, turning up everywhere from afternoon barbecues to late-night club sessions to the celebratory dance circle of the Michigan State college football program. Quan was able to turn the success of the song into a major label bidding war, and eventually wound up crooning the hook to the unofficial song of the winter of 2014—YG's "My Nigga"—meaning he's ruled two of the past four seasons of hip-hop. Tough to bet against his return to the forefront in the very near future.

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Chance The Rapper, Acid Rap

Release Date: April 30, 2013
Notable Songs: "Cocoa Butter Kisses," "Juice," "Favorite Song," "Lost"
Why It's Dope: What can you say about Acid Rap that hasn't already been said? The project was stellar all the way through, stocked full of energy, wit, musicality, textures and guest spots that served to accent particular songs and add value to the project as a whole. Notable songs is an almost laughable category when every track is a standout in its own way. Not only did Acid Rap announce Chance The Rapper as one of the most innovative artists of his generation, but it also introduced the wider world to Vic Mensa, Saba, Nate Fox and NoName Gypsy, all of whom are making noise (Vic in particular) in their own realm by now.

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Vic Mensa, INNANETAPE

Release Date: September 2013
Notable Songs: "Orange Soda," "Hollywood LA" featuring Lili K, "Tweakin'" (featuring Chance The Rapper)
Why It's Dope: There was an early stigma attached to Vic's solo debut tape wherein he was compared—sometimes correctly, other times unfairly—to his childhood buddy Chance The Rapper. But once the majority began taking a second look at the young SaveMoney rapper/producer/singer/whatever you want to call him, it became very clear that he wasn't just another oddball Chicago guy trying to make a name for himself. Vic's rapid-fire delivery and always on-point narratives kept this tape in rotation for months, and he's since used the buzz to jump into newer, bigger and grander arenas. "Orange Soda" will soon become one of those songs he hates to perform as his career eclipses his initial output.

Previously: XXL Freshmen Class: By The Numbers
XXL Freshmen 2014: Check Out The Latest Profiles And Freestyles