The 25 Best Mixtapes Of 2014 (So Far)
Now that we're at the halfway mark of the year, it's time to look back at some of the best mixtapes and free EPs that have come out in 2014. As we pointed out in our 25 Best Albums of 2014 (So Far) yesterday, at this time last year the heavy-hitters were rolling out their major albums, while we'd already gotten great tapes from Waka Flocka (DuFlocka Rant 2), Big K.R.I.T. (King Remembered In Time), Kevin Gates (The Luca Brasi Story) and, of course, Chance The Rapper (Acid Rap).
This year already we've seen a slew of solid efforts from some of the game's vets—Wiz Khalifa, J. Cole, Curren$y, Mac Miller—and a series of strong projects from some of hip-hop's most anticipated up-and-comers. As June turns into July and the summer marches on, XXL selects the 25 best hip-hop mixtapes of the year... so far, at least. House rules. —Eric Diep, Miranda Johnson, Cris Jones, Emmanuel C.M., Dan Rys and Eli Schwadron
2 Chainz, Freebase EP
The May 2014 release found 2 Chainz rapping about some of his favorite topics: cocaine, clothes and women. Though the Freebase EP is only six tracks long, 2 Chainz manages to squeeze in multiple artists, including Lil Boosie, A$AP Rocky, Rick Ross, Cap-1, and Ty Dolla $ign.
2 Chainz's flow is dope on the opening the track "Trap Back," even though he willingly acknowledges that he borrowed it. "This flow come from Drizzy/He got it from Migos/They got it from Three 6." The song has a random scene from the film Step Brothers spliced in, for reasons unknown, but the track still works. "Wuda Cuda Shuda" is directed at all the people who claim they're going to make things happen, yet never show up when it counts. Boosie's feature is welcomed here, and he gives us typical Bad Azz, imploring us to keep it 100. "Crib In My Closet" sounds like a bevy of songs that we have heard from 2 Chainz in the past. The Ty Dolla $ign-assisted, Young Chop-produced "They Know" is a much needed change of pace to close out the EP. Repetitive themes abound, but Chainz does them better than most. —CJ
Funk was the theme for the beautifully-coiffed Cali rhymer's Fool's Gold debut, and Ivry was not a project to be slept on. The eight songs on the EP showcased 100s' lyrical dexterity in addition to his eye for fire beats, and all together he created a cohesive, groove-centric project that fully established him as one to look out for in the next few years. —DR
Alex Wiley, Village Party
Alex Wiley’s growth as an artist over the last couple of years has been a sight to see. From his attention-grabbing verse on Chance The Rapper's “Windows” off 10 Day to last year's Club Wiley, Village Party showcases Wiley’s flexibility as an MC, bouncing around from harmonizing hooks to spitting bone-shattering bars. Village Party blends different genres of music—hip-hop, rock, jazz, blues—together with progressive production that listeners will find enjoyable. But this isn’t just a “make you feel good” project; Wiley can spit, too ("#Takeoff #Takeoff," "See The Day"). All in All, Alex Wiley is another up-and-comer from the Chi that you should pay attention to pronto. —ECM
Curren$y, The Drive In Theatre
Not many rappers can kick it as vividly as Curren$y. At times, the New Orleans born and bred MC raps as if he doesn't breathe between bars. He puts out projects at a rate that causes fans to wonder if he sleeps. Add The Drive In Theatre to the never-ending list of solid Curren$y tapes. Artists like Action Bronson, Trademark, B-Real, Fiend, Freddie Gibbs, LE$, Smoke DZA and Young Roddy all make appearances on the mixtape. and the supporting cast gives The Drive In Theatre an extra boost. Bronson graces "Godfather Four" with his usual head-scratching flows, Freddie Gibbs snaps on the Thelonious Martin-produced "Grew Up In This," and it's always a good time when Smoke DZA and Spitta link—this time on "The Usual Suspects."
Curren$y undoubtedly has a good ear for the perfect beats to accompany his deliberate flows and things stay the course on this tape. Knowing his propensity to record new music like it's an addiction, he will probably release another tape in 2014 that aims to top this project. Until then, let's just sit patiently parked in The Drive In Theatre. —CJ
CyHi The Prynce, Black Hystori Project
GOOD Music’s CyHi The Prynce boasts that he’s “Nas with a 'Pac flow” on Black Hystori Project. With BHP, CyHi delivers a lesson in Black history, shouting out some of his favorite figures with song titles such as “Huey,” “Mandela” and “Coretta.” Lush production and complex, name-drop-filled lyrics are at a premium here, as CyHi references famous writers, artists, actors, musicians, Civil Rights leaders, and more throughout. “I write my graffiti in Swahili/I don’t follow, I’m not Phoebe/Fuck diabetes, I’ma die chic/That’s the reason I’m dressed in this dashiki/Fly as Tuskegee, riding to my CD,” he spits over a fast-paced guitar and piano-laced beat by Grizzly on “Basquiat.”
CyHi’s story-telling ability cannot be overlooked, as he weaves socially conscious tales into nearly every record on BHP. Rap audiences knew that CyHi had this type of ability from hearing him on GOOD Music’s Cruel Summer compilation, but a full-length effort raises the bar even higher. The 18-track body of work should remain in rotation during the month of February for years to come. —ES
Fat Trel, Gleesh
Gleesh’s initial cover—a spoof of the familiar Glee photo with a very explicit twist—was certainly enough to grab your attention. However, Fat Trel’s progress as an artist will leave you very pleased. The rawness that attracts people to Trel’s music gets refined and focused, while it looks like Trel—one of the newest members of MMG—is learning from his new boss Rick Ross as Gleesh’s wide range of beats allows Trel to show off his skills in new and entertaining ways. The subject manner sticks to Trel’s comfort zone of women, sex, the streets of Washington D.C. and money. Trel’s fan base will most certainly expand as a result of this growth. —ECM
French Montana, Coke Boys 4
The fourth installment of French's Coke Boys crew series was also the first to feature newest Coke Boy Lil Durk, who makes his mark on standouts such as "Paranoid (Remix)" and "Act Like That." All the usual suspects make appearances—Chinx, Rick Ross, Diddy, Meek Mill—but it was probably the multiple guest appearances from Jadakiss which really stole the show. "Paranoid (Remix)" itself could have carried the whole project, but there were so many bangers that it left few holes throughout. —DR
Girl Talk and Freeway, Broken Ankles
Freeway has his own legacy with Roc-A-Fella, but as a solo artist he’s been trying hard to stay afloat among the changing landscape of hip-hop. He excels when he’s paired with unlikely collaborators—Jake One, Statik Selektah and now Girl Talk—who have brought out a fresh side of Free that’s compelling. On Broken Ankles, Girl Talk’s detailed production gives Free’s rhymes a new jolt of energy, especially when each track transitions together so flawlessly. At only five tracks long, Girl Talk and Freeway only give us a short teaser, but it's completely packed with the kind of sounds you’d want to hear Free doing at this stage of his career. “Tell Me Yeah” into “I Can Hear Sweat”? Straight fire. The two have promised a full-length in the future; let’s hope it actually comes into fruition. —ED
GoldLink, The God Complex
Refreshing. Different. Vibrant. These are words that can be used to describe GoldLink's The God Complex. In just under 26 minutes, the Virginia rapper managed to create a project some hip-hop fans are hailing as the mixtape of the year already. With only one feature on the project, listeners get a crystal clear depiction of what comprises GoldLink's music. "Future bounce," as GoldLink refers to his sound, has a funky and groovy, warm-weather vibe that has garnered him much praise from fans and critics alike. GoldLink has set the bar extremely high for his following project, but don't bet against him and his budding creativity.
The debut project ends with the introspective "When I Die," which speaks to the soul with lines like "When I die, I just want my father to apologize/When I die, I hope my ex don't uncover my lies." At about 60 seconds of actual bars, the track leaves listeners clamoring for an extended version. As an artist you want to leave fans desiring more; with only nine quick tracks on The God Complex, GoldLink has his fans exactly where he wants them. —CJ
Gucci Mane, Brick Factory Vol. 1
Gucci Mane knows how to make trap music. Even though he’s currently locked up in jail, Gucci continues to feed the streets with heater after heater. Gucci’s eye for young talented rappers is once again prevalent on Brick Factory Vol. 1. Young Thug, Young Dolph, Peewee Longway, Migos, Rich Homie Quan, Dr. Phil and MPA Duke are all on the album (along with former right-hand-man-turned-enemy Waka Flocka Flame). The best thing about Brick Factory Vol. 1 is that it supplies you with exactly what you're looking for out of Gucci—turn up music with an edge. "Cash Shit," "My Customer," "Say A Prayer," "Homeboys"; each track satisfies that trap music itch just enough to forget that Big Guwop isn't free. Brick Factory Vol. 1 is another testament that proves Guwop is the Trap Lord. —ECM
Isaiah Rashad, Cilvia Demo
The latest rapper signed to TDE didn't have much material out before Cilvia, and the demo was his first for the imprint and outlined what he could bring to the table for the hottest crew in hip-hop. Over some laid-back, top-notch production, Rashad detailed his life coming up in Tennessee with a relatable, confident flow that pinpointed where he could fit in amongst his new Black Hippy cohorts. Lyrically on point throughout each of the 14 tracks, Cilvia was a formidable debut project on a national scale for the 2014 XXL Freshman. —DR
J. Cole, Revenge Of The Dreamers
Following his 2013 release Born Sinner, J. Cole dropped Revenge Of The Dreamers, a compilation mixtape featuring the Fayetteville emcee alongside his fellow Dreamville label artists. Smooth production, thought-provoking lyrics, and terrific flow are staples of Cole’s career so far, and he doesn’t stray from his usual formula on this record. He wastes no time taking on a challenge, spitting over a sped-up version of 2Pac’s “Ambitionz Az A Ridah” on the project’s introductory track. The rest of the roster does their thing, as well; Chicago’s Omen expresses his frustration on “Motion Picture,” while Queens native Bas shines on “Ceelo With The G’s.” Cole also lets loose the original instrumental—which also samples Pac—for “Crooked Smile,” a fan favorite off Born Sinner.
Fayettenam’s head honcho has long been applauded for his consistency, and Revenge Of The Dreamers reinforces that notion, as the project contains many of the same sounds as Cole’s earlier mixtapes. Cole flexes his lyrical chops on tracks like “Lit": "Could’ve been a lawyer but I made it rappin’, he made it rappin’/Now at the shows he the main attraction/Another shot of Henny so I’m faded askin’/How long do this drug called fame be lastin’?" Dreamville looks like it's got plenty of talent on board. —ES
Connor dropped the third installment of his Best In The World series out of nowhere earlier this year, spinning tales of his come up in Flint, Mich. and the words of his mentor Dr. Dre over Kanye West beats from across Yeezy's catalog. The People's Rapper and newest addition to the Aftermath family sounded primed and ready to go on the project, spitting his true life stories with a rapid-fire and joyous delivery, showing that he belonged alongside label-mates Kendrick Lamar and Eminem. —DR
Kevin Gates, By Any Means
There was a feeling in some corners of the hip-hop world that 2013's Stranger Than Fiction represented a peak of sorts for the Louisiana rhymer, but By Any Means showed that Kevin Gates still had boatloads of creativity in the tank. His vivid, raw storytelling and uncanny ability to craft a hook were both on full display, particularly on standouts such as "Don't Know," "Movie" and "Stop Lyin'." Now that he's signed to Atlantic and gearing up for a proper debut album, Gates has all the momentum he needs to submit one of the top hip-hop albums of the year, whenever it drops. —DR
King Los, Zero Gravity II
Coming off his departure from Bad Boy, King Los needed to prove to his loyal fans that he’s still focused on putting out good music. The Baltimore MC wasted little time after his big announcement by dropping Zero Gravity II. With his high-octane flows on full display, he runs laps around any lyrical competition on joints such as “Woke Up Like This,” “OG Bobby Johnson” Freestyle, and “Play Too Rough.” Although one setback is Los’ scattered production, it’s a small complaint for a mixtape that lets him shine bright. —ED
Lil Herb, Welcome To Fazoland
Lil Herb is a rare talent; like his childhood friend Lil Bibby, the 19-year-old Chicago native raps like he’s twice his age. The maturity and honesty on his debut mixtape Welcome To Fazoland is what grabs the listeners, while his rapid-fire flow makes you rewind each song just so you make sure you didn’t miss a word. Welcome To Fazoland paints a grim image of the inner city of Chicago from the eyes of Herbo. He chronicles it all—guns, gangs and murder are frequent topics of discussion—but this isn’t just senseless drill music about violence; this is a story shared for awareness. The energy seeps out from each song as Herb shoots off bar after bar illustrating how he survived “in this hellhole.” For his first complete project you can see why Nicki Minaj scooped him up for “Chi-Raq” and Common grabbed him for his album Nobody Smiling. Lil Herb has that "it factor" to be great, and Fazoland is a promising start. —ECM
Mac Miller, Faces
Mac Miller dropped an hour-plus-long mixtape on Mother’s Day that ranks up there as one of the best projects of the year so far. Faces showcases Miller’s ambidextrous wordplay ability, as he shifts between plethora of flows with nonsensical twists and turns. Over clean production and smooth horns and snares, Faces has hits, plain and simple. Miller’s lighthearted demeanor masks his competitive nature; when he switches into rappity-rap mode, he can keep up bar for bar with best of them—just listen to “Polo Jeans.” Faces also is another example of Miller—aka Larry Fisherman's—progressing production. If you look at the run Miller has made just in the past year—Watching Movies With The Sound Off, Stolen Youth with Vince Staples, Delusional Thomas and Live From Space—the Pittsburgh native has had a fantastic past 13 months. —ECM
Migos, No Label 2
There was no escaping Migos’ “Versace” in 2013. After the smash hit began earning club and radio spins across the country, all eyes were on the Atlanta rap trio to continue their newfound success. Quavo, TakeOff, and OffSet did not disappoint with their Y.R.N. followup, No Label 2, which dropped in February. 25 tracks strong featuring hard-hitting production from their trusty sidekick Zaytoven as well as talents like Metro Boomin and Murda, combined to form the epitome of trap music in 2014.
The Phenom Da Don-produced “M&M’s” is a certified banger that won’t be fully appreciated unless played at full volume, while the beat on “Ounces” compliments the song’s simple chorus thanks to the duo of Zaytoven and Metro Boomin behind the boards. No Label 2 is a marathon of a listen, yet the project’s best song is probably its introduction. Produced by DJ Plugg, TakeOff spits with pinpoint delivery: “You turn on the radio you gon’ hear every rapper tryna rap like the Migos/Fuck nigga wanna clone? Been rappin’ like this since No Label.” Migos is here to stay, a reality that’s not difficult to understand after giving the group’s latest mixtape a runthrough. —ES
Shy Glizzy, Young Jefe
D.C. newcomer Shy Glizzy is on a steady climb towards breaking out of his regional fame. Off the success of “Awwsome,” Glizzy released Young Jefe this year to positive response. He has a different type of voice, not dissimilar to Young Thug, but Glizzy’s “it” factor is his ability to string together catchy metaphors and hooks with little effort. Tracks that display this perfect marriage are street-ready songs such as “Medellin” and “Catch A Body.” Paired with Southern beats by Zaytoven, as well as Roger Beat and EA Glizzy, the rising MC has the opportunity to really take off. —ED
Slaughterhouse, House Rules
Slaughterhouse has no interest in appealing to the mainstream on House Rules, which in turn makes for a damn near perfect effort in the eyes of the group’s diehard fans. Ten tracks long with beats from some of the hottest producers in the game—!llmind, AraabMuzik, Harry Fraud—give Crooked I, Joe Budden, Royce Da 5’9” and Joell Ortiz the proper platform to deliver both punchline tracks alongside more storytelling-driven songs. “Faced with decisions, would you ignore intuition?/Trade in whatever drives you for keys to an ignition?” Budden asks on track four, “Trade It All.”
House Rules is not groundbreaking by any means, nor does it trot out any new conventions or styles. However, it represents Slaughterhouse getting back to the basics with quality, minimalist music. “I Ain’t Bullshittin” is the hardest track on the project thanks to terrific verses from Crooked, Ortiz, and Royce over the type of booming production we’ve grown accustomed to from AraabMuzik. You might not hear House Rules in the club, but it gets the job done in the whip late at night. —ES
Troy Ave, BSB Vol. 4
2014 XXL Freshman Troy Ave promised to deliver his fourth installment of his BSB series if he was inducted into this year’s class. Well, the Brooklyn MC got the look on the cover and we were given some new material from Troy and his Brick Star Boys. This latest effort is the most polished yet with standout records such as “My Day,” “My Lifetime” and the summertime anthem “Your Style.” It’ll take some time until Troy’s homies—Avon Blocksdale, King Sevin and Young Lito—get put on, but this is a great step in the right direction. —ED
Vince Staples, Shyne Goldchain Vol. 2
Shyne Goldchain Vol. 2, the second installment in Staples' series that launched in 2011, boasts 10 cuts brimming with dope production and vivid rhymes. The tape opens with the dark and gritty "Progressive 3"—produced by Evidence and DJ Babu—which sounds fit for a horror flick soundtrack, and when Staples spits it just feels authentic. No I.D. produced the majority of the joints on the project, including standouts like "45" and "Turn." On "Turn" Staples gives us a look into his personal life, spitting, "Our Father who art in heaven/Seen my momma dying every day since grade 11."
Staples handles all raps throughout the project, but Jhené Aiko and James Fauntleroy lend their vocals on "Oh You Scared" and "Nate," respectively, taking each track to a higher level. Staples is clearly a young man whose mind races with thoughts of things like heaven and hell, family, and navigating the streets. Watching his talent and content develop will be a treat for hip hop fans. —CJ
Wiz Khalifa, 28 Grams
For the past few years, the release of a new Wiz Khalifa mixtape has become an event. From Kush And Orange Juice, The Cabin Fever Series and Taylor Allderdice, Wiz has managed to put together projects that hip-hop fans anxiously await once word of a new tape leaks. Add in some of DJ Drama's signature drops this time around, and 28 Grams was something all Khalifa fans were anticipating.
If not lyrical enough for some, young Khalifa is undeniably versatile enough for all, offering tracks for all types of hip-hop fans. But 28 Grams sees Wiz proclaim himself Trap Wiz, and showcases his ability to craft cuts over trap beats. But there are also joints like "Comb Over" and "On A Plane" that recapture the sound the early decade's Khalifa, spitting over beats that should be accompanied with a cold drink and nice view.
With 28 tracks, there's bound to be some songs that could and should have been left off the project, but Wiz's auto-tuned crooning on "OUY" or his effortless floating over Missy Elliott's "The Rain" are easy standouts. Other highlights the Pimp C feature on "Word On The Town" and the Ty Dolla $ign-assisted "Banger." With Blacc Hollywood on the way, Wiz is definitely feeling confident in his ability to make good music. —CJ
Young Thug and Bloody Jay, Black Portland
Young Thug’s eccentric style and off-kilter flow have polarized hip-hop critics, but these characteristics have helped the Atlanta native garner a nationwide fan base throughout the past year. On Black Portland, Thugger teams up with Bloody Jay for 12 tracks of Southern heat, featuring standouts like “4 Eva Bloody,” “Lets Go Play,” and the 808 Mafia-produced “Danny Glover.” While Bloody Jay is no slouch on the mic, he’s not going to outshine Atlanta’s newest superstar on a full-length project. Bloody is Scottie to Thug’s Michael on Black Portland, which contains only one guest feature: the Future-assisted “Nothing But Some Pain.”
An altogether different style, a killer work ethic and co-signs from the likes of Birdman and Kanye West have catapulted Thugger into the hip-hop mainstream and framed him as one of the game’s next big attractions, even drawing comparisons to his favorite rapper Weezy. Black Portland is further evidence of Young Thug’s increasing growth, as he and Bloody Jay provide no shortage of head-bobbers for the listener. —ES
XXL featured ZelooperZ in The Break back in March and he was already talking about how his debut mixtape HELP would take listeners to a whole new world. “It’s like when the music comes on, it’s like time slows down or times speeds up,” he said. His mentor Danny Brown, who brought him on to join the Bruiser Brigade, echoed a similar statement during an interview at Bonnaroo. “At the end of the day, when you first hear it, you can take it for what it is, but what I meant when I say XXX, the comparison of it, is that it is a concept album. In the same concept that I had with XXX, is pretty much the same concept of this album coming from a younger perspective."
HELP is, without a doubt, a strange experience, but a very good one. The 20-year-old Detroit native varies between different flows, and his subject matter is often about what people his age talk about—getting girls and doing drugs. What makes HELP enjoyable is the unbridled energy and aggression that are common traits for a young MC trying to pave his way. From solid offerings like “Plateau” to “Hit A Lick,” ZelooperZ has a lot of potential to go big in the rap game. —ED