The XXL music department is at its collective wit’s end. Trying to put together a decent review section has proved especially difficult lately. There have been a few bright spots (Weezy, we see you!), but for the most part, creative stagnation combined with the pressure to go pop have made for a hip-hop industry beleaguered by release-date delays and sagging with mediocre product. The only thing that’s kept us sane during the drought has been a steady supply of street albums. Unlike traditional mixtapes, street albums focus on one artist and feature never-before-heard freestyles and songs that skip the editing stages of the fickle recording industry. With no samples cleared and complete creative freedom, the artists can be artists again: Some of the greatest verses of all time live on these black-market beauties. As a service to our faithful readers, we’ve decided to compile a list of our top 20 artist-driven mixtapes—the ones that remind us what got us so amped about this rap shit in the first place. So without further ado, here are our picks. See you on the message boards, haters.

20. The Mix Tape Messiah, Chamillionaire
20.jpgHouston had more than a problem in late ’04—it had an all-out war of words. Having absorbed repeated barbs from Mike Jones, Chamillionaire took the gloves off and served up this monumental three-disc set. Over the course of 61 tracks, the former Swishahouse rep whipped “Dyke Jones” into submission with a series of Kunta Kinte–themed skits and numerous lyrical lashings. The sirloin on the grill added to the Texas town’s already sizzling heat, and drew the attention of major labels. Less than a year later, Universal ushered Cham into the national marketplace with The Sound of Revenge.

19. You Know What It Is, Vol. 3, The Game (Nu Jerzey Devil and DJ Skee)
19.jpg Last year, after his inauspicious ousting from G-Unit, Game embarked on a one-man crusade to defame his former crew. Starting with You Know What It Is, Vol. 3, the Compton, Calif., controversy magnet touched on everything from 50’s purported penchant for snitchin’ to Olivia’s masculinity. Diss tutorials like “Play the Game,” “Poison Bananas” and “Down”stung, but the icing on the cake was definitely “300 Bars N Runnin,” where Game took it to 50 and co. for nearly 15 minutes of lyrical G-G-G-G-Unot!

18. Tha Boss, Vol. 1, Slim Thug
slim.jpg What’s beef? Beef is when members of your own crew bootleg ya shit. Faced with that reality, in 2001, Slim Thug pulled the cards of some former friends who were guzzlin’ haterade. Choppin’ and screwin’ instrumentals to timeless disses like “Ether,” “Takeover” and “Hit ’Em Up,” Thugga dropped dime on the wanksta ways of ex-comrades Big Pic, Lil Mario and AD—seemingly turning the entire state of Texas against them. But the knockout punch came courtesy of “Trash,” when the Big Boss Hogg hit height-deficient Mario below the belt (“Midget-ass nigga, comb ya nappy-ass hair/You shop in the boys section, wear cartoon underwear”).

17. In Da Streets, Pt. 3, T.I. & P$C
17.jpg After parting ways with Arista in 2002, T.I. had no choice but to hustle his flow on a grassroots level. While the first two installments of the In Da Streets series were hugely successful in and around the ATL, it wasn’t until 2003’s Pt. 3 that major-label execs started paying attention. With the infectious trap anthem “24’s” blowing up all across the South, T.I. had a bargaining chip worth its weight in gold. Add bangers like “Reakshon,” “In Da ‘A’” and “Dope Boys (Remix),” featuring Foxy Brown, and you have a label deal with Atlantic Records—and the makings of a King.

16. Mood Muzik 2: Can It Get Any Worse?, Joe Budden (DJ On Point)
16.jpg Although Joe Budden’s 2003 Def Jam debut was heavily slept on, his well-crafted street discs have always drawn attention. Released in winter ’05, Mood Muzik 2 showcased the New Jersey spitter’s intense passion and introspective candor—covering weighty topics like incest (“Three Sides to a Story”), baby-mama drama (“Are You in That Mood Yet”) and the prospect of the rapper’s own demise (“If I Die Tomorrow”). It doesn’t get much better.

15. Public Enemy #1: Who Shot Ya?!!, Beanie Sigel (DJ Green Lantern)
15.jpg Spurred by persistent legal problems that culminated in his October 2004 drug and weapons conviction, Beans went jackin’ for classics—Tribe’s “Scenario,” Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya” and Eric B. and Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke”—and delivered some of the most aggressive music of his career. On “Can’t Stop the Reign” he let us know what his life’s like (“Niggas wanna shoot me/D.A. tryin’ to prosecute me/Lose me—in the system/Stuck in prison with male groupies/Visits, commissary slips, cartons of loosies”). Shit’s real.

14. The Best of Saigon A.K.A. The Yardfather, Vol. 1, Saigon (DJ Whoo Kid and DJ Kay Slay)
14.jpg On the scene for less than two years, Sai Giddy had the audacity to drop a “best of” collection in the summer of ’01. Cosigned by two of the game’s top DJs, the unsigned rookie validated his “hottest new nigga on the street” boasts by unveiling now-classic bangers like “Favorite Things,” “If… (My Mommy)” and “Contraband (Remix).” With production from Alchemist, DJ Honda and Mark Ronson, the Brooklyn MC even dug up the Fugees’ incarcerated scarface John Forté to spit 16 bars on “Endangered Species.” Favorite track? The one where Carlito says Sai’s the next Nas.

13. Money in the Bank, Lloyd Banks (DJ Whoo Kid)
13.jpgIn the wake of his mentor 50 Cent’s monstrous debut, Lloyd Banks added to his Queens, N.Y., clique’s arsenal with his solo contribution to the G-Unit Collectors Edition mixtape series. After delivering some of the best bars of his career on tracks like “No Mercy,” “Party Over Here” and “Air Your Ass Out,” the brash young punch line champ held nothing back as he took shots at Murder Inc. on “What Goes Around” (“Ya top seller gets raped for his shine/Either I’m blind/ Or Ashanti’s sideburns is thicker than mine”).
12. Legend Series, Bun B (DJ Drama)
12.jpg In the summer of 2004, Big Bun teamed up with DJ Drama and kicked off a spree of cameos that would make Busta Rhymes look lazy. Pushing his “Free Pimp C” campaign, the Texas vet reasserted his royal status alongside Slim Thug and T.I. on the majestic “3 Kings.” With a new generation of Southern stars like Young Buck, Juvenile, Paul Wall, Young Jeezy and Chamillionaire paying homage via guest verses, Bun kept it trill by reppin’ UGK for life.

11. We Got It 4 Cheap, Vol. 2, Clipse (Clinton Sparks)
11.jpg The follow-up to the Virginia blood brothers’ first street offering hit hard in September of ’05. With the help of mixtape virtuoso Sparks, Pusha T and Malice ransacked a bevy of choice instrumentals, including Juelz Santana’s “Mic Check,” on which Pusha scolded crack rap new jacks (“Niggas is biters, we let you slide with your writings/We knew that cocaine talk was not like you/But who goes as far as trying to dress like ’em?/One sequined glove can never make you Michael”). Cot damn!

10. Dedication, Lil Wayne (DJ Drama)
10.jpg Before Tha Carter II turned doubters into believers, Lil Wayne threw DJ Drama more than 20 exclusive tracks to get the streets on his side. In spring 2005, the New Orleans native put his adolescent Hot Boy musings to the side and replaced them with intricate spins on his everyday hustle. Weezy also dispelled rumors of his signing to Def Jam and solidified his standing as a boss in his own right—and as an elite-level MC who can no longer be written off as a bling-obsessed novelty.

Find out who made the top 9 in the September 2006 issue of XXL (#84).