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Mixtapes aren’t exactly what they used to be. Since the internet cracked the new-music bulwark and instigated flood-like access to new artists and their music, the chance for new artists to come up and make your way up against literally thousands upon thousands of trying rappers and producers has never been so possible nor competitive. The goal of a mixtape has always been to get your music heard– it is first and foremost a promotional tool. Yet in the internet era’s great race for music blogger attention, the mixtape bar has been risen (almost) to the point where it is no longer enough to catch a listener’s attention by rapping over some well known beats alone. The most successful and interesting mixtapes of 2010 were made up of entirely original production, like Wiz Khalifa’s Kush & OJ and Big K.R.I.T.’s K.R.I.T. Wuz Here for instance, which are both virtually albums. The only difference lies in the words we call it by.

Mixtapes are also, of course, compilation “tapes”. Although there were several outstanding compilation mixtapes this year (including Statik Selektah & Termanology (1982)’s The Diamond Collection), we have not included them in our list since there was so much great new music to choose from. Perhaps the better term for original material mixtapes is the “Free Album” or “Free Release”, to define this promotional entity that has picked up considerably in the wake of the internet’s competitive climate.

Wiz Khalifa – Kush & OJ

[Taylor Gang/Rostrum Records, 2010]

When people have been talking about Wiz with me recently, I’ve been sort of hesitant to give him a full thumbs up and co-sign because since “Black & Yellow”, the truth is he’s been overplayed. I still definitely see Wiz doing big things in the future, but lets hope the mainstream doesn’t kill his dopeness. I can’t front like Kush & OJ wasn’t the most repeated mixtape to get played this year. Track after track its just quality music, whether your talking beats or rhymes. You may have noticed that Wiz really just raps about weed, money, and women, and yeah I agree it does get irritating after some time. But K&OJ holds good verses through and through. You won’t get bored and you’ll definitely dig most joints (pun intended) if you like dope beats and the hype but stoner new school stylings of Mr. Khalifa. –J.R.

K-oS – The Anchorman Mixtape

[k-oS, 2010]

He’s called himself the fourth Fugee doing his duty and the fifth black Beatle. k-oS’s first ever free mixtape is woven with interludes and skits from the movie Anchorman (incase you didn’t catch that from the cover). It has a dark theme mixed with comedy and substance. How can you lose? –Chedo

Yelawolf – Trunk Muzik

[DJ Burn One, 2010]

After the intriguing Yelawolf appeared in Big Boi’s big solo single “You Ain’t No DJ”, a choir of heads turned to Trunk Muzik, a tape that proved Yela was more than just a special feature artist. Overwhelming hype and acclaim for Trunk Muzik launched his career with Interscope who eventually re-named the “free album” Trunk Muzik 0-60 and stuck a price tag on it. It still retains its soul, hi-hats and lickity-split enunciation galore.  –K-Lis

Rich Kidd – We On Some Rich Kidd Shiiiit: The Boiling Point

[Ridgeway Inc, 2010]

Yet another outstanding installment from the “We on Some Rich Kid Shit” classic (Canadian) mixtape series which contains rhymes from Shad, Adreena Mill, Kardinal Offishall, Jessica Kaya, K-oS, Tona and more. Rich Kidd’s top-notch production is the common denominator. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if I was a rapper, it would be Rich Kidd Shit. –K-Lis

Mac Miller – K.I.D.S.

[Rostrum Records/Most Dope, 2010]

He coined the phrases “White Boy Awesome” and “Most Dope.” He also kicked incredibly dope shit in 2010. Have no idea who I’m talking about? Then you’re definitely sleeping on Mac Miller. He just graduated from high school and the world is his oyster, chico. –Chedo

J. Cole – Friday Night Lights

[Roc Nation, 2010]

All-around all-star J. Cole of North Carolina pretty much blew up the net when he was forced to drop Friday Night Lights over his twitter feed after bit-chomping fans shut down the server intended to host the download. Yes, there are J. Cole haaaaardcores, and he doesn’t even have an album to his name yet. But Friday Night Lights (the former b-ball star’s third sports themed mixtape) stands up to the pre-hype with his incredible rhyming and self-directed production that is more than enough to wet your appetite for his first full bore studio album set to drop in 2011. –K-Lis

Kendrick Lamar – Overly Dedicated

[TopDawg Ent., 2010]

Kendrick Lamar was the second artist this year I had no clue about before listening to his latest mixtape (the first being Big K.R.I.T.) and I absolutely LOVE when I come across artists like that. Maybe it means I should be more open to newer artists but it takes a lot for me to trust a new artist. From track one in and every one after it, Kendrick delivers quality good music. There are a few features here and there from some fellow West-coasters and some crooners on some of the hooks accompanied by some really nice original production. Overly Dedicated is a very good and really easy but intriguing listen. Kendrick is a real true West coast rapper but with a new school, gangsta but conscious style which is really hard to not dig. He goes in hard (pause) on all the tracks regardless if they are chilled out beats or beats that make you shake your head. If you listen to this mixtape and are disappointed, come talk to me. –J.R.

The Roots – Dilla Joints

[MCA/Geffen, 2010]

I have never enjoyed a live instrumental album more than this one, which consists completely of remakes of J Dilla beats done by The Roots. It is 14 tracks coming in at 41.5 minutes of pure live hip hop amazingness. Honestly if you’ve ever experienced hip hop with a live instrument aspect in any form then you know that it makes it a hundred times better, and it is done with the knowledge and inspiration of J Dilla & the dopeness that is The Roots. Could you really ask for anything else? –J.R.

MED – Bang Ya Head III


[Presented by Vtech, 2010]

Stones Throw’s MED squeezed his third Bang Ya Head mixtape installment in just before the year bows out. I haven’t had the year to sit with it and mull it over, but I know I don’t need it. It’s one of those tapes that remind me of what Common once said: “It don’t take all day to recognize sunshine.” –K-Lis

MellowHype – BLACKENDWHITE

[Odd Future, 2010]

MellowHype is Left Brain and Hodgy Beats from the Californian clique OFWGKTA. Left and Hodgy hold their own as anarchist lyricists and new-school synth oriented producers on this free album released via the gracious and fucked up Odd Future tumblr. Stand-out tracks are the woozy “Chordaroy” and the devil dance “Rico”, the latter which contains one of my favorite choruses of the year (the ironic sing-song “Wolf Gang get me off/get me off”) above crisp percussive claps and slow-moving synth lines. As with all Odd Future musics, the production is lyrically reflective. Above a woofing synth-derived rhythm in “Gram” they maintain: “If you don’t fuck with Odd Future, Fuck you.” –K-Lis

Ray Black – Fresh Air

[Independent, 2010]

Fresh Air opens and closes with tracks from Dilla Joints. It features a Flying Lotus beat, a Damu The Fudgemunk beat, and shit–even I spit a verse on it. Ray came through this summer with a tape full of dope beats and dope rhymes with some appearances by some new and old friends. Mixed by none other than DJ Macs, the whole thing flows together really well and if you’ve ever listened to an OkayCity song/project before you know that Ray brings rhymes for days, and they are actually filled with the nicest lyrics to back everything up. As I was saying the tape has amazing beat selection which is always essential to any good mixtape. Not only are there only a total of 2 curses on the entire thing but it really is what the title is: some Fresh Air. Personally, I throw this mixtape on when I’m sick of listening to everything else. Maybe I’m biased, but it definitely helps kick the usual barrage of mainstream/internet hip hop that we put ourselves through most days. –J.R.

Earl Sweatshirt – EARL

[Odd Future, 2010]

Incredible artwork, incredible Earl. The staggering underground hype this young and deliciously demented kid from California has managed to generate all while he has been away at boot camp, is indicative of how talented and inventive he is as a lyricist, the magical and magnetic power of youth-rap stronghold OFWGKTA (the swagged out clique he belongs to), and our own fascination with the profane and fucked up. EARL Includes cameos from Ace Creator, Wolf Haley and Hodgy Beats, and production from Ace (Odd Future’s de facto leader) and others. This is not a record for weak stomachs and people who like daisies and unicorns (as Tyler, The Creator knows well). One track is called “epaR” (conveniently titled for those with dyslexia), and elsewhere they vividly describe executing that act as they do in “Couch” atop a reverb saturated organ and rza-esque sloppy hi-hat. Its easy to figure why the kid got sent away to get straightened out, but thing is, we like our music crooked. FREE EARL.  –K-Lis

Smoke DZA – George Kush Da Button

[Cinematic, 2010]

Another artist that really came out of nowhere with a great mixtape was Smoke DZA, though I guess “nowhere” isn’t really a good word choice given who his circle consists of: Curren$y, Big K.R.I.T.,Dame Dash & the DD172 crew, Ski Beatz, Mac Miller, Wiz Khalifa, etc. It’s clear that DZA has surrounded himself with the right people to achieve success, including rappers, producers, and hip-hop business moguls. The large majority of the mixtape is produced by Ski and K.R.I.T., and both come correct with the beats, but Smoke does just as well with his smoked out rhymes and nice flow. You can also expect appearances as well from Dom Kennedy, Curren$y, Big K.R.I.T., Den10, and Mel Gibson as Mad Max. Yes, that’s right. –J.R.

Danny Brown – The Hybrid

[Rappers I Know, 2010]

You may know Detroit emcee Danny Brown from his early work with Roc-A-Fella, his apperance on J Dilla’s posthumous album Jay Stay Paid, or his more recent appearance on Black Milk’s Album of The Year. Or not. Either way, don’t sleep on his debut record The Hybrid. People say this all the time, but I really can’t believe this is a free release. Beneath a slew of interesting and lyrically impressive–and often hilarious–concept tracks (like “Generation RX” that deals with America’s prescription drug crutch, and “Juno” which offers a different take on Ellen Page’s movie and teenage pregnancy), expect hefty production from heavyweights Frank Dukes, Quelle Mosel, 14KT and others.  -K-Lis