I can’t see the beginning of 2014 from where I’m sitting. It’s too distant, over the horizon and beyond my line of sight. These past ten months have taken their time in passing, and while some journalists are expressing disappointment with this year’s hip-hop albums, I’ve been reveling in great new releases from all over the map. In just the past couple weeks we’ve seen new releases from big names like Flying Lotus, Run the Jewels, The Game, TI and Childish Gambino (although I’m not going to weigh in on the quality of those projects right now). On the horizon are new albums from Hail Mary Mallon, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem (on behalf of Shady Records), Dr. Dre (implying we’ll ever hear another album from the richest man in rap) and Black Milk (provided you haven’t already listened to the leak or streamed the album for free). I contest and dispute the claim that 2014 has been a weak year for hip-hop albums, and I’d go further and say that in terms of mixtapes, 2014 has been a great year. Here are twelve mixtapes, some hyped and some more subtle, which I consider essential listening from the year so far.
12. Fat Trel – Gleesh
Fat Trel’s name is well known and his tendencies towards vulgar and violent rap have earned him a reputation. Fans of last year’s New World Order mixtape from Louie V Mob know that Trel carried that project. On Gleesh, he asserts himself confidently over beats from the likes of Young Chop and Harry Fraud, delivering a message and making a statement. Download it here.
11. Azizi Gibson – Backward Books
This mixtape’s title presumably refers to manga graphic novels which are read “backwards.” The cover’s stylized cartoon imagery reinforces the notion that Azizi Gibson is taking influence from Japanese culture, and the material on the mixtape makes a strong case for Gibson’s more nerdy tendencies. He has been known to work with Denzel Curry, formerly of Raider Klan, and the two share some of the same video game/comic book/children’s television show interests. Backward Books is a fun mixtape and Gibson fills every minute of it. Download it here.
10. iLoveMakonnen – I Love Makonnen EP
He’s got the club goin’ up on a Tuesday, even though some people disagree with him on that issue. His career received a massive boost from Drake and he is now “hot shit.” On his first EP, he keeps things real and shares his unique voice. Download it here.
9. Hustle Gang – G.D.O.D. II
Get Dope or Die II is a straightforward gang tape. TI shows up on almost every song, sounding fresher than his beef with Floyd Mayweather, and he’s accompanied by Young Dro, Trae tha Truth, BoB and friends as they cover familiar topics and expound on the street life mentality. No more, no less. Download it here.
8. Rome Fortune – Beautiful Pimp II
Rome Fortune is an up-and-comer with lyrical skills and a “different” approach to making hip-hop music. Beautiful Pimp II is a thoughtful, intricate mixtape on which Fortune flexes his skills and switches things up from time to time. Download it here.
7. Raury – Indigo Child
Why should all hip-hop be dark and serious? Raury swerves in from a happier, brighter side of the tracks and on Indigo Child he lets loose some good-natured pop rap with sunshiney qualities. Download it here.
6. Gunplay – Gunplay
Finally, new music from Maybach Music Group’s most interesting member. While the front cover of this mixtape only captures a portion of his Swastika tattoo, it does sum up who this is all about: Gunplay. He may never top “Bible on the Dash” in his career but on Gunplay he does his best. Download it here.
5. Sensei – Return to the Village 1998
Another exciting hip-hop release for the fans of Japanese culture among us. This New York rapper spits rhymes sharp as katanas
I’ll stop right there out of guilt for that comparison. I apologize. Download it here.
4. Big K.R.I.T. – See Me On Top 4
To hype up the impending release of Cadillactica, Big K.R.I.T. has dropped See Me On Top 4, a revitalization of his old mixtape series which got him acknowledgment when he was just starting out. This fourth entry is engaging, dynamic and most importantly provides a look at the current Big K.R.I.T. His place in hip-hop history has yet to be finalized, and if the album makes good on this mixtape’s promise he has nothing to worry about. Download it here.
3. Bones – Garbage
“Cloud rap” is still a thing? The heyday of Main Attrakionz and Spaceghostpurrp may be behind us (even as Squadda B pops up here and there), but LA white-boy rapper Bones is just getting better. He’s released several albums and mixtapes already this year, including AOTY contender Deadboy, but on this list I’d like to make a shoutout for Garbage, one of the strongest front to back releases of the year so far. Bones kills every verse on this release, with production from Team Sesh homies and other affilities. “URL blunts to my IRL face” he says on “LinksysBroadbandRouter,” a track which features samples from what my friend says is a Japanese textbook instructional CD, one of the catchiest and nerdiest songs on the release. He also raps about how he doesn’t shower much, isn’t as cool in person as you might think, and is aware of the struggles in America. Features come from Chris Travis, Ethelwulf (now Xavier Wulf) and my boy Lil Spook. Download it here.
2. Rome Fortune – Small VVorld
It’s been an exciting year for Rome Fortune. Beautiful Pimp II demonstrated to the world that he was not just a passing fad, and Drive, Thighs & Lies made it obvious where his priorities lie. Small VVorld is a powerful mixtape, especially given that it’s his third project so far this year, and production from Suicideyear, Bassnectar and Four Tet gives it serious credibility. iLoveMakonnen even shows up for a guest spot. This mixtape is what it’s all been leading up to, and now Rome Fortune has a world-sized oyster in front of him. Download it here.
1. QuESt – Searching Sylvan
Kendrick Lamar comparisons are inevitable. QuESt, from Florida, sounds like LA’s hottest flame, plain and simple. There are also similar lyrical themes on Searching Sylvan, such as unemployment, family problems and the temptation of crime, as on Kendrick’s Section.80 and from his K. Dot days through the present. QuESt knows this; he owes a debt to Kendrick, and acknowledges as much on “No Love In The City.” On his own merits, however, this mixtape shines. It’s got plenty of hooks, wonderful production and consistently superb lyrics. QuESt varies his delivery and matches different techniques to his beats smoothly. It’s an impressive release and adds plenty to the rapper’s catalog. Download it here.