Hip hop mixtapes are beautiful things. Besides being a well-preserved tradition by the people, for the people, they’re that rare commodity we’re always seeking to find: something for nothing. You don’t need to pay for a mixtape, you don’t have to sit through commercials to hear it. All you have is someone’s art, given to you, in the hopes that it’s good enough for you to one day spend some cash on. Here are three acts — a group of guys from Philly who rub sonic elbows with the Roots, MGMT, Passion Pit, and Sufjan Stevens; a scrappy “country cool” kid from Atlanta reinventing an entire region of rap; a kid from DeGrassi who Lil’ Wayne can’t get enough of– who are either worth your hard earned dollars, or are about to be, as evidenced by these three mixtapes, which you absolutely must own.
(‘’) Chiddy Bang – The Swelly Express: Are you skeptical of hip hop and indie rock riffing off of each other? For those of us still scarred from Limp Bizkit and Korn’s reign of terror, rest assure, this isn’t at all that. Chidera Anamege and Xaphoon Jones, the two Drexel grads who started rocking parties with their hip hop outfit, Chiddy Bang, back when they were in college, aren’t afraid of taking risks. Once you understand how indie rock darlings Passion Pit can make for one of the best rap tracks of the year, once you understand how turning MGMT’s “Kids” into something unpredictably awesome, once you hear Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago,” or hear the approval of the Roots’ Black Thought as he appears on these kids mixtape–their mixtape!–you’ll finally start to get the picture. These guys are, quite simply, too smart and have too much hustle to fail at whatever it is they’re trying to do, which, as far as I can tell, is make good music. The Swelly Express is also, for all intents and purposes, a great story told well. The skits they throw in between songs are at times, hysterical, at others, fairly compelling. This a group worth watching as far as you can trace them. Don’t drop the ball on this. Free download here.
Donnis – Diary of an ATL Brave: Atlanta rap has always been home to the funkiest, crunkest shit out there. Outkast blew everyone’s minds when two 18 year-old kids dropped their first album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, and proceeded to change hip hop and later, all of pop music, throughout their career. Ludacris’ Back for the First Time was a testament to the rapture of audacity, and his follow-up, Word of Mouf, proved his razor sharp, Richard Pryor-esque wit was the loving slap across the face that all of rap didn’t know it needed, and now, did. There’s Goodie Mob (and, for that matter, Cee-Lo). There’s Lil Jon, of course. If you want, sure: even So So Def’s reign over the 90s. And now, what? Even if Atlanta’s rap scene has been robust lately, it’s penchant for it’s strongest quality — innovation characterized by Southern Comfort, the sounds we didn’t know we needed until we had them, and now, can’t imagine life without them — has been missing. Enter Donnis. Long story short, he was supposed to be Kid Cudi, and turned down the chance, and then Kid Cudi became Kid Cudi, while Donnis watched from the sidelines. Now, he’s playing for keeps. The straight outta Wattstax sound of “Underdog” is as hungry and joyful an opening shot at stardom’s ever been, and the phonetic chorus of “Country Cool” (“aw, aw aw, aw aw aw aw”) will be welded inside your head for days after you hear it. Want more? Here, watch his “Run This Town” freestyle knock all the others out of the way. But the proof, really, is in the pulp: his lyrics are funny, hungry, surprising, and have a ridiculous amount of swagger totally out of proportion to the amount of fame he has. Ring a bell, Kanye West fans? Download the reinvention of the most innovative rap region in America here.
Drake – So Far Gone – “Fresher than a pillow with a mint on it,” Drake pitches himself on the opening track to So Far Gone, his acclaimed mixtape that is, front-to-back, nothing short of awesome. By the end of the track, when the guy who’s just starting to see his moment in the spotlight argues, “you just have to hope that it lasts,” you know you’re in for something different, which is funny, because Drake’s sound is, for the most part, mainstream. What’s the formula? It’s hard to break down. This is Drake — Drake! — the half-Jewish Canadian kid who used to be on DeGrassi, who just let his skills do the talking instead of becoming the hip hop punchline his career up to that point had led destined him to be. Next thing you know, he’s on one of the hottest (Timbaland-produced) tracks on Jay-Z’s new album, New York Magazine‘s calling “Best I Ever Had” the song of the summer, and Lil Wayne — for what it’s worth, the red hot rapper of the last two years — signs him to his label. And this on Drake’s free mixtape — yes: free — we have the document that’s proof of everything he’s going to do. There’s him rapping over Santogold, Peter Bjorn & John, and Lykki Li, neighboring verses with Bun B and Lil’ Wayne. Forget mixtapes, this is one of the best albums of the year, bar none, so good that Young Money (Lil Wayne’s label) re-released it seven months after it came out as a seven song EP. All that aside: it’s just good. Download, and enjoy.