June was one of the strongest months for mixtapes so far this year, thankfully—as 2013 had been feeling a little sparse once you got beyond the big names. As ever, there's plenty of great rap being released underground, but the cream hasn't been rising to the top. There used to be a sense that great mixtapes were the pathway to the mainstream. You rooted for an artist, and felt like you had a stake (even if it was purely vicarious) in his success. Nowadays, it seems like talented artists are being bypassed, only really gaining attention when they received a high-profile cosign—like Drake jumping a song with the young Atlantan trio Migos, or back when Kendrick Lamar gave a boost to Gunplay.
Alley Boy f/ Ty Dolla $ign "RNGM"
Mixtape: War Cry
Ty Dolla $ign's Beach House 2 dropped July 1, but throughout June the singing rapper (rapping singer?) leaked a few of the bigger tracks on other artists' mixtapes; IamSu!'s Kilt 2 received "Float," DJ Mustard's Ketchup unveiled "Paranoid." But one of his best tracks from June didn't end up on Beach House 2 at all, even though it would have been an easy highlight. "RNGM" is produced by Ty and the rest of the D.R.U.G.S. crew, and features an unapologetically lewd X-rated rap from Alley Boy. Ty, though, is the real star of this one, and owes as much to Too $hort as he does R. Kelly.
Killa Kyleon "Cadillac"
Mixtape: Lean On Me
Producer: Mouse on the Track
Mouse on the Track remains one of hip-hop's most slept-on producers. Aside from a dalliance with the Top 40 in the latter half of the '00s alongside Lil Boosie and Webbie, the beatmaker's been known for dropping regionally-known mixtape cuts that are tragically slept-on. He's released solo material, but his best work tends to be for other artists; this year, he had some creative success with rapper Lil Cali, whose "Dat Dick" best captured his style, which weds the dancefloor-oriented bounce of Mannie Fresh with a harsher, more metallic texture.
He'd previously released a mixtape with Texas rapper Killa Kyleon entitled Welcome to the Fish Fry, but this track is culled from Kyleon's recent Lean On Me mixtape (Killa I'mma let you finish but Young Dro had the best references to Lean On Me). "Cadillac" is one of Mouse's more subtle production jobs, with interlocking drums, whistles, organs, and hooting owls. Also essential listening from this tape: the epic, not-produced-by-Mouse cut "My City," which feels as if it were shaped by the geography of the desert Southwest.
DJ Mustard f/ Dom Kennedy "Nothin Like Me"
Producer: DJ Mustard
Just as spring doesn't start until the groundhog pokes his head above the earth on television as part of America's strangest public spectacle, summer doesn't truly begin until Dom Kennedy releases a song that feels like walking out of the supermarket into a 90-degree heat. Towards the end of the month, Dom dropped "Never," which feels a little more like looking up at the clouds, which is cool. But "Nothin Like Me," from DJ Mustard's Ketchup mixtape, features woozy little guitar accents vaguely reminiscent of Biggie's "Sky's the Limit," which perfectly capture the hazy humidity of summertime in musical form.
Mikey Dollaz "Lullaby"
Mixtape: Street Life
Producer: Dooney Beats
Chicago's West Side has had a minor renaissance in the wake of the attention that washed up on the city's rap scene last year. Of particular note were M.I.C., a trio who released the optimistically-titled Next2Blow in 2012. Since that time, they've been working on solo material; member I.L. Will dropped the hooky "All Ball," while Lil Chris continued releasing mournfully-melodic songs in the style of last year's "Same Shit Different Day." Mikey Dollaz, though, has gone in a more aggro direction on his Street Life tape, with single "Add 'Em Up" working a simple concept in a gripping way. One of the highlights of the tape takes a different tack, though, transforming sped-up vocal samples into a queasy cocktail, while Mikey raps with an almost Young Zee-esque flow.
ZMoney f/ Brickfare "Cocky"
Mixtape: Rich B4 Rap
Producer: JNeal the Great
Chicago's West Side has also produced ZMoney, one of the more promising new artists we've had the pleasure of hearing. Check him out if you like post-Gucci rappers whose primary concerns are stunting, robbing, drugs, and stealing your girl. And why wouldn't you? ZMoney's main advantages over peers in his lane is that he is funny without hammering home the punchlines. He's got a little bit of an absurdist streak ("I don't wear funny socks, I'm too fucking cocky") but doesn't undercut the feeling that he would likely rob you if given the opportunity. He dropped two mixtapes at once last month: Rich B4 Rap, which compiled his best tracks leaked out via SoundCloud and YouTube over the past year or so, and Heroin Music, which is primarily new tracks.
The easy highlights have leaked out as singles already. "Everything" has a simply undeniable hook ("Don't you wish that you could wake up and buy everything?") while "Regular" is an explicit take on the Gucci Mane influence already running through his music's DNA. His mush-mouthed flow will likely alienate haters of the post-Gucci crowd (Migos, Keef, Gleesh, etc.) but his subtle humor ("No disrespect but I'ma rob you") will no doubt find traction with people who think "Get Off My Dick" sounds like a promising track title rather than an "ignorant" one.
O.B.H. (GG Mone, P-90 Smooth, and Dark Lo) "Pain Still Wit Cha"
Perhaps absurdist mushmouth raps are not your thing; you prefer the serious melancholy and East Coast rapper gravitas of Philly rappers with bushy beards and bigger builds. In that case, you can't do much better than AR-ab's O.B.H. (Original Block Hustlaz) crew, who released the Zombieland mixtape this past June. "Pain Still Wit Cha" is ghostly and atmospheric, with weighty autobiographical street tales in the lineage of fellow Philly denizens State Property. Perhaps the most spine-tingling moment comes towards the end, when the last rapper spits "Either respect me or the violence," one of those lyrical shortcuts to an idea that bypasses all the details to cut right to the point.
Blood Money f/ King Louie "Bitch I'm Crazy"
Mixtape: Drug Wars
Producer: The C.U.B.$.
Blood Money is one of the more intimidating rappers from the GBE camp, which is saying something. His twin tapes, Drug Wars and Choppa Talk, are packed with the kind of brutal street raps last successfully purveyed on a wide scale by Brick Squad back in 2010-2011 or so. Which is to say: pulpy, visceral, occasionally gruesome. Blood Money's vocals occasionally have a tone roughly similar to Gunplay's, with a less throwback-oriented dexterity; Blood Money prefers to bludgeon. The tapes work best when certain songs take a left turn, like on "Bitch I'm Crazy," where the rapper spits about how someone shot in the face will find a bullet coming out of their nuts. "Now that's fucked up," he intones. Yes it is. Meanwhile, the beat has all kinds of weird bass-distortion tricks going on.
Trouble "Nobody Knows"
Mixtape: The Return of December 17
The second appearance of a DTE rapper on this list (after Alley Boy), the brand of street rap these guys sell feels like more of a niche than ever before. The hardheaded gangster rap vibe can sound monochromatic at times, but when aggressive artists like Trouble choose "fruitier" beats—and we mean "fruitier" like a glass of Franzia, nothing to do with sexuality—there's a strangely alluring energy in the contrast. Enter "Nobody Knows," in which Trouble fantasizes about what heaven is like. It involves hanging out with Big and Pac, and looking down and protecting B.G. and Lil Boosie. (Of course, sometimes well-executed hard-edged street rap works too. Don't miss "Help Me," with Trae and Alley Boy, from the same tape.)
A-Mafia "Block Hugga"
Mixtape: Street Anthems: The Best of A-Mafia
Producer: ADM Beatz
A-Mafia was a member of Purple City, spent some time in jail, spent some more time in jail, then popped out rapping as if he'd been in a time capsule in 2010. Which is to say, if you miss the mid-00s Dipset vibe of funny, densely pack internal rhymes, A-Mafia has kept the spirit of Harlem's punchline kings close to his heart. "Block Hugga" is the intro to A-Mafia's new Best-Of comp, one of two new tracks, and features a catchy hammering piano line. The rest of the compilation is a good summation of what makes the rapper worth hearing, although omissions like "Shine On" and "2050" are somewhat inexplicable.
IamSu! f/ Tank "Let Go"
Mixtape: Kilt 2
Producer: Tha Bizness
IamSu!'s gotten much deserved credit for his production, partly because his personality is pretty regular-guy-esque and that can be harder to talk about than his distinct beatmaker auteur-status. But he does have a musical ear, and that can be as important for picking beats as it is producing them. For an endearingly earnest love song, it's hard to top the sincerity the rapper manages on the sparkling "Let Go," from Kilt 2. It promises to sound even better in warm weather.