"This headline," you're thinking, "Has got to be trolling." But nah. We have officially reached the 5-year anniversary of the official Best Year For Rap Mixtapes Ever: 2009.
OK, so there are some qualifications. What we're really talking about: 2009 was the best year for artist-driven mixtapes. And what a "mixtape" is, in 2009—as opposed to what it was in 2002, or in 1996, or in 1986—is a completely different animal. It's like comparing apples and apple pie, or New York pizza and Chicago-style pizza. And it's hard to say that hip-hop today has nearly the same level of concentrated potency as it did in its infancy, of course, when a mixtape was a live recording of a park performance. Or those early moments of rapid and massive national expansion.
But even taking this into account, adjusting for context and the inarguable fact that the signal-to-noise ratio in hip-hop for the past five years has been worse than ever, 2009 was a banner year for rap music.
Of course, you wouldn't know it by looking at the usual rap publications, most of which stuck to tried-and-true artists whose careers had begun more than a decade earlier, like DOOM, Mos Def, and Raekwon. Not that those artists didn't deserve props too, necessarily. But mixtapes were still being treated like introductory releases to set the stage for the main event: an album. In 2009, though, the album took the back seat for the first time since the genre's beginnings. Even during the creatively intense New York mixtape trade of the early '00s, when G-Unit and Dipset pioneered the form, the mixtape was never as central to the experience of being a rap fan as it was in 2009.
Here's a sampling of artists whose mixtapes were of great significance in 2009:
- J. Cole's The Warm Up [Listen here]. The tape that made J. Cole a star and his strongest overall project. Especially worthwhile: "Lights Please," a sincere exploration of the tension between our high-minded motives and base desires that doesn't condescend. Although he's gone on to bigger things, this was definitely his arrival.
- Nicki Minaj's Beam Me Up Scotty [Listen here]. Another breakthrough, this tape officially announced the Nicki Minaj phenomenon. At the time, she was still working heavily with Gucci Mane (the two were managed by Waka's mom, Debra Antney), Lil Wayne, Rocko, and other artists on the Southern mixtape circuit, but from "Itty Bitty Piggy" onward, it was evident that she was destined for stardom. Anyone who was paying attention knew about her "Monster" verse before it even happened.
- Drake's So Far Gone [Listen here]. Drizzy's third official mixtape was—and note this is the third major artist who had a breakout year in 2009—his crowning achievement. With twin singles "Successful" and "Best I Ever Had," the rising Toronto rapper had two huge Billboard Top 40 hits. Those who dug past the singles found an album with a cohesive, windswept sound that Drake would continue to build upon.
- Gucci Mane's Writing On The Wall, The Movie Part 2, Burrrprint: The Movie 3D, and the three-CD Cold War series [Incredibly, DatPiff and Livemixtapes no longer host any of these mixtapes due to a claim by his then-label Warner Bros, which apparently doesn't care that it's almost Black History Month.] Fresh out of jail, Gucci was as close to a popular peak that he would ever reach in 2009, releasing an acclaimed album and recording tracks with Mariah Carey. He was also unquestionably the master of the art of the mixtape at this point, snatching the torch from Lil Wayne, banishing Jeezy's buzz (whose comeback single, "Lose My Mind," wouldn't arrive until 2010), and completely flooding the marketplace. Personal mixtape ranking: Burrrprint, followed by Writing On the Wall, followed by the underrated The Movie Part 2. Guccimerica is easily the best of the Cold War series. Slight edge to BURRRussia over Great Brrritain, even though the latter includes "Timothy."
- Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y's How Fly [Listen here] Although Wiz wouldn't really hit the big time until next year with Kush & OJ and his single "Black & Yellow," the groundwork for both his crossover and Curren$y's graduation to hip-hop's most consistent weed rapper were cemented in 2009. While Wiz's Flight School release wasn't quite up to Kush & OJ's level, and Curren$y's best project This Ain't No Mixtape was technically not a mixtape, this collaborative release was their penultimate moment and captured their considerable chemistry. On "Layover," Curren$y displays a gift for subtly artful lyrical construction: "The back seat is for newborns, homie, I'm grown/I hop in front and drive this bitch on my own/Out the driveway, windows half-raised bumpin Maze or some Sade...."
- Lil Wayne's No Ceilings [Listen here]. Arguably his last truly great release, there should be no need to argue that a tape from the biggest rapper alive at the time deserves a mention.
- Lil Boosie's Superbad: The Return of Mr. Wipe Me Down, Thug Passion, The 25th Hour, Lil Boosie & Hurricane Chris: Bad Azz Hurricane Mixtape [As with Gucci, many tapes have been removed from the Internet, although Superbad can still be heard here.] Lil Boosie has one of the genre's most convoluted discographies, with loose tracks and mixtapes both official and otherwise clogging up DatPiff and confounding any attempt to determine chronology. Some argue that 2008's Streetz Iz Mine tape was his recorded peak; some prefer his earlier album-oriented work. But it's hard to top the one-two punch of Thug Passion and Superbad, released within a few weeks of each other and sporting expensive T-Pain hooks and some of the Baton Rouge rapper's most impassioned performances as he was on the verge of what then seemed to be a lifelong prison bid.
- Max B's Quarantine, Public Domain 6: Walking the Plank, Coke Wave 2, Million Dollar Baby 3 [Listen to Public Domain 6 here]. What Gucci was for Atlanta, or Boosie for Baton Rouge, Max B was for New York: an artist whose expansive, poorly-documented catalog contains a surplus of musical ideas and innovations in its DatPiff depths. Although it's no longer available for free, PD6 is the best of the tapes released in Max's last year as a free man. Max's hazy, intoxicated melodicism was unique to the genre, and a true example of a grassroots success story. At least, until he went to jail.
To quote Meek Mill—whose career-making Flamers 2 was released in 2009—Oh, you thought I was finished?? These are merely a fraction of the important free tapes of 2009. There was the arrival of respected Southern/Midwest journeyman rap with two tapes by Freddie Gibbs, Big KRIT (The Last King), Playboy Tre (Liquor Store Mascot), and Pill (4180: The Prescription and its follow-up). Waka Flocka Flame's Lebron Flocka James (with the first appearance of "Hard N Da Paint"). Young Dro's R.I.P. (I Killed That Shit), Nipsey Hussle's Bullets Ain't Got No Name 3. Underrated local stars Kevin Gates of All In, Danny Brown of Detroit State of Mind 3, Mikkey Halsted of Uncrowned King. Even Gunplay made his first major appearance on the national scene with the Triple C's White Sand tape (no longer on DatPiff)—a release that creatively outpaced the album that followed. Wale, Pac Div, OJ Da Juiceman—all of these artists were finding some degree of success on the free tape circuit.
Have we mentioned that Tyler, The Creator's Bastard came out at the end of that year? Or Yo Gotti's Cocaine Muzik series, or an unofficial mixtape from Kid Cudi that hit just as his success was on the upswing, Dat Kid From Cleveland? Soulja Boy's entire 2009—around the same time that he dropped "Turn My Swag On"—was incredibly productive with releases like Follow Me. He joined Travis Porter (who debuted that year with Who Is Travis Porter?) in redefining the sound of Atlanta hip-hop. Dom Kennedy continued to build his fanbase with his second tape, FutureStreet/DrugSounds. Lil B released tons of free music—although his best 2009 projects were sold in album form. And we haven't even mentioned Uknowbigsean Vol. 2 or the game-changing R&B mixtapes by R. Kelly and Trey Songz. Even before The Weeknd arrived with House of Balloons in 2011, the seedily atmospheric R&B of Trey's Anticipation created a sonic precedent.
Shit, even Macklemore released a mixtape that year.