"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.
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.
Here's one thing I'm not arguing: that you need to like, or care about, or even acknowledge all of these albums. Lord knows I'm not a fan of every artist mentioned. In 2009, Drake was a particularly difficult sell, personally. (OK: "Successful" is a jam, credit to Trey.) But it should now be apparent how many of the artists who define hip-hop today were breaking in 2009. It was a rebuilding year during which rookies broke (Nicki), more established artists realized their full potential (Gucci), and artists who'd had bad luck in the old industry model found new ways of connecting with audiences (Gibbs). And—with the occasional help of a new wave of hip-hop blogs that helped draw attention to this new generation—they did it through the mixtape.
This wouldn't be the first time. 1994 is now widely considered one of hip-hop's most creatively explosive years. It was the year of Illmatic, Ready To Die, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Hard To Earn, The Diary, Resurrection. Oh yeah, and about Common's Resurrection: one of its most popular, celebrated songs was "I Used To Love H.E.R.," which lamented hip-hop's turn from its innocent past, a theme song for hip-hop conservatives (of any age) to grab onto going forward. The irony—that it just happened to have been released during one of the genre's most diverse, powerful, creatively fertile periods—was only evident later. People never recognize a golden era until it's already over. There will always be those who think hip-hop sucks compared with its past.
The history of hip-hop has a shape—high and low tides. Some years are just better.
On the flip side, there will always be boosters of the status quo. For them, whatever is currently hot is, by definition, great...because it's hot. This notion seems to afflict younger folks, for whom asserting their generation's legitimacy is of the foremost importance, overriding critical discernment. So what if this song kinda sucks, or an artist has released better material. It's not flawed thinking per se—there's nothing wrong with fans cheerleading an artist they like. That's part of the fun of being a music fan: rooting for a performer whose sensibilities you're most drawn to, even in the moments when they flail a bit. But when it comes to looking at the big picture, that kind of thinking also tends to gloss over difference, the nuances and dynamics of what makes some songs better than others, some music more substantial, more significant. The history of hip-hop has a shape—high and low tides.
Some years are just better.
1982. 1988. 1994. 1998. 2003. 2009.
It's easy to think about these periods as the endpoint of skilled artists at the moment their full potential is realized, their art reaching its apex. But it's more interesting to look at these as moments of transition. What's really happening at those times is change. Our interest in music is rooted in a feeling that the status quo is static, repetitive, numbing. If you ever talk to someone who hates contemporary music, they'll always say, "it all sounds the same." This is no coincidence; what all people like about great art—even art that's intended to comfort, or rooted in nostalgia or the forms of the past—is an experience of difference.
What causes this sensation, that things are different and hip-hop is exciting, isn't the random, coincidental distribution of Creative Geniuses. And it isn't about media: coverage can coincide with a hot scene (think about the mania surrounding Houston hip-hop in the mid-2000s), but it can also miss the boat just as easily, or distort perceptions of what, exactly, is happening on the ground. Instead, moments of change in hip-hop are the result of real-world forces—politics, business, geography, drugs, and the spaces where music is made, performed, and experienced.
Hip-hop history is full of examples: the gang truces in the Bronx in '71 that created a space for hip-hop to flourish, or the '92 Watts peace treaty that set the stage for the West Coast's rise.
Hip-hop history is full of examples: the gang truces in the Bronx in '71 that created a space for hip-hop to flourish, or the '92 Watts peace treaty that set the stage for the West Coast's rise. It could be commercial pressures, like the major label investment of the late 1990s that took hip-hop's national breadth to the mainstream. It might be about the establishment of certain spaces to develop a scene, like how the Poole Palace became the crucible of snap music. It could be the introduction of a particular drug or substance, and how that could mutate an artist's sonic toolkit. (Cue 2Pac.)
What happened in 2009 wasn't just because the Internet; the web first impacted the industry nearly a decade earlier, and had certainly shaped hip-hop's development. But what was it about 2009 that was so special?
First off, sales of music were tumbling downwards. U.S. album sales had been dropping year after year, and this was again true in 2009. In fact, even digital sales began to level off that year, reported the Washington Post: "Digital track sales rose 8.3 percent to a record 1.16 billion in 2009, but that was proportionally far less than a 27 percent increase in 2008 and a 45 percent leap in 2007." More and more people were getting music for free; for hip-hop, free music had simply become a part of the game. Since that time, digital sales have picked up, as the industry has clamped down on piracy. (Although likely more impactful to movie piracy, the 2012 shutdown of MegaUpload no doubt sped along this process.) They've also begun to offer more legit ways of hearing music legally—see last week's launch of Beats Music. It was only last year that the music industry began to rebound from the damage done by the free spigot of music that opened up in the late 00s.
The reason the RIAA was even concerned with the mixtape trade was its use of unauthorized music. Freestyles over industry beats—the method used by 50 Cent, then Lil Wayne, to build a following in an absence of other avenues—was no longer smart business. The mixtape trade over the next few years was forced into incorporating original songs. Throwing away original hits—from "Best I Ever Had" to "Hard N Da Paint"—for free on a downloadable album seemed counter intuitive. But for a new artist, mixtapes were still the primary way to "make it." As artists from across the country adapted to this new underground climate, 2009 became the perfect storm. Because who is going to be thirstier than an artist seeking to prove themselves and gain recognition? Only their newfound fans.
David Drake (@somanyshrimp) is a Staff Writer at Complex Magazine. Originally from Chicago, he now lives over a loud nightclub in Brooklyn.
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