The 25 Best Mixtapes of 2011

Sometimes the best things in life really are free.

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Image via Complex Original
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Lil Wayne "Sorry 4 The Wait"

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25. Lil Wayne Sorry 4 The Wait

On this place-holding prequel to his chart-dominating Tha Carter IV, Weezy goes back to his mid-2000s wheelhouse—devouring rap and R&B's most popular beats with his bizarro stream-of-conscious freestyles. Though it doesn't reach the possessed, practically inhuman heights of Dedication 2 or Da Drought 3, Sorry 4 the Wait shows a fresh-out-of-Rikers Weezy having fun while effortlessly rhyming his ass off.

Waka Flocka Flame "Duflocka Rant"

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24. Waka Flocka Flame Duflocka Rant

Waka wilds out with another adrenaline rush of a mixtape, proving once again that ignorance is bliss, musically speaking at least. Throw on Duflocka Rant's scream-rap bangers like "I'm From Grove Street" or "Mud Musik," and you might feel like punching a bouncer, looting your favorite sneaker store or starting a forest fire—whatever floats your boat.

Trouble "December 17th"

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23. Trouble December 17th

Named for the date Trouble was released from prison, December 17th takes you to the grimier side of Atlanta, but nonetheless showcases considerable musicality, rarely falling back on the mind-numbing Lex Luger knock-offs that dominated the mixtape scene this year. The live-wire Duct Tape Mob associate goes hard in the paint with the best of them on his breakthrough hit "Bussin'," and he  displays some serious pop sensibilities on "Dis Ain't Ordinary."

Travis Porter "Music Money Magnums"

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22. Travis Porter Music Money Magnums

Travis Porter brandish their poppy, tongue-in-cheek take on the Down South strip-club anthem with their Music, Money Magnums mixtape, an ATL-to-its-core affair that sounds like a younger, smarter update of the Ying Yang Twins with an occasional sprinkle of B.o.B mixed in. With relentlessly catchy hooks, unabashedly simple lyrics, and well-placed features from Big Sean and Too $hort, the trio shows why Jive/RCA tapped them for a contract in 2010.

Cyhi The Prince "Royal Flush 2"

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21. Cyhi Da Prince Royal Flush

G.O.O.D. Music upstart Cyhi breaks out the big guns on Royal Flush 2, including standout production from Kanye West, No I.D. and Justus League and high-powered guest spots from Yelawolf, Trey Songz, and B.o.B. All the fanfare sometimes threatens to overshadow Cyhi's unflappably laid-back delivery, but he shows major versatility here, rocking an impressive double-time flow on a remake of M.O.P.'s "Cold as Ice" and confidently commandeering a soulful saxophone loop alongside Big Sean on "Woopty Doo."

Tyga "Well Done 2"

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20. Tyga Well Done 2

Making like mentor Lil Wayne in his mixtape prime, Tyga takes on some of the year's most familiar beats on Well Done 2. The Compton native shows major charisma and versatility, flowing double-time over Chris Brown's "Look at Me Now" on "I'm Done," doing a convincing Drizzy on "I'm on One," and then going hyphy on the strip-club-ready standout "Rack City."

Future "True Story"

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19. Future True Story

On True Story, Atlanta's Future flaunts the hypnotizingly repetitive, Auto-Tuned singsong flow he introduced on YC Worldwide's inescapable hit "Racks." The true highlight here is, of course, "Tony Montana"—the menacing, unbelievably catchy Lex Luger-produced heater that impressed Drake so much he jumped on the song's official post-mixtape version—but Future shows promise throughout.

Terius Nash (The-Dream) "1977"

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19. Terius Nash 1977

Quiet for the past few years while dealing with label struggles and his painful divorce from Christina Milian, The-Dream reminds us on  1977  that he's new-millennium R&B's original introspective weirdo, one who arguably paved the way for Frank Ocean and The Weeknd. Filled to the brim with Auto-Tune, sparse synth productions and sometimes over-the-top bile directed at his ex, 1977 recalls Kanye's influential 808 & Heartbreaks at its best. It seems fitting that The-Dream released this under his birth name, as its his most personal album yet.

Elzhi "Elmatic"

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17. Elzhi Elmatic

Remaking Nas's Illmatic, perhaps the perfect hip-hop album, sounds like a fool's errand of Sisyphean proportions. But Elzhi wins here by wisely choosing to make each classic cut his own rather than attempting to duplicate Esco's flawless originals. With his effortless breath control and intricate rhyme patterns, an inspired El impresses as always, but the real surprise is his live band Will Session, who thoughtfully recreate each track on Elmatic with booming drums that would make Primo proud.

Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire "Lost in Translation"

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16. Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire Lost In Translation

One of Mr. MFN eXquire's strengths is sheer only-in-New-York random-ness: He's a young Crown Heights dude who sounds kind of like Cappadonna, looks kind of like Biggie, and rhymes over beats from white late-'90s backpack-rap heroes Necro, El-P and Esoteric. It all comes together here on Lost In Translation, a half-nerd, half-gangster collection of antisocial songs about orgies, fried chicken and malt liquor.

Meek Mill "Dream Chasers"

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15. Meek Mill Dream Chasers

With his star-making turns on "Tupac Back" and "I'ma Boss," Meek Mill was one of 2011's biggest breakthroughs, and the DJ Drama-hosted Dream Chasers makes a convincing case for the hype. Some of the highlights, "House Party" and, of course, "I'ma Boss," were previously heard elsewhere, and at times the mixtape leans a little too monotonously on Lex Luger-esque beats, but Meek's rabbit-punch raps are as frenetic as ever, and the real-life introspection on "Dreamchasers" and "Middle of the Summer" shows Meek may have a few new tricks up his sleeve.

Mac Miller "Best Day Ever"

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14. Mac Miller Best Day Ever

This mixtape prequel features a toned-down, less poppy take on the keg-party anthems that helped Mac Miller's Blue Slide Park become the first indie album to debut at No. 1 on Billboard in 16 years. Though "Oy Vey" and "Wake Up" can come dangerously close to spring-break cheese, Mac shows his true strengths on standouts like lead single "Donald Trump" and the Khrysis-produced "She Said": sing-along hooks, an irreverent sense of humor and an ear for dope beats made Best Day Ever some of Mac's best work yet.

Juicy J "Rubba Band Business 2"

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13. Juicy J Rubba Band Business 2

Juicy J and Lex Luger on wax together makes too much sense: 3-6 Mafia's pioneering Southern horror-core is the undeniable progenitor to the hard-working wunderkind's menacing, repetitive lurch. The intergenerational duo first linked on 2010's "Rubba Band Business," but they hit their eerie, crunk-2.0 stride here on Rubba Band Business 2—although two of the high points, "Pussy Between Yo Legs" and "Paid For Bitch," were produced by Pittsburgh duo ID Labs.

Wiz Khalifa "Cabin Fever"

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12. Wiz Khalifa Cabin Fever

In between the unexpected chart-topping success of "Black & Yellow" and the elecro-poppiness of his major label debut, Rolling Papers, Wiz dropped this nine-song mixtape, which proved he can still make hard-edged middle-finger rap anytime he wants to. Cabin Fever finds Wiz exploring the scarier side of Southern rap, linking with the ubiquitous Lex Luger on several tracks and even tapping Juicy J himself for a verse.

Freddie Gibbs "Cold Day In Hell"

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11. Freddie Gibbs Cold Day In Hell

Cold Day in Hell is true gangsta rap for the 21st century, and surely Freddie Gibbs' most consistent, well-rounded effort yet. He still hits you with that relentless, perfectly executed double-time flow, but this time it's backed by lush, melodic backrops that alternate between the slow, soulful bounce of his Midwestern roots (Big K.R.I.T.'s "Rob Me a Nigga") and the G-funk roots of his new SoCal home base ("Menace II Society")—with a healthy dose of Down South trap rap for good measure ("Str8 Slammin'").

Pusha T "Fear Of God"

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10. Pusha T Fear Of God

Pusha's solo debut, Fear of God doesn't break any new ground, but it breaks necks nonetheless. Pusha ably shows that he can still ride around shining, even without his brother and longtime bandmate Malice. However, the potential power of Pusha's marriage with G.O.O.D. Music is only hinted at here—the Hit Boy–produced "My God" is a high-water mark, but the Kanye duet "Touch It" is a far cry from the sky-high heights of "Runaway." In other words, the best is yet to come.

Curren$y "Covert Coup"

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9. Curren$y Covert Coup

If it ain't broke, don't fix it—unless you can make it better than Covert Coup. Curren$y had already paved his own lane with his signature kushed-out conversational raps, most often using the live-instrument-heavy soul of Ski Beatz as his foil. But here, backed by the smoked-out, new-millennium boom-bap of the Alchemist and some well-placed features from Prodigy and others, Spitta delivers arguably the most focused, consistent album of his still-rising career.

Lupe Fiasco "Friend of The People"

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8. Lupe Fiasco Friend Of The People

Lupe's last album, the chart-topping 2010 release Lasers, was filled with dance beats and R&B hooks. Friend of the People finds Lu finally free of A&R interference and expectations, and he dumbs out in response, killing songs from J.U.S.T.I.C.E., John Coltrane, and other unexpected sources with intricate rhymes that reveal new hidden gems with each listen.

50 Cent "The Big 10"

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7. 50 Cent The Big 10

Back in 2001, Curtis Jackson dropped 50 Cent Is the Future, which went on to dominate New York and revolutionize the mixtape game. His latest mixtape, The Big 10, was released 10 years to the day after that one—and it's a worthy tribute to its seminal predecessor. 50 is at his hungriest, grimiest Southside Queens best here. Easily his toughest music in years.

Big K.R.I.T. "Return Of 4 Eva"

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6. Big K.R.I.T. Return of 4Eva

With Return of 4Eva, Big K.R.I.T. proved last year's stunning K.R.I.T. Wuz Here (which led to his deal with Def Jam) was no fluke. The Mississippi native's production may have even stepped up a notch, with his sample-heavy, Organized Noize–inspired trunk music reaching new, soulful heights on "American Rapstar" and "R4 Theme Song."

2 Chainz "T.R.U. REALigion"

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5. 2 Chainz T.R.U. REALigion

2 Chainz' humorous, blue-collar charisma stormed hip-hop this year, and he's at his peak here, one of the most downloaded—and most listenable—mixtapes of 2011. After years of grinding away on the periphery of ATL's hip-hop scene as Tity Boi, Chainz finally finds his voice on T.R.U. REALigion, swaggering confidently alongside an all-star lineup of guest artists. One of Chainz' biggest strengths is his penchant for diverse A&R choices: On “Letter to Da Rap Game" he teams up with a razor-sharp Raekwon to transform a melodramatic sample from the 1989 Gladys Knight ballad “License to Kill” into a streetwise epic. On “One Day at a Time,” he taps Jadakiss to murder a gorgeous string loop that sounds like RZA doing trap rap.

A$AP Rocky "Live.Love.A$AP"

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4. A$AP Rocky Live.Love.A$AP

On the most hyped-up mixtape of the year, A$AP effortlessly crosses regional and geographical lines, blending far-flung microtrends—Houston lean, Cali's lo-fi swag rap, and Midwestern Bone Thugsesque singsongy double-time—into a unique audio dreamscape that's all his own. Packed with hypnotizing production and syrupy melodies perfect for Styrofoam-cup toasts, Live.Love.A$AP  suggests that hip-hop's new $3 million man may actually live up to his price tag, revitalizing New York rap along the way.

Danny Brown "XXX"

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3. Danny Brown XXX

XXX is a balls-deep trip into Danny's twisted universe, where overdosing on illegal stimulants, stealing scrap metal, and fucking like a porn star collide with all types of Detroit hood shit. Riding frantic, electro-inspired beats, Brown's distinctive yelp always sounds like he's on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Disturbing, hilarious, and compelling all at once, rarely has insanity sounded this dope.

Frank Ocean "Nostalgia, Ultra"

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2. Frank Ocean Nostalgia, Ultra

Frank Ocean's Nostalgia, Ultra is perhaps the best illustration of the increasingly meaningless distinction between albums and so-called "mixtapes." Many of the songs, like “Novacane” and “Swim Good,” feature big-budget producers Tricky Stewart and MIDI Mafia, and both weaseled their way onto commercial radio playlists. But who cares what you call it? What matters is Frank, whose beautiful, breezy voice switches effortlessly from conversational alto to soaring falsetto. His left-field love songs, deeply personal but totally relatable at the same time, have quickly established the Odd Future affiliate as one of the most original R&B lyricists of his generation.

The Weeknd "House of Balloons"

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1. The Weeknd House of Balloons

What does it mean that the two best mixtapes of the year were by moody R&B weirdos? We don't know, but we know that The Weeknd's debut release, House of Balloons, doesn't have even a hint of the throwaway nature once synonymous with the term “mixtape”—this is a carefully crafted, instant-classic mini-epic, without a wasted second. Balloons is a hazy, contorted combo of The xx, The-Dream and Weeknd affiliate Drake that beautifully mines the woozy, after-hours loneliness that all three share. Fueled by hauntingly sparse, chillwave-meets-soul beats, Abel Tesfaye's urgent falsetto takes your mind out for a night of hard drugs, cold-hearted dimepieces, penthouse orgies, and heartbreak. The sun's coming up, and 2011 is almost over, but we still don't want to go home.

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