This year had some great hip hop (the genre I care about most) LPs—favorites include Ratking’s So it Goes, Run the Jewels’ RTJ2 (both included in the Best Music of 2014 list), and The Stand4rd’s self-titled album. But, truthfully, the vast majority of my music consumption nowadays comes from one-off tracks released individually, free mixtape downloads, or experimental EPs.
My world is that of Soundcloud and Bandcamp releases, of tracks promoted through a 1500-follower Twitter accounts. These are artists that work two day jobs to scrap enough money together for studio sessions, who know ‘a guy that does beats’ instead of paying for the latest DJ Mustard three-note banger. I trawl through the hundreds of releases per day, all in the search of that heat. Something original, a sound unheard before, creative lyrics, weird samples, the strange and absurd. All for you. You’re welcome.
There’s a certain unpolished feel that many of these mixtapes have, though at their peak they can feel just as unified as albums. They glow with an impulse to reach out to the world, to let the music community know, “I’m here,” and find other voices echoing back. I’m not here to preach about money diluting artistic integrity in the rap game, the ‘raw emotion’ that comes through in these unsigned artists, or any of that overdone rhetoric. What I am here to do is showcase the under-appreciated talent that exists if you dig deep enough. These are the dudes that will be next up in 2015. Given all this, it seems only fitting I make a year-end list for the oft-maligned category of the mixtape. My top 10 (in a very vague order) of 2014:
Richmond Hampton, VA native D.R.A.M. (Does-Real-Ass-Music) came out of nowhere with a funky little tape. It got some buzz off its biggest hit, the goofy, Super Mario World-sampling “Cha Cha”, but the whole tape is filled with exuberant energy and genuine honesty, odes to the mid-level hustling rapper trying to make a name to himself. In D.R.A.M.’s off-kilter singing voice, with a surprising amount of range, one can understand the pains, the triumphs, the work put in that culminates into #1EPICSUMMER.
GoldLink, The God Complex
GoldLink’s bouncy combination of GoGo, Baltimore club, and hip-hop made for one of the most creative blends of the past year. What he may lack in introspective, hard-hitting lyrics, he more than makes up for in an uncanny ability to ride the beat and create singable hooks. He samples Men in Black, man.
Mick Jenkins, The Water[s]
Jenkins’ political statements and shoutouts from high-profile rappers have upped his visibility in 2014, but the real star of his year was The Water[s]. It’s more than just hip-hop, it’s slow, it’s jazzy, a stronger synthesis, in my opinion, than Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap. Mick Jenkins is the truth, one of the best non-Drill artists coming out of Chicago. If there’s one person on this list I’d bet on blowing up to mainstream success, it’d be him.
writtenbydola, Ch 1. Night Visions
I am not a popular blogger, I don’t make music, but somehow, random people from around the world follow me on Soundcloud and Twitter. Once I determine they’re not robots, I try to give these people a fair shot, and listen to their music. More often than not, unfortunately, I am disappointed. Jacksonville’s DoLA was one of the success stories. Closest comparison—as hard as it is to live up to—is Kendrick Lamar, in terms of technical ability contrasted with an introspective angle and the ability to seamlessly switch between flows mid-track. The tape is consistent front to back, don’t sleep on DoLA any longer.
Kevin Gates, By Any Means
Kevin Gates is the coolest, man. Super hard trap-rap from the Baton Rouge native may seem like nothing out of the ordinary, until you realize it’s just a vehicle for sharp storytelling and unexpectedly confessional lyrics. Never before has selling crack been explored in its tragedies and triumphs. In every line it seems Gates is balancing between the lucrative life of dealing and the burden it places on his relationships with friends and family, seemingly at any moment willing to abandon music to go back to the streets. Let’s just pray he doesn’t. Luca Brasi 2 is due out before the year’s end, might we have two Kevin Gates tapes in the top 10?!?
Update: Luca Brasi 2 confirmed bangers.
Father, Young Hot Ebony
Atlanta had a crazy year, with artists like Key!, OG Maco, Father, and, of course, the Drake-collaborating iLoveMakonnen. Most of the yet-unexposed talent is coming from Awful Records, and Father’s the headline artist. By a certain point the Odd Future comparisons will become completely overdone, but Father is the Tyler the Creator of the whole clique. He’s the figurehead. As such, consider Young Hot Ebony the Bastard, the ambassador from Awful Records to the world. “Wrist” has quickly become a club banger, but the whole tape showcases the unique sound of Father and Awful, straddling the line of tongue-in-cheek, raunchy humor and a street aesthetic. For further listening, check out Lord Narf and Stalin Majesty.
Danny Brown was acknowledged as “pretty weird”—both in lyrical content and flow—when The Hybrid dropped. Fellow Bruiser Brigadier ZelooperZ ups that ante with an even whinier, stranger flow than Danny’s, and ad-libs that would make even Young Thug or Lil B cringe or chuckle. The escalating “Plateau” is what immediately hooked me on Z, but tracks like “Mosquitoes” revolve around creative metaphors and immediately engaging vocals (for better or worse). “Fuck fake it til you make it/til your story right through it” is Z’s mantra on the tape, as we’re lucky to see all of gritty Detroit through his kaleidoscopic lens.
UGLYFRANK, Bobby Hill EP
Tacoma resident UGLYFRANK, half of ILLFIGHTYOU, put together one of my favorite videos of the year, “Bossa”. That track is on this tape, as well as more of Frank’s examinations of his own depravity in a technically gifted form. It’s menacing, it’s dark from the jump the opening synths of “Frank Truise” foreshadowing the nihilism to come. I’m interested to see a lot more from the Tacoma scene, as it seems there’s a lot of talent there that deserves national attention.
Sidewalk Kal, Champagne Forever
LA-based collective TAR has been hooking it up with free tapes from Teklife affiliates, but Sidewalk Kal’s 3-track EP is back-to-back-to-back rap bangers. There’s a range of creative production over the three tracks—jubilant horns on “Trumpets”, the slower-paced “Out to the World”, and booming kicks on the unabashedly arrogant title track—make Kal and all the TAR artists some to watch in 2015.
Update: Since writing this, Kal’s also released his On My Soul.
Lucki Eck$, Body High
More Chicago, but it only makes sense, being the hotbed of hip-hop talent it’s become in 2014. Like Jenkins, Lucki Eck$ doesn’t ascribe to the drill bandwagon, instead combining the trap drums with spacier production from the likes of FKA Twigs, Hot Sugar, and Skywlkr. Good co-signs to have on your side, not to mention a collab with Danny Brown meaning that Lucki Eck$ has had an incredible year of growth, even if I like his 2013 tape Alternative Trap a little more than Body High. One can imagine Eck$ writing this Xan’d out, mind roving over women he’s lost, drugs he’s sold, and tenuous friendships that could flip at any moment. As Lucki Eck$ continues to develop his ability to express this hazy introspection, he can only go up from here.