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10 Best Mixtapes of 2013

The absolute cream of the non-label hip-hop crop

Mixtapes

Courtesy of Rich Homie Quan; Courtesy of Chance the Rapper; Courtesy of Vic Mensa; Courtesy of Migos

In 2013, as has been true for the past few years, much of the best rap music came via free mixtapes posted to the various aggregating web sites (DatPiff, LiveMixtapes) that have sprouted up in response to what has become a booming cottage industry. Mixtapes are now where hit singles and real careers are birthed, and where established rappers return to prove they still have it. Here are our 10 favorites from this year. 

BY JORDAN SARGENT

Rich Homie Quan, Still Goin' In Reloaded

Courtesy of Rich Homie Quan

10

Rich Homie Quan, ‘Still Goin’ In Reloaded’

Rich Homie Quan's aqueous taunt "Type of Way" was one of the breakout rap hits of 2013, a song so addictive that Drake said he wished he had written it. There's nothing quite as good on his 20-song mixtape, released in February, but "Differences" and "Party" might have become anthems too if his first smash wasn't sucking up all the oxygen. Quan might not be quite as ingenious as Future, but he’s carving out his own nasty, gritty niche.

ZMoney, Rich B4 Rap

Courtesy of ZMoney

9

ZMoney, ‘Rich B4 Rap’

In an age where mixtapes are rolled out with more fanfare than most albums, ZMoney is a throwback to the days when delivering free rap music was a rogue act instead of a bullet point on a business plan. Without warning, he dropped two full mixtapes on the same day in June, the better of which, Rich B4 Rap, blends the effortless hookiness of classic Gucci Mane with the stoned, sing-song warble that has become a key component of underground rap music. On "Everything," the Windy City rebel asks, "Don't you wish you could wake up and go buy everything?" Delivered by an artist who's got concepts coming out of his ears, that sense of wonderment bodes well.

Lil Durk, Signed to the Streets

Courtesy of Lil Durk

8

Lil Durk, ‘Signed to the Streets’

Fellow first-wave Chicago drill rappers Chief Keef and Lil Reese may have struggled to replicate the success of 2012, but Lil Durk avoided any pitfalls with July's Signed to the Streets. (He's actually signed to Def Jam.) Like many young rappers, Durk favors music that blurs the line between rapping and Auto-Tuned singing, but on STTS he displays the chops that earned him his major label deal, be it on the surreal dreamscape of "Bang Bros" or his melodic, defiant street hit "Dis Ain't What U Want."

Vic Mensa, Innanetape

Courtesy of Vic Mensa

7

Vic Mensa, ‘Innanetape’

While his friend Chance the Rapper pulls from the soul music of his parents' record collection,Vic Mensa revives the energetic funk of N.E.R.D., even going so far as to call in long lost Star Trak singer Kenna for the introspective "Fear and Doubt." Though he and Chance share a delirious flow and a keen eye for both self and society, Mensa's Innanetape is a bright blast of summertime sunshine highlighted by paeans to orange soda ("Orange Soda"), drugs ("Tweakin"), and, well, life ("Lovely Day").

Meek Mill, Dreamchasers 3

COurtesy of Maybach Music Group

6

Meek Mill, ‘Dreamchasers 3’

Meek Mill's Dreamchasers mixtape series has proved to have such strong brand equity that the Philly rapper adopted the name for his new imprint. The third Dreamchasers collection isn't as groundbreaking, but it nonetheless features a heaping handful of Meek's best tracks. The sinister drawling of "Make Me" finds him easily sliding into French Montana's lane, and on "Lil Nigga Snupe," Meek offers a touching tribute to his murdered protege Lil Snupe that wrestles with the societal injustices that too often result in the deaths of young black men. 

Young Thug, 1017 Thug

Courtesy of Young Thug

5

Young Thug, ‘1017 Thug’

On his first mixtape for Gucci Mane's 1017 Brick Squad crew, Atlanta's Young Thug often comes off as rap's evolutionary endpoint. He raps, yes, but mostly he sings wildly through Autotune. He's part Future, part Lil Wayne, part modern dancehall imp, all ATLien. But the wailing of "Nigeria" or the bonkers "Picacho" (as in the Pokemon character) could only be the work of Young Thug. And he knows it, too. On "Shooting Star" he sings, "I'm a shooting star / just wish away."

DJ Mustard & TeeFlii, Fireworks

Courtesy of DJ Mustard & TeeFlii

4

DJ Mustard & TeeFlii, ‘Fireworks’

Los Angeles producer DJ Mustard has redefined the West Coast with instantly identifiable beats that blend the tempo and rubbery bass of classic California hip-hop with the sound and space of Atlanta snap. He released his own mixtape, the aptly and arrogantly titled Ketchup (get it?) this year, but his best effort was Fireworks, a collaboration with the singer TeeFlii, who looks like a lost Debarge sibling and sings like The-Dream's bratty younger brother. Where Mustard’s beats normally evoke a strip club's booty-whomp, here he pushes himself, brilliantly, towards R&B smoothness. 

Migos, Young Rich Niggas

Courtesy of Migos

3

Migos, ‘Young Rich Niggas’

Drake helped pushed Migos' "Versace" to new heights when he dropped his own remix, but the Atlanta trio's subsequent June mixtape was proof they didn't need his co-sign. Armed with bubbly beats that leave plenty of empty space for hyper-catchy ad-libs, Migos scribbled an entire full-length's worth of triple-time anthems ("Hannah Montana," "Bando") fixated on the drug trade and its attendant spoils. Of course, with hooks this good Migos' will soon be able to rap about raking it in via more legitimate means.

Action Bronson, Blue Chips 2

Courtesy of Action Bronson

2

Action Bronson, ‘Blue Chips 2’

Queens' best ever ex-chef rapper of Albanian descent broke through with last year's Blue Chips and though its sequel could never be quite as revelatory, it did affirm the singularity of the music created by Action Bronson and his production partner, Party Supplies. On Blue Chips 2, they use segments of hits by Tracy Chapman, the Champs, Phil Collins and a host of similarly counterintuitive others as the foundations for Bronson's madcap adventure plots. This is a mixtape as vivid as your favorite cable drama.

Chance the Rapper, Acid Rap

Courtesy of Chance The Rapper

1

Chance The Rapper, ‘Acid Rap’

Chicago's Chance the Rapper established himself in 2013 as the strongest new voice in hip-hop: cool enough for the teens, thoughtful enough for the old heads, pop enough to open for Lil Wayne, and with his street bona fides established by virtue of his coming out of Chicago's rap scene. On Acid Rap he recalls a number of the greats — young Kanye in lush sonics, Slim Shady in spastic flow, Kendrick in inquisitive worldview — but the full-length is precocious enough to make those comparisons feel like positive premonitions rather than millstones. Acid Rap’s scope is stunning both musically (the blending of soul and juke encapsulates his hometown) and lyrically — he deftly bounces from rapping about Chicago's murder rate to recalling hugging his grandma. Acid Rap is the start of something special. 

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