Few musical arenas are as competitive as hip hop. Album sales, video budgets, cribs, cars, marquee features—the measuring sticks are endless. The mixtape is both one of the most important and one of the most intangible, a space where artists hustle to top each other while embracing their fans without a middleman in the way. The tracks borrow—and sometimes take over—existing beats; established and upcoming producers show off their looser work and aces they've kept up their sleeve until the right moment. Mixtapes don't tend to find radio play, but they converse with each other in a meaningful, lasting way that shapes trends and builds careers. And they're usually free!
Here are 10 of the best mixtapes from the last decade.
In 2011 on Halloween, A$AP Rocky treated everyone to his debut mixtape, Live. Love. A$AP. This tape had such a huge impact partly because of the unique sound, heavily inspired by Houston, and the introduction of the A$AP Mob as fashion influencers. The emergence of the crew, spearheaded by this tape in particular, is very reminiscent of the impact Wu-Tang had in the early 90s. A$AP Rocky might have re-established NYC on the hip hop map with this one. –Esteban Serrano
Hailing from Wichita, XV has been one of the dopest up-and-coming underground rappers since his debut in 2006. Popular Culture was XV’s 17th mixtape when it was released in June of 2012, but even with so many tapes under his belt, XV wasn’t well-known in the hip hop community—until he dropped Popular Culture. From the cover artwork to the samples and interlude, the cultural references and witty wordplay throughout, the tape is hands-down one of the best of the last decade. Songs titles like “Jedi Knight” and "Aaahh! Real Monsters" paid homage to old school movies and TV while tracks like “Breaking Bad” and “Zombieland Rule 32” represented the contemporary tastes of 2012. No matter what era you were partial to, XV’s Popular Culture had a memorable moment delivered in the form of superb production and supreme rap skills. –Juan Cadavid
In early 2009, Queens MC Nicki Minaj was more known for her sexy image than her skills on the mic. She changed the focus from her hot bod to her hot bars once she dropped her third mixtape, Beam Me Up Scotty. The inspiration for the tape came from Nicki’s experience on the I Am Music Tour with Lil Wayne: She said it made her hungry, and the content on the tape backs that up. Beam Me Up featured a large part of the YMCMB roster, but none would outshine Queen Nicki. This tape not only proved her as an artist to watch, but the track "I Get Crazy" featuring Lil Wayne charted as high as No. 20 on the Billboard Hot Rap Songs chart, establishing Nicki as a future hitmaker. When you look back at the beginnings of Minaj’s career, this is most definitely a defining moment. –Esteban Serrano
Has any recent mixtape started off as prophetically as Acid Rap's chorus of "Even better than I was the last time, baby?" Following up his intriguing 10 Day tape with a master class of hip hop spirit, Chicago MC Chance the Rapper packaged his inherent playfulness, thoughtfulness and overall vibrancy into one free collection of music. We're still waiting for Chance's proper debut album (and a new solo mixtape), but Acid Rap is the type of joyful squeal worth jolting you out of any ordinary day. –Jason Lipshutz
Weezy's ascent arguably began in 2005 with Tha Carter II, but the tremendous second installment in his Dedication mixtape series is what really delivered the Cash Money mainstay to a much larger fan base. Lil Wayne's reworking of Nancy Sinatra's "Bang Bang" and Dipset's "Ground Zero" into the title track is beyond next-level, his "Cannon" team-up with DJ Drama and Freeway was an all-star game, and his "I'm the Best Rapper Alive" interlude was, well, correct. In 2006, no one could touch Wayne's lyrical tenacity. –Jason Lipshutz
Mixtapes are best consumed with a large appetite, and there wasn't a second on The Warm Up where then-26-year-old J. Cole sounded anything but starving. His Jay Z and Kanye influences were threaded thickly, but his relentless forward motion was the tapestry's main hue. The standouts are legion: An unforgettable straight-through take on Talib Kweli's Yeezy-produced "Get By"; the flow-switching radio freestyle "Water Break"; the super-deep "Lights Please," which would deservedly show up two years later on Cole's debut album. (The one that came after a third straight rock-solid mixtape, Friday Night Lights.)
The Warm Up also saw Cole drawing a bold through-line for nascent fanatics to follow, with three songs playing direct sequels to tracks on his first tape, 2007's The Come Up. The samples stayed omnivorous and soulful, Jermaine's piano-heavy production remained immediately distinctive and personal. The closing rap built itself atop Portuguese singer Sara Tavares' acoustic soother "Balance," and you knew you'd never know what direction this North Carolina kid was gonna stretch himself. –Zach Dionne
For Halloween last year, Future let everyone know he was leaving his Honest, nearly pop-friendly self behind to become a Monster. While that grimy tape gave us "Fuck Up Some Commas" and a few more bangers, it was overlong and messy. Then 2015 opened with Beast Mode, the first of four thematically linked releases in eight months. The tight nine-track tape produced entirely by Atlanta piano genius Zaytoven plays like the half-hour result of a focused-yet-free-associative night in the studio. Tracks like "Oooh," "No Basic" and "Peacoat" still last as perfect vignettes of what 2015's biggest non-Drake rapper was all about. –Zach Dionne
Opening your tape with a take on a Coldplay song loudly indicates that you're up to something worth investigating. Frank Ocean's hello saw him delivering vibrantly melancholy, album-worthy originals like "Swim Good," "We All Try" and "Novacane," while bringing novelistic storytelling skills to songs like the Eagles' seven-minute"Hotel California" and MGMT's "Nature Feels." We never needed the following year's studio debut channel ORANGE to confirm Frank's genius, but it did anyway. –Zach Dionne
The first time I heard House of Balloons at a house party, I could have sworn Ne-Yo had just made the trippiest left turn in R&B. Upon further investigation, a dynamic new personality had emerged to smash the genre like a wrecking ball. Call the Weeknd's haunting debut "PBR&B" if you want, and scoff at his drugged-out, sexed-up lyrics—these songs were immaculately conceived, and hinted at a darkness that connected with a new generation of R&B fans. Oh, and his mash-up of Sioxusie and the Banshees and Nine Inch Nails on "House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls"? Still mind-blowing. –Jason Lipshutz
At the very top of 2009, Drake changed the mixtape game with the release of So Far Gone. While keeping the subject matter well in the vein of his previous release, Comeback Season, Drake managed to make a tape that sounded and felt more like an album experience. So Far Gone spawned a double-platinum single in "Best I Ever Had" and a gold single in "Successful." This showed the world that Drake was a superstar in the making. –Esteban Serrano