As hard as it may be for some to believe, there was definitely a world before streaming services. In the really early days, you had to go to a store to buy your favorite vinyls, tapes and then CDs. Technology changed everything when MP3s were created, turning music into easily transferable files. These days, you don’t ever have to “own” the hip-hop music you like, if you don’t want to since a majority of your favorite rappers’ albums and songs are available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, TIDAL, Pandora or any other platform you prefer. While all of this is fine and convenient, what does that mean for mixtapes, the collections of rap songs that were mostly released for free and toed the line of legality years ago, that you want to listen to?
A lot of them didn’t make it to streaming platforms, so the tapes live elsewhere, whether it’s in your CD collection, on your computer or housed on your favorite mixtape site. Things would be much easier if mixtapes could just be streamed on DSPs, and XXL highlights some of the tapes that have earned that distinction, from recent releases to older classics.
A lot of the mixtapes focused on in this list are important to the artist’s career, either helping them build upon what they already had or turning them in a new direction entirely. Rick Ross‘ 2012 mixtape, Rich Forever, features him immersing himself deeper into the trap sound after dabbling in it for a few years. Big Sean‘s Detroit mixtape, also released in 2012, proved he was a sharp MC, and not just an up-and-coming rapper who can make hits. Travis Scott is a superstar now, but 2014’s Days Before Rodeo tape provided a glimpse into the artist he could become while winning over a bunch of fans in the process. While times have changed, the impact of mixtapes needs to be preserved and being added to streaming services would do just that.
Check out the hip-hop mixtapes that need to hit DSPs A.S.A.P. below.
Days Before Rodeo
Days Before Rodeo, dropping in August of 2014, almost a full year before his debut album, Rodeo, arrived, is a vital step in Travis Scott’s career. This mixtape has some of the Houston native’s best songs with “Sloppy Toppy” featuring Peewee Longway and Migos, and “Drugs You Should Try It,” but also one of his biggest songs in “Mamacita” with Rich Homie Quan and Young Thug.
This version of Travis is more free-wheeling and experimental as he continued to develop his sound. This would be a welcome addition to Spotify, Apple Music or TIDAL, as it’s only on SoundCloud these days.
Released in January of 2012, Rich Forever is one of Rick Ross’ best projects, period. While mafioso rap was what turned him into a rap star and respected lyricist, but this is a trap rap mixtape for the most part. Ross shines here, rapping at a supreme level left and right. The tape also features one of his most lauded mixtape tracks: “Fuck Em” featuring 2 Chainz and Wale. Rich Forever is strong and holds up well, making it perfect for DSPs.
Big Sean’s mainstream popularity was starting to rise after the release of his 2011 debut album, Finally Famous, and as per usual, the fans wanted more. Sean decided to feed the streets with Detroit, a 2012 mixtape that was loved almost immediately. The Midwest MC made his name off mixtapes, so making his return to that space after his debut LP did wonders for his confidence.
Lyrically, the songs are strong, and feel like Big Sean felt free to be himself, with no concerns about trying to make a hit song. He had every trick up his sleeve, dancing all over a Barry White sample on “How It Feel” to rhyming alongside French Montana and his East Coast trap style on “Mula.” This tape is great, so much so that Sean’s last album, Detroit 2, is its proper sequel.
50 Cent Is the Future
50 Cent Is the Future, the first G-Unit mixtape ever, released in June of 2002. At the time, 50 Cent, Lloyd Banks and Tony Yayo were a Queens, N.Y. trio that would soon enough dominate hip-hop. It all started with this tape, and the crew’s penchant for reworking popular rap songs and making them their own was very novel at the time. It also helped that they really did have talent, with 50 being the star, Lloyd Banks serving as the sharp lyricist and Tony Yayo owning the funny, tough guy lane. “Call Me,” “Got Me A Bottle” and “The Banks Workout” are all G-Unit classics that everyone should be able to hear whenever they want.
Tyler, The Creator
Odd Future, the California-based crew of talented teen oddballs, left their stamp on rap without a doubt when they emerged in the 2000s. Tyler, The Creator, the crew’s leader, dropped his 2009 debut mixtape Bastard, which is best described as a modern horrorcore project by a gifted California kid. Tyler’s improving skills on the mic and his already impressive production abilities are showcased here. This tape also marks the graphic, shock value-ridden style Tyler has left behind these days. Bastard is one of the projects that perfectly encapsulates what Odd Future was, and Tyler’s starting point in rap began. Easy access to that kind of history, next to Tyler’s current music, would be invaluable.
A Kid Named Cudi
It felt like Kid Cudi was taking music by storm in 2008, and he was. A Kid Named Cudi is his 2008 debut mixtape, and he delivered in every way, illustrating his ability to craft songs and just have fun with the music. “Day ‘n’ Nite” was his big hit at the time, but his takes on contemporary songs, like GrindMode’s “I’m So High” for his version on “Maui Wowie,” and N.E.R.D.’s “Spaz” for Kudi’s “CuDi Spazzin” are extremely enjoyable, and showed he rapped best over off-kilter soundscapes. This project is what proved there was more to Cudi than just one song, as he took off from here and never looked back.
DJ Drama and Lil Wayne
Dedication 2 is a legendary mixtape in the discography of an artist who revolutionized how tapes work in hip-hop. Lil Wayne‘s mixtape run in the mid-to-late 2000s is the stuff of legend, and this tape was a big stop along the journey. Weezy was rapping over everything on here, from Little Brother’s “Lovin It” to Dem Franchize Boyz’s “Oh, I Think They Like Me,” and snapping on each beat. Some of Wayne’s best performances are on here; it was amongst one of the best mixtapes of 2006, and still receives hall of fame levels of reverence now. This should be easily available on streaming platforms everywhere. Hopefully it happens one day.
Friday Night Lights
Friday Night Lights is the last mixtape J. Cole released before his 2011 debut album, Cole World:The Sideline Story. The 2010 tape gave the young North Carolina MC plenty of momentum and is considered a classic with plenty of tracks that are important to J. Cole’s rise to rap stardom. “Villematic,” “Too Deep for the Intro” and more, plus “In the Morning,” his early collab with Drake, highlight Cole’s potential before he was off and running. FNL fueled Cole’s early touring treks, and served as a strong project from a rapper with a ton of buzz early on.
What can be said about Rich Gang: Tha Tour, Pt. 1 that hasn’t been said already? This classic mixtape, which dropped in September of 2014, combines the talents of Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan with Birdman playing the background. Turning Quan and Thug into a duo was Birdman’s idea, and it produced nearly immediate results.
The chemistry between Thug and Quan is apparent, and their styles mesh perfectly; Thug is the explosive, experimental rapper who likes to sing while Quan is the talented chameleon who might croon or get serious about trying to survive the streets in his lyrics. To this day, the tape is fun, and songs like “Tell Em (Lies),” “Givenchy” and “Milk Marie” illustrate just why Quan and Thugger were so highly-touted at the time.
We Got It for Cheap, Vol. 2
Re-Up Gang, a rap group consisting of Clipse, Major Figgas’ Ab-Liva and Sandman, were a formidable foursome of lyrics and street bars. Their second tape, 2005’s We Got It for Cheap Vol. 2, finds the crew at their peak, rhyming over new beats and revered production alike. The crew worked as a vehicle to not only show off their individual talents, but also to keep Clipse hot as their Hell Hath No Fury album was held up from releasing at Jive Records. With the kind of lyricism Re-Up Gang displayed on Juelz Santana’s “Mic Check” and Ghostface Killah and Raekwon’s “Daytona 500,” their skill level wasn’t in question.
Bigger Than the Mayor
Rich Boy had the No. 6 song in the country when “Throw Some D’s” hit the Billboard Hot 100 in 2006, and a track that big makes any rapper the man of the moment. Two years later, with no follow-up to his 2007 self-titled debut album, he released the Bigger Than the Mayor mixtape in 2008. The tape is a bit darker than his album, and felt closer to an early Gucci Mane project. Wop is featured on the mixtape, too, for the song “Ms. Pacman,” but Rich Boy shined without guests. “Take It Off” still sounds crazy today, as does “Supafly.” Bigger Than the Mayor could easily be lost in the cracks of late 2000’s rap, but being on DSPs would help it get its just due.
This early 2016 mixtape, Mood, is what set the groundwork to the success that Jacquees would experience soon after. “B.E.D.,” the song which would become his breakout single, is on Mood, but the tape is strong all around. “Hot Girl,” “Know You,” “Ex Games” and more showcase Jacquees’ singing ability and tone, which set him apart in a somewhat stagnant male R&B world.
He’s very clearly a singer, but has some rapper sensibilities, from subject matter to some of the cadences and production he chooses. This mixtape is a bit unheralded, but set the foundation that led to the popularity that followed.
At just 16 years old, Earl Sweatshirt dropped his incredible debut mixtape, Earl, in 2010. Quite possibly the best rapper in Odd Future and something like a teen prodigy, Earl’s wordplay and rhyme schemes were far ahead of his years, and rap fans as a whole took notice. While the offensive lyrics definitely stuck out, Earl was so good at putting words together, his talent became the focus over anything else. He got sent to a Samoan school for at-risk boys by his mother, due to his bad behavior sometime in 2010. His return to the U.S. in 2012 was met with plenty of buzz, which hadn’t been given to a teen rapper in a long time.
There Is No Competition 2
Dropping in March of 2010, There Is No Competition 2 is one of Fabolous‘ finest mixtapes. At his core, Fab is a mixtape rapper who rose to real success and had his fair share of hits, which led to a Def Jam record deal. Making a mixtape on which the Brooklyn rhymer focuses on the bars and nothing more is a return to his beginning, and he shines here. “Suicide 2,” “Roger That” and “Popular Demand” are standouts on the DJ Drama-hosted tape, and there’s no shortage of Fabolous’ stellar punchline either. There Is No Competition 2 is a time capsule of what East Coast mixtape rap was at the time, and one of the best examples of such.
Widely considered Dom Kennedy‘s best project, Yellow Album is a very smooth 2012 mixtape that perfectly encapsulates who the West Coast rapper is as an artist. Dom’s coolness and penchant for describing life in L.A. feels like the best sales pitch for the city. Girls, partying and loyalty are recurring themes here, and tracks like “Girls on Stage,” “We Ball” with Kendrick Lamar and “Gold Alpinas” featuring Rick Ross have held up well. Yellow Album is exactly why Dom Kennedy still gets so much love. This tape is much-needed on DSPs.
Take ’Em to the Cleaners
In 2004, Consequence was already known due to his past features on A Tribe Called Quest records, but the mid-2000s saw him getting a different brand of attention due to his ties to Kanye West. As one of the original G.O.O.D. Music artists, Cons became a benefactor of ’Ye’s push. Take ’Em to the Cleaners is a 2004 mixtape on which Cons handles the raps, and Kanye did most of the production, to interesting results.
Consequence is clever with the rhymes and Kanye is in his prime here, turning out quality beats in his sleep. Songs such as “Doctor, Doctor” and “So Soulful” display the kind of chemistry the two had when working together. This tape is hard to find nowadays, and putting it on DSPs would change all of that.
In 2011, Harlem native A$AP Rocky was making a ton of noise in New York City, but was also feeling some backlash because his sound wasn’t traditional NYC rap; it was closer to Houston hip-hop. By the time he released his debut tape, Live.Love.ASAP in October of that year, the naysayers were silenced. The tape was a great exploration of something rap never had prior: an East Coast rapper who fully embraced Southern rap while displaying good song structure and charisma in droves.
Over beats that sounded like something from an intergalactic Swishahouse tape, Rocky demonstrated himself as a competent MC who blended well with guests like ScHoolboy Q, the rest of his A$AP Mob and his soon-to-be former friend SpaceGhostPurrp. This was the tape that put Rocky on the path to stardom; it’s still worth a listen today.
Ty Dolla $ign
One of Ty Dolla $ign‘s more underrated tapes is 2014’s $ign Language. The effort is something of a midpoint between Ty’s sexually graphic music and his more smoothed-out, palatable tunes. As far as guest features, Ty welcomes rappers with hits like Big Sean, French Montana and Rick Ross, but the singer never gets lost in the shuffle. He buoyed every track, and further proved why he was—and still is—a unique talent within music. $ign Language stands next to Ty’s current style now, and makes it easy to draw a line from who he was to who he became.