Favorite Mixtapes of April 2015 Death drives, robo-cadences, and another “retail mixtape”

With a daunting cascade of releases spewing out each day from the likes of DatPiff, LiveMixtapes, Bandcamp, and SoundCloud, it can be difficult to keep up with the overbearing yet increasingly vital mixtape game. In this column, we aim to immerse ourselves in this hyper-prolific world and share our favorite releases each month. The focus will primarily be on rap mixtapes — loosely defined here as free (or sometimes simply free-to-stream) digital releases — but we’ll keep things loose enough to branch out if and when we feel it necessary. (Check out last month’s installment here.)

iLoveMakonnen - Drink More Water 5

I always chuckle at Simon Chandler’s description of Makonnen as a “gentle” soul because dude’s flow is sometimes straight-up huggable. Drink More Water 5 is a step into some even softer territory as pillowy synths laxly swerve over barely audible percussion — it’s a shift away from the sharp, technicolor bounce of his last EP. “Super Clean” is sublimely even-keel, featuring a sound so cool that it could chorus a badminton match between Takeshi Murakami and Lynda Benglis — they’re enjoying the match, taking breaks to sip that “coke with rum” flavor. When boy lets his voice bellow-and-shake like a Pantaloon opera-clown on “Whip It (remix),” I believe he’s at his cooking class every Thursday. Even when he’s so over the top, or so far ahead, that he ends up sounding like that main dude from Future Islands or even a Sesame Street character, we can’t get enough of him. Makonnen’s special — “he’s not like those other guys…” is he?

T-Pain - The Iron Way

After sinking the lush zone of T-Pain’s auto-tune-free NPR Tiny Desk performance, the prospect of another headlining mixtape constructed around his synthesized vocal delivery doesn’t seem as inviting. That being said, the imperfect but highly entertaining The Iron Way makes a case for his relevance, complicating his dichotomous position as a perennial underdog hitmaker equally tethered to the technologies he helped popularize and the trap-focused trends that continue to evolve outside his circle of influence. T-Pain trades competent double-time flows with the Migos (“What You Know”) and taunts with Lil Wayne (“Let Me Through”) as easily as he toasts through a low-key ballad about getting really high (“Need to be Smoking”). As ever, his acrobatic melodic sensibilities and layered vocal arrangements prove more engaging than his rapping — check out the swooping verses of “Heartbeat” or the addictive highlight “Hashtag,” which stands out as a prescient tech-era anthem built over cooed robo-cadences and airy synths. The medium meets the message as T-Pain implores a friend to “just let go of that phone” and “stop staring at that Facebook wall,” while his waves of cyborg harmonies spark the choruses up to surprisingly affecting heights.

Lord Narf - Sick

As one of two female members in the Atlanta-based Awful Records crew, Lord Narf uses her sophomore release to dispose of any alternate theories as to why she might be a staple member of this increasingly reputable collective. On SICK, she deploys her hypnotic flow and deadpan hooks to tackle drug use, femininity, and unemployment across nine measured, almost sedated tracks. Her voice comes across as unfocused and even curmudgeonly as she purrs, pants, and presses her gripes past productions from fellow crew members and beyond. Slug Christ stretches from the dismal sprawl of “Can’t Breathe” to the snare-heavy dirge of “Sleep,” while Ethereal dices a minimal melody with down-tempo beats on “S.S. Ringz.” But the apparent lack of energy and forced sluggishness that Narf parades is offset by the way she uses her voice to induce atmosphere and effect within each track (see the use of repetition on “Spaceship Navigation” or the breathy stammer on “Tick Tock”). In spite of its grim overtones, SICK is a thoughtful and brilliantly executed effort, providing yet another reason to keep your eyes peeled for Awful this year.

Lil St. Louis - MDGDAMOB

The way Curren$y tells it, you’d think getting high would be pretty fun. There are 23 tracks here, and I count three that aren’t about getting high or moving weight. “Yeah” is typical, Lil St. Louis lurching between manias, warning his companion for the night that he might just sweat and talk too much because he’s all geeked up: “I can’t sleep and I can’t eat none, I just took the whole gram/ I’m all in, I need more molly, think I need to slow down/ I’m a fiend for that codeine, yeah I gotta have some/ I’ve got cups but ain’t no ice, why don’t you stop and grab some?.” These are standard MDGDaMob bars: addiction mingles with anxiety in hotel rooms and parking lots. All death drive and repetition compulsion, the game as natural as the wind, the player a weak and stubborn candle. Of the three changeups, “Pimp C Tribute” is the most tantalizing, Lil St. spitting fire over bass-smudged g-funk like this is Compton, 1991. That minute-and-a-half aside, MDGDaMob is so tightly wound it can sound bleak and exhausted. On hits like “Geeked” and “No Cut,” LSL is almost whisper-rapping, cracked voice huddled in echoing overdubs. If this mixtape were an apartment, it would be no frills, but the walls would be made of glass and the furniture would be melting.

Young Thug - Barter 6

That feeling when you’re writing for a long time and you stop having ideas you “want to say” and start having ideas that seem fun cuz they’ll throw you off, like you can’t pull them off. And then you keep going and you’re somewhere in your head you’ve never been. Young Thug’s thought/worked his way through to the point where it’s all that kind of exploration/play. Out of this bent world emerges Barter 6: The Retail Mixtape, an unambiguously fully realized musical statement amid a bed of ambiguous public statements (the “Language” he uses to refer to his friends, his “ha ha” lift of Wayne’s Carter series). You figure there’s no way to be as anti-rational as Thugger without putting on some dresses/sexualizing brotherly love a little/running a circle around your idol. The suavity and infinite mannerisms come out because he trusts, pretty much without conditions, that if you listen you’ll get the gist. On Barter 6, you ought to. He’s revealing his clearest, most elastic flows in open-air production with perfect sound design. Standouts “OD” and “Just Might Be,” which just might be the best track of the year so far, revel in slight melodic variations and wordplay. It’s the work of a talented, tuned-in artist with unbound standards: an innovator by default.

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