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.

Sicko Mobb - Super Saiyan Vol. 2

If DJ Moondawg’s We Invented the Bop is the blueprint, Super Saiyan Vol. 2 is bop’s final cornerstone; everything from here is up. Sicko Mobb have been on the map since “Fiesta” back in 2013, rolling around and gaining equal accolade and comment-section disapproval. Any downplay of Sicko Mobb saw deaf ears, since in the two years between Super Saiyan Vol. 1 and 2, Lil Ceno and Lil Trav have upped bop’s evolution toward a wider audience. The cohesion of Super Saiyan Vol. 2 makes the listen so incredibly clean for two kids only on their second mixtape. Auto-tuned vocals are a mainstay in bop, often slapdash, and here, it helps distance Sicko Mobb from the Moondawg herd. Shame on y’all nonbelievers; Sicko Mobb is digging a moat around the bop throne.

Bones - Powder

Total ownership of the aesthetic. It’s something few artists can claim, but you can count Bones among them. Informed by yesteryear’s technological detritus — the long-forgotten sounds of dial-up modems, AOL notifications, etc. — he chiefly stutters anxious SoundCloud raps atop maudlin instrumentals, all filtered through the lens of a decayed VHS camera. Powder is the latest in a flurry of releases, and it could be his most scattershot yet; at turns descending into queasy sing-rap (“TreeOfLife,” “ModestGoals,” “UponTheDyingGrass”), at others abandoning hip-hop altogether for previously uninhabited territories — see the creepily sterile screamo of “ICanSeeMyHouseFromHere” and the dusty ambience of “HowAboutThat.” What’s most impressive about this set is not the reach (or perhaps overreach) it proffers, but the way in which a diverse grab-bag of influences is unified under a cohesive vision. In spite of the conspicuous underuse of the trademark “SESH” production tag, Powder couldn’t have crept out from anyone other than Bones, and that’s as good a testament as any.

Tree - Treestrumentals

Our coverage of TREE’s BlueSkyBlackDeath collaboration “New Or Leins / Training Day,” off his February 2015 mixtape Trap Genius concluded that “the ‘soul’ in soultrap has just as much to do with [TREE’s] voice as it does his beats.” (While we’re on the subject, the only reason Trap Genius didn’t make the cut for our February mixtape feature is that it dropped after writing was completed; it’s clearly one of the best releases of the year, duh.) Now, instead of experiencing TREE on other people’s beats, we get to explore his beats void of any vocals. And honestly, it’s off-putting at first. The instrumentals don’t sound like they should work. They feel as if they’re about to fall apart. We look for TREE’s vocals even though we know they’re nowhere to be found. And this leads to three BIG realizations: (1) Nobody else, except perhaps TREEffilates Chris Crack and Tone Skeeta, could possibly begin to do these beats justice; (2) With that understood, Treestrumentals truly is the perfect title for this project, and; (3) Much more than simply joining soul and trap in slightly unorthodox unions, TREE’s musicianship, with its impeccably entropic sense of syncopation, tells the story of our generation and does so before the MC ever picks up the mic or puts pen to paper. Say it with me now… TREE!

Juvenile - Mardi Gras 2

The fun of keeping up with Cash Money is the endless soap opera-level drama. An evolving history of great releases doesn’t hurt, but really what the world needs now is a definitive tell-all book. For instance, we’re all hearing a lot of Drake and Wayne’s recent departures just as Rich Gang is stepping up to true stardom, but what about the little spoken of strangeness surrounding Juvenile’s return to the label? Cash Money’s first true star formally resigned last November, but the label isn’t talking about his incredible comeback mixtape in the slightest. Even the Cash Money logo on the art looks slapped on unofficially. Plus, what does it mean that it has a Rich Gang logo on it? Isn’t it monumental news that Mannie Fresh, one of Cash Money’s biggest deriders, blessed this with a feature? Some very odd and secretive drama here that has unfortunately downplayed that this is Juvenile’s strongest release since 400 Degrees. Exquisitely selected beats and that classic 90s sense of commanding vocals throughout. Don’t let Drake & Wayne’s giant celebrity cast a shadow over this collection of hits.

AD - Blue: 89

Sometimes — especially now, when comprehensiveness seems most impossible — we need reminding that rap is more absorbent than isolating. As art keeps proliferating exponentially, compartmentalizing regional styles and fabricated genre tags becomes both compulsive and exhausting. Those artists that stand out over time amid all others are more often those who can synthesize and expand rather than consolidate and seclude. It is an even greater and rarer accomplishment when it comes out sounding like nothing and everything you’ve ever heard. Silently screaming straight out of Compton, rapper AD pulls from an array of arsenals on Blue 89, at times sounding like Twista spitting gasoline over new age drill beats, at others like Killer Mike ripping a mic with a cause over Public Enemy horns, at others like Kendrick scatting over lush Cali breaks. As transcendent and nomadic as it is detailed and sedentary, Blue 89 doesn’t discriminate in its affectations; it is both a history of expressive media as well as one MC’s vital story of breaking out of his cage. That he emerges sounding more established than some of his veteran contemporaries solidifies that there are still combinations left unmined in our sound memories.

Gucci Mane - Trap House 5 (The Final Chapter)

Gucci Mane releases more music from prison than should be humanly possible, and he could easily phone it in (figuratively) at this point, collecting the checks. Gucci won’t stop though, and for his fifth (and supposedly final) edition of the Trap House saga, he distinctively makes this one a mixtape vs. a studio or digital release. Hot off releasing Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner, Gucci switches appetites to the return of that trap house sound, wherein a typically upbeat and cheerful Gucci delivers more bangers than mash. The dark gravy persists, but “No One Else” jams harder than any track on the three-course meal trilogy, with Young Thug and PeeWee Longway helping Gucci to cook more than consume on “No One Else” — a reincarnate of summer radio replay. On “Money Stacks,” Gucci sings, “I got money stacks like dirty clothes/ I love the kids, but I don’t love the hoes,” and you instantly want to smile and sing along, something that can’t be said for the entirety of other Gucci albums. The real highlight is “Constantly” featuring Chief Keef, with transcendent synth-sampling from Honorable C-Note. Bottom line: Gucci’s Trap House albums are always the funnest. Even odd missteps like the unironic hook of “Go-Go Gadget Gucci” on “Go-Go Gadget” are amusing as hell. Additional production from Mike WiLL Made-It and Zaytoven may not be as booming as previous Trap House installments, but with Gucci’s jovial tone, club beats, and spotlight collaborations, it’s pretty damn close. With so much fun to be had, of course there will be future Trap House editions, even if it’s Trap House in Space.

Most Read