Favorite Rap Mixtapes of February 2019 From Lucki & Auset Bennu to Kehlani & Navy Blue

Auset Bennu, lookin' luxe and tastin' plush

With a cascade of releases spewing 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 free-to-stream) digital releases — but we’ll keep things loose enough to branch out if/when we feel it necessary. (Check out November and December’s installment here.)

As often seems the case, this month’s mixtape crop is a study in juxtaposition. Our selections both belie (gangway for navy) and support (Freewave 3) the notion of the mixtape as a haphazard assemblage or practice album. They compare and contrast Chicago with Atlanta (Still Swervin’), Oakland with Detroit (Bartier Bounty), and New York with other parts of New York. They evoke past (I AM ATLANTA 4EVER) and present (While We Wait), fringe (A Mercy Killing) and pop (Unplugged EP). They’re all over the place and all right here. Let’ see, what else… oh yeah — free 21 Savage, and Breez Brewin is the greatest (i.e., my favorite) rapper of all time.


Sada Baby - Bartier Bounty

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The odds of me ever being able to buy a Sada Baby CD are slim, but this is a start. Confined until now to YouTube videos (and MP3 rips thereof), the Sada Baby catalog is a richly rewarding sprawl, a web of freestyles, small-name collaborations, and largely unpromoted singles tied together by the sheer strength of personality. Goofy dance work, deep-cut basketball references, and Detroit hyper-violence somehow co-exist — thrive, really — in Sada’s gruff, urgent delivery over the sort of beats, equally Bay Area- and techno-inflected, that have come to define modern Detroit street rap. “My personal YouTube playlist of Sada Baby videos” was the trendy wildcard for 2018’s year-end lists, and Bartier Bounty shows why; even if much of the new material falls flat, your 12 favorite Sada Baby tracks can more than hold their own against any album out right now.


Navy Blue - gangway for navy

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It’s becoming increasingly apparent that Some Rap Songs wasn’t a culmination of, nor an artistic dead-end for, the noi$e coming out of the sLUms/lo-fi crew. In the months since, we’ve already been blessed with a new MIKE offering, and here we have gangway for navy, an unassuming missive from sLUms-affiliate and Earl sparring partner Navy Blue. As with SRS, these tracks are brief and plodding, smudged and smeared out, but brevity need not signify aimlessness or abandon. Apparently, gangway has been gestating for a short while, and every bar, sample, and drum lick (hell, even the dead space at the end of “deathmask …”) seems poised and purposeful as such. And, while Navy might not quite have war in his pen, his impressionistic words and voice give form to the (just-about) beats, atop which his affect is one of malcontent. The ever-so-slightly sardonic “carlos” is a case-in-point – he’s ready to clear the air and he hopes for grace, only to stumble and pause on his “grief.”


Auset Bennu - Unplugged EP

[DOWNLOAD/STREAM]

“Is the hip-hop mainstream ready for a trans MC?” would be how to start this blurb if I wrote for SPIN or some shit. This would likely then be followed by mentioning how Beyoncé and Drake sampled Big Freedia. But SPIN this is not, and Auset Bennu doesn’t make bounce music. She does make exactly the kind of hard-hitting, dance-ready, feeling-oneself-heavy hip-hop that, to my ears, would fit seamlessly in Hot 97’s regular radio rotation. And while we’re shooting for the stars, why not a Cardi B collab? Auset reps Bronx Dominicanas too, and Cardi’s the new Drake now in terms of unavoidability. All armchair A&Ring aside, Auset Bennu’s music has so much pop appeal that cisgender embrace is essentially besides the point (though inevitable). This tape is certified dope no matter what else you call it and regardless of what kind(s) of shoes are in your closet. Mainstream or not, she’s already a star for this.


Kehlani - While We Wait

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Kehlani’s worst career move was staying “real” — in the three-dimensional, human sense that the laboratory-grown SZAs and Jorja Smiths of the world are not — and for that, we should thank her. Across a handful of tapes and one official album, 2017’s excellent SweetSexySavage, her most interesting work has consistently been her most personal and idiosyncratic; the greatest criticism of Savage was that it sometimes leaned too heavily upon revival and interpolation of well-worn 90s classics, and the greatest strength of While We Wait is, correspondingly, that it’s thoroughly contemporary (Dom Kennedy feature notwithstanding). Even the drawbacks are modern: the tape is nine songs long, ambiguously placed along the EP-mixtape-album spectrum, and already out of the public consciousness after its nearly-unannounced release last week.


Lucki - Freewave 3

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Spare the braggadocio for another tape: apathy and agony are the prevailing attitudes on Lucki’s Freewave 3, an evocative glimpse at a low point in the Chicago emcee’s life. Clocking in at a fleeting 30 minutes, the record is a collection of 15 song-fragments held together by gritty 808s and bare honesty. Prescription drug abuse is an all-too-common motif for trap rappers, but Lucki confronts these demons with enough self-awareness to stand out among the genre’s most vivid lyricists. More of a scene-setter than a storyteller, Lucki plays the part of his own super-ego, wedging pangs of guilt and introspection between him and his self-destructive impulses. Thoughts fade into being, branching out into memories and faces. “I need grandma picture with me, I won’t sip if she near me,” he murmurs over aquatic piano chops on “2012 Summer.” Lucki’s family members and flames float in the marginalia of his verses, hinted at through purple fog. He’s trapped in a vicious circle; trapped by the trap; trapped beneath layers of compression. Dip a toe in the tarpit and you too might disappear.


Gorilla Zoe - I AM ATLANTA 4EVER

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Here’s Atlanta trap legend Gorilla Zoe’s all-Zaytoven-produced new tape I AM ATLANTA 4EVER, a 10-track homage to the pair’s home city. It’s the fourth and final installment of Gorilla Zoe’s I Am Atlanta series, the first of which came in 2008, back when he was riding the waves that this made in the early days of Atlanta’s hip-hop/trap renaissance. A decade later, Zaytoven and Gorilla Zoe are working hard in true Atlanta fashion, Zaytoven as soulful as ever, same watermark tag and all, Gorilla Zoe still rapping with cool, stylistic ease. This tape carries a nostalgic, melancholic flavor (see “Built Like Me”), and it seems like the two are reflecting on what they’ve achieved, unconcerned about proving the legitimacy of what they’re doing. The Atlanta renaissance (that these two helped spark in no small measure) is still going strong, but as this decade draws to a close, perhaps it’s worth asking whether the South (and more specifically, Atlanta) will lose credibility as the referent for chart-topping hits, as happened with NYC hip-hop beginning in the early 2000s. But if this tape is any indication, it’s clear that, to legendary Atlanta rappers and producers like these two, the answer doesn’t matter. They’re gonna keep doing Atlanta no matter what, and they’re gonna do it well.


G Herbo & Southside - Still Swervin

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After the relatively disappointing first draft of last summer’s Swervo, it’s heartening (and wholly unexpected) to see G Herbo and Southside continue to refine their creative partnership with Still Swervin. Originally conceived by Herbo as a path into Southern markets, the collaboration has staked out a real middle ground between Herbo’s Chicago and Southside’s Atlanta, giving the former sufficient distance, both sonic and spatial, from his comfort zone to try new personas and styles. Herbo’s still rapping offbeat, whatever that’s supposed to mean, and more power to him — it only takes a single appearance from Gunna (on “Trained to Kill”) to demonstrate how boring the alternative could be.


Spaghetti Blacc - A Mercy Killing

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A Mercy Killing is the rare mixtape that — whether you’re familiar with its creator or not — feels fully realized upon arrival. From the cover art based on Picasso’s Bullfight, the death of torero to the track titles (“Consumed By Mushrooms,” “Talismania Devil”), it’s clear even before pressing play that there’s a very particular set of ideas behind all of this. Then, when you do finally touch that boxed triangle, your face melts and your brain explodes. If Nephilim Modulation Systems ever put out something on Deathbomb Arc, it might sound something like this, but the vision, voice, and vibe are all Spaghetti Blacc’s – intricate, raw and unrelenting. If you dig what you hear, you’re in luck, because he put out three other releases just this past January. Plus, there’s the extensive discography of Spaghetti’s Blacc Ski Weekend Industries to unpack. Get killed.

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