What is, and what isn’t, a mixtape? It’s a question that’s split the Clash office more than once. Need it be hip-hop, exclusively? Of course not. Need it be freely distributed via the internet? That seems to be a must. And what do the artists themselves think? Speak to some and they’ll tell you that what you’re calling a mixtape is, to them, an album proper, so…
So! Below we’ve simply rounded up some of the best free-release collections to have buzzed our senses since 2013 blipped into existence with another damp squib of a New Year’s party.
This is by no means a definitive selection of 2013’s absolutely outstanding mixtapes, as we’re sure that many pass us by – one can’t be fully locked into this sort of thing without losing weeks of sleep. But what we can state, with certainty: the below represents some damn fine listening. So download these while they’re still sorta hot.
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Kilo Kish – ‘K+’
She’s no native New Yorker, but Lakisha ‘Kilo Kish’ Robinson has, at just 23, truly set herself aside as a Big Apple artist with creativity to burn. ‘K+’ is part-concept, all-quality – a collection tied to an accompanying art exhibition but equally engrossing on its own terms. With production from SBTRKT and Star Slinger alongside contributions from Childish Gambino and Earl Sweatshirt, it’s a heavyweights-starring exercise. Yet the real star is Kish, throughout, whose wonderfully articulated examinations of relationship beginnings, middles and ends are indicative of a tremendous career to come.
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Ryan Hemsworth – ‘Still Awake’
Canadian DJ and producer Hemsworth is having a brilliant 2013, with almost everything he touches picking up critical acclaim. ‘Still Awake’ is a relatively curt seven-tracker that encapsulates many of the man’s qualities. It’s immediate yet possessed of a depth that only really makes itself known via repeat plays; you can dance to it, but not like you might many an artist billed in a comparable fashion. This is slow-motion affection, manifesting across weeks rather than minutes. ‘Still Awake’ is less hip-hop-centric than past Hemsworth sets, but it’s no less absorbing for its comparable subtlety, representing a rich tapestry of textures.
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Le1f – ‘Fly Zone’
The “alien from the NYC”’s second mixtape, following 2012’s sprawling ‘Dark York’, is a focused and furiously addictive affair, splattering Wiley samples here and killer guest turns from the likes of Kitty Pryde and Haleek Maul there. An openly gay MC with no little flamboyance to his personality, Le1f doesn’t shy from deliberately nudge-wink wordplay: “I’m from Mercury, but I’m moving to Uranus,” is one line delivered with a smirk. Yet there’s potential here that can’t pass unacknowledged, and Le1f’s aware that some might have not given him the time he deserves, yet. “I’m the prince that you slept on,” he claims. Time to wake up.
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El-P and Killer Mike – ‘Run The Jewels’
Does this count? It’s a free download, so… Clash reviewed ‘Run The Jewels’ in depth over here. To not get your ears around this outstanding set is pure bonkers.
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Pusha T – ‘Wrath Of Caine’
Virginia Beach’s Pusha T’s no stranger to mixtape culture, having foreshadowed major releases as one-half of Clipse with freely distributed collections to drum up interest – if any drumming was actually required. ‘Wrath Of Caine’ precedes the arrival of ‘My Name Is My Name’, Pusha’s solo debut proper, but it’s far from a simple prologue piece. These 11 cuts come with the backing of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint, and production credits include The Neptunes, Harry Fraud, Young Chop and West himself. Joining Pusha in the booth: Rick Ross, Wale, French Montana and more. This is a major-league commercial release masquerading as a mixtape – and, really, if Clipse have ever meant a damn thing to you, you know what to do…
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Chance The Rapper – ‘Acid Rap’
An internet-crasher, ‘Acid Rap’ saw droves head to Fake Shore Drive's site in April, eager for a taste of this potent brew, bringing servers to their knees. For 20-year-old Chicago MC Chancelor Bennett, aka Chance The Rapper, this frenzied activity represented a watermark moment. Having guested on cuts by Joey Bada$$ and Childish Gambino in the wake of his 2011 set ‘#10Day’, ‘Acid Rap’ saw the newcomer truly tread ground of his own. That the roster of collaborating rappers here is impressive indeed – from Action Bronson to Ab-Soul – is an aspect of this mixtape’s appeal; but Bennett’s singular storytelling forever hogs the spotlight. It’s good-time vibes, this, but tempered by a distinct maturity. Special stuff, indeed.
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The Underachievers – ‘Indigoism’
NYC’s Beast Coast scene has been well documented, despite its youthful stature – Clash itself has collected a series of articles on related acts. But the outfit to have travelled furthest from the source is perhaps this duo, affiliated as they are with Flying Lotus’ LA-based Brainfeeder label. Not entirely retro like Bada$$, and far from as pithy as Flatbush Zombies, Issa Dash and Ak are purveyors of a very studied, soulful rap, which feels at once familiar yet refreshingly new. Slightly spaced-out, it’s pro-drugs without being pro-drugs, and taps its toes around bluesy asides and almost Caribbean-tinged passages. To older ears, there are flashes of The Pharcyde mixed with a more pharmaceutical edge. Creative, then, but concise with its mysticism and experimentalism, ‘Indigoism’ is about as accomplished as a debut can get.
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AraabMuzik – ‘For Professional Use Only’
The Rhode Island producer behind acts like Lloyd Banks, Swizz Beats, Styles P and Cam’ron is also an accomplished DJ and live-MIDI-user, and ‘For Professional Use Only’ plays out like a tent-bursting festival set of taut build-ups and booming bass drops. It’s everything louder than everything else, pushed way past 11 and left to detonate. It’s punishing, yet party-friendly – largely instrumental music that clips and sprints, dizzying itself until it blows chunks, but then gets right back up and starts all over again. Encompassing the knuckle-dragging Neanderthalism of bro-step basslines but marrying that somewhat unrefined approach to rather more detailed escapes into inventive hip-hop surrounds, ‘For Professional Use Only’ is a devastating business card for anyone seeking out bleeding-edge beats.
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