The year of the mixtape: the 15 greatest releases of 2016

From Chance the Rapper to Future to Noname its been a vital year for hip-hop, and the lines between mixtape and album have blurred

2016 was the year the mixtape nearly became obsolete, with releases growing more and more polished and less and less like mixtapes. They also fell prey to streaming service subscriptions that value all music equally, blurring the distinction between mixtape and album and making the distinction itself meaningless. Yet it was somehow also the year the mixtape was a huge cornerstone of the rap marketplace the year of the blockbuster mixtape, as well as the breakout mixtape.

Artists such as Chance the Rapper, Young Thug and 2 Chainz used them to project grand, brand-new visions, while newer faces such as Noname, Lil Yachty, Kamaiyah, 21 Savage and Lil Uzi Vert used them to break through to the next level of web-driven fandom. And that doesnt even include artists such as Desiigner, Zay Hilfigerrr and Zayion McCall, who charted big on Billboard with mixtape hits. In some ways, it is outmoded; in others, it is more vital than ever before.

With that in mind, these are the best mixtapes of year, projects that both proudly carried the distinction and produced much of the best, most nuanced rap music of 2016.

Young Thug Jeffery

Since 2013, only the prodigious Kendrick Lamar can sincerely claim to be more dynamic than Young Thug, the premier rap polymath and iconoclast. A polarizing figure, he is the heir apparent to Lil Waynes weirdo-rap empire. Thug sometimes seems to use sound the way some bats use sonar, bouncing it off synth walls to get his bearings before venturing forward or in zigzags. Other times, he seems as keen on song construction as pop hitmakers like Max Martin, crafting pristine earworms that nestle in the brain. He does both of those things and more on Jeffery, the complete realization of his sonic repertoire. It is as eclectic and daring a release youll hear, pivoting from impish yips to bloodhound-ish yowls to Louis Armstrong impersonations in a blink.

Kamaiyah A Good Night in the Ghetto

One of the years most refreshing new voices is Kamaiyah, a fun-loving, easy-on-the-ears singsongy Oakland rap artist subtly influenced by the energy of the Hyphy movement, the swagger of TLC and the flair of Missy Elliott. She makes feelgood songs about escapism, and they are infectious, none more so than her breakout single How Does It Feel, which openly wonders what its like to be rich. Her debut mixtape, A Good Night in the Ghetto (as the title suggests), is about being young and having fun, spending carefree drunken nights cruising around town and dreaming of fame and fortune, of getting out of the ghetto. In these moments, anythings possible.

Chance the Rapper Coloring Book

The best Coloring Book song is Kanye Wests Ultralight Beam. Though it appears on Kanye Wests album The Life of Pablo, it is distinctly Chance the Rappers, imbued with his warmth, a clear precursor to his mixtape in all its black joy and righteous glory. Like Ultralight Beam, the mixtape is explicitly spiritual with the bellowing accents of a gospel record, but through carefully articulated snapshots, Chance takes listeners through teenage summers in Chicago: experimenting with drugs, going to the rink, passing the time, surviving. Its about growing apart and yet also about coming together. Its aglow in unrelenting positivity, refusing to be ensnared by the citys pitfalls, seeking refuge in friends, and in faith. Its a God dream brought down to Earth.

Tink Winters Diary 4

At one point, superproducer Timbaland risked ruining Chicago rapper and singer Tink by attempting to fashion her into an Aaliyah puppet for his own gain. But he loosened the strings this year and on her latest mixtape, Winters Diary 4, she settles back into the habits that make her a dynamic talent: soul-baring honesty, confessional, brutally pointed songwriting. The tape carries with it Tinks long tradition of treating rapping as journaling, and she seamlessly details the most personal aspects of her journey to budding rap prodigy. This is the most versatile, and the most compelling, shes ever been standing again, not as the facsimile of a ghost but as a singularity.

Noname Telefone

Noname made her presence felt in recent years in limited at-bats on projects from Chance the Rapper and Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, but her grandest statement was made on her proper debut, the long-awaited Telefone mixtape. The tape showcases Nonames unique way with words stories told in snippets. It is a nuanced looked into the life of one of raps most exceptional writers, balancing joy and despair with a poets subtlety. She conveys this perpetual struggle simply, and eloquently in verse: She dream in Technicolor / Live black and white.

Allan Kingdom Northern Lights

The most chameleonic Kanye West progeny, and perhaps the only one truly formed in his image, is the Canadian-born, Minnesota-raised Allan Kingdom, a polymorphic artist who can be several different things at once: truth-seer, off-kilter singsong rap artist, genre-bender and culture distiller, among others. He is as comfortable working with reggae revivalist Chronixx as he is neo-soul wunderkind D.R.A.M. His sounds and stylings are most difficult to pin down on his latest mixtape, Northern Lights, but its his most fascinating release yet, exploring imitation, connection, disruption and evolution with a sprawling array of sounds and a sidewinding flow.

Nef the Pharaoh Neffy Got Wings

Following the release of one of 2015s sleeper hits, Big Tymin, Nef the Pharaoh returned this time alongside underrated producer Cardo (Drake, Nicki Minaj, ScHoolboy Q) for Neffy Got Wings, a masterclass in rap songcraft. The Vallejo MC has some incredible instincts, in timing, wordplay and melody, that continue to elude many of his contemporaries. He can be a remarkable storyteller, but as Big Tymin suggested, hes most effective when utilizing the bounce in his voice. Among the most stunning moments is Michael Jackson, a song that spins a childhood yarn into a realized dream, simulating a moonwalk with its effortlessness.

Dej Loaf All Jokes Aside

As Dej Loaf has ventured from backpacker to shoulder-checker, she settled into the style that best suits her, falling somewhere between the two identities. Shes starting to peak at just the right time, as her debut album approaches. All Jokes Aside, the latest in a string of strong releases, continues her ascent with even-keel performances. Shes always laid-back and remarkably cool, relying on her compact raps and her sweet and sour demeanor to appear unmoved by her success. Dej has a strong working relationship with producer DDS, and it continues to produce great results his hollowed-out compositions leave space for her brags. Shes so unimpressed by everything around her and that, in turn, makes her seem all the more impressive.

2 Chainz Daniel Son ; Necklace Don

2 Chainz quietly had the best year in rap, smashing guest spots on Chances No Problems, Kanyes Champions and Jeezys Magic City Monday, freeing Weezy from his contractual purgatory long enough to record a dedication album, and taking his game next level. In recent months, he has become the most efficient punchline rapper of his era, taking his already heavy swinging verses and cutting the filler for maximum impact, and hes learned that shorter projects suit his raps. To that end, the 10-track offering Daniel Son ; Necklace Don is his strongest work to date, creating a flood of powerful and often comical imagery like on Get Out the Bed: Bought a room just to shoot dice in / Whip same color Cicely Tyson … Made a mil off my phone devices.

21 Savage Savage Mode

21 Savage was born in the darkness, molded by it. His breakout tape Savage Mode is his manifesto, unmasking him as a Glock-firing, heartless villain looking for marks. His isnt the first to rap about violence, but hes among the few who sound numbed to it, hardened by it. His deadpan flows, stretched across the ominous soundscapes of Metro Boomin, reveal a young gunman still in the trenches, fearless and without feeling. But then theres the subdued closer, Ocean Drive, where he remembers all the times shots made his mother cry, all the friends hes seen laid to rest in caskets, and it becomes clear poverty birthed the savage in him.

Boogie Thirst 48 Pt II

The second installment in Compton rapper Boogies Thirst 48 series picks up right where the last left off, penning good kid, mad city narratives from a clear-eyed observationalist. I aint scared of shit but my baby mama / No I aint a punk, I just hate the drama, he raps, and thats a working thesis for his outlook. He keeps a close eye on whats happening around him, often avoiding confrontation in favor of documenting it, but he keeps an even closer eye on his own family, showing the value of love when surrounded by darkness. Hes always cautiously optimistic, and even as his rapping gets better he remains just as self-conscious as ever. Its endearing.

Kap G El Southside


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Kap G is Atlantas most underrated talent, a stunt rapper repping College Park who at times raps like the fourth Migo. After the release of his spotty Real Migo Shit mixtape series, he finally put it all together on El Southside, a hometown homage that boasts a Pharrell beat, an exceptional Young Thug guest spot and the most infectious song of his young career: Girlfriend, a strobing synth delight that turns a casual boast into a full-on flex jam. Its the stunning centerpiece of a well-rounded 10-track offering that displays a rapper on the rise finding his range.

Lil Uzi Vert Lil Uzi Vert vs the World

Phillys Lil Uzi Vert is a rascally alternative to the bubblegum rap prince Lil Yachty, presenting a manicured teen heartthrob persona through a scamp-y, almost nasally singsong. The best of his recent trio of mixtapes, Lil Uzi Vert vs the World, is a loose play on the Michael Cera-starring action comedy (and graphic novel) Scott Pilgrim vs the World, using its characters to sketch out a somewhat incoherent love story. But the magic is in the hooks the way he drags them and stretches them out. Theyre pure energy and animation. He understands song structure in a way Yachty does not (or doesnt care to), making full-fledged tunes that paint in watercolors.

Payroll Giovanni Big Bossin, Vol 1

Detroit supergroup Doughboyz Cashout has been consistently churning out music on one of raps more under-recognized scenes. One of the crews standouts, Payroll Giovanni, released a sun-drenched collaboration with Cardo called Big Bossin, Vol 1. Over productions that harken back to classic west coast gangsta rap, Giovanni lays his mack down with parading verses that replicate cruising with the top down. There are shades of Too Short, but the swag is Bylug.

Future Purple Reign

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A year after his great mixtape trilogy (Monster, Beast Mode and 56 Nights) and a Billboard chart-topping collaborative mixtape with Drake, Future released a mostly underappreciated slew of mixtapes, causing him to vanish from the musical sphere for several months an eternity for an artist as prolific as he is. At the top of the year, he released one of his most understated tapes, Purple Reign, which resurrects some of his most potent Auto-Tuned croaks and reunites him with some of his greatest collaborators, particularly Nard & B on the evocative Inside the Mattress. It isnt his strongest or even his most interesting work, but it is packed with his affecting croons.

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