In a somber month for underground hip-hop, we’re getting by with unique, boundary-pushing music.
It was a rough month for the mixtape world. One of its main proponents and fastest rising stars, Lil Peep, died at the age of 21. In addition to sparking important conversations that go well beyond art and aesthetics, Peep’s death was a sobering reminder that the hold these young rappers have on the industry is always tenuous at best, and that showing support could perhaps take on more humanistic elements than just adding another play count to a SoundCloud stream.
In the admittedly limited context of this monthly column, a way of showing support in the aftermath of this tragedy could be as simple as refreshing our love for the scene’s up-and-comers and recalibrating our desire to see rappers continue the experimentation and boldness that Lil Peep stood for. To that end, much of this month’s best mixtapes come from such a place, whether it’s the genre experimentation of Duckwrth, the youthful omnivorous hunger of Rico Nasty or the uninhibited individualism of Azizi Gibson. The sounds may be different, but the impulse is similar. R.I.P. Lil Peep!
8. DJ Lucas, “Lucas Mansion III”
“Lucas Mansion III” almost didn’t reach our ears, but thanks to “Mike” from Geek Squad, DJ Lucas was able to share it just in time for the holidays. DJ Lucas is an acquired taste, with music marked by auto-tune acrobatics and a cartoonish delivery, but his energy and production chops (he produced more than half of the 22 tracks here) showcase a playful vibrancy that’s rare in a world of trap rehashes and by-the-numbers viral hopefuls. The Dark World rapper is, in the end, a rare, oddball persona with a producer tag that’s both mind-numbingly generic and downright incredible.
7. Eddy Baker, “Drug Dealer Superstar”
On the surface, “Drug Dealer Superstar” might seem like just another entry in a long line of dour transmissions from the streets. But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill trap joint. Underscoring the distinction between trite gloominess and all-enveloping darkness, Eddy Baker’s 10-track mindwarp is a full-on exercise in mood creation, evoking the grittier elements of street life with the help of rappers like Thouxanbanfauni and Chris King and producers like Purpdogg and 888. It’s all ominous sub bass and lethargic beats here, save for a fantastic anomaly in “Slangin.” Eddy Baker’s doing the Raider Klan proud on this one.
6. Duckwrth, “An XTRA UUGLY Mixtape”
It says a lot that, in 2017, a mixtape dubbed as an “anthem for your rebellion” sounds about as escapist as you can get. Such is the case with “An XTRA UUGLY Mixtape.” Duckwrth’s 13-track release has a breezy vibe to it, whether the L.A. rapper is flirting with Odd Future hybridizations (“Summer’s Exit”), André 3000 soul workouts (“Michuul”) or rap-rock pastiche (“XTRA”). The genre experimentation can be cheesy at times (“Wake Up!”), but then a surprisingly nuanced track like “Backyard Miracles” pushes its way through, with pitch-shifted vocals and lush chord progressions that prove just how much potential Duckwrth has.
5. Kamaiyah, “Before I Wake”
It’s been over a year and a half since the release of Kamaiyah’s breakthrough mixtape, “A Good Night in the Ghetto.” Since then, the hype for the Oakland rapper has seemingly peaked as she awaits the release of her debut, which is currently toiling in sample-clearance purgatory. Fortunately, Kamaiyah is once again making moves to mitigate the slump. “Before I Wake” — the first of two proposed mixtapes before her debut drops — doubles down on her West Coast appropriations, finding a healthy balance between reverence and nostalgia while still sounding decidedly fresh. It’s 10 tracks of catchy hooks and tight rhymes, all of it heightened tenfold through Kamaiyah’s snappy delivery.
4. Westside Gunn, “Hitler Wears Hermes V”
This month, Westside Gunn not only announced a vinyl release of the original “Hitler Wears Hermes” mixtapes from five years ago, he also dropped his fifth installment in the ongoing series. “Hitler Wears Hermes V” is a short mixtape with only nine cuts, but the Shady Records associate uses the abbreviated opportunity to rep some quality bars, splaying his snotty bite across dissonant production from favorites like Knxwledge and Alchemist with vocal assists from Keisha Plum and label-mate Conway. Up next? A joint release with the super villain himself, DOOM, a release that Westside describes as the “RAWEST, FLYEST, GRIMIEST shit you’ve ever heard IN YA LIFE.”
3. Rico Nasty, “Sugar Trap 2”
After the left-field turn that was “Tales of Tacobella” from earlier this year, Rico Nasty revisits the nasty snarl and lopsided melodies of her earlier material on “Sugar Trap 2,” cooked up here in a style she calls “happy savage.” She emphasizes infectiousness and exhilaration when talking about her music, but what hits hardest has always been her delivery, which teeters between strained aggression and warped auto-tune flourishes. The only guest verses come from Famous Dex, so unless you count her alter-egos Tacobella and Trap Levigne, this is mostly pure Rico — a 14-track primer on her versatility, with hints of possible bright futures for this rising rapper.
2. Azizi Gibson, “I’m Good on People”
Azizi Gibson doesn’t have the typical come-up story. The rapper was born in Germany, raised in Singapore and Thailand and spends his time these days around Los Angeles. While he caught the attention of Flying Lotus and the Brainfeeder crew years ago, Gibson now appears to be in his own lane with “I’m Good on People,” boasting an idiosyncratic tenor teeming with a peculiar melodic sensibility and uninhibited style that’s charged by its own slippery momentum. His closest touchstone is iLoveMakonnen, but Azizi plows past his contemporaries with a bravado that’s equal parts charming and hard AF, with incredible cuts like “Hopeless” interspersed throughout. As he recently explained to Billboard, “It’s always been quality over quantity with me, so I wanted to do a compact project that was filled with bangers so when it’s over, you’re in shock.”
1. Mick Jenkins, “or more; the anxious”
The first in a series of projects before the release of his next album, “or more; the anxious” is not your typical Mick Jenkins. Serving as a distillation of “musical ideas and concepts” that are currently inspiring his forthcoming studio project, this is the Chicago MC free from industry constraints, living in what he describes as “a world of exploration.” So it speaks volumes that this considerably amorphous seven-tracker inspires the kind of feelings usually attached to his more polished work. To put it bluntly: It’s a gorgeous mixtape despite the loose, freewheeling context. And if this is the sound of “indecisiveness,” as Jenkins put it, then we’re in for a real treat once his new album drops.