The Best Hip-Hop Mixtapes of All Time: Where to Find the Best Free Rap Music on the Internet
Note: while mixtapes are released online for free, they can usually be purchased as well. If you love an artist or like what you hear in this article, show your support by purchasing the project!
Table of Contents
- Best Mixtape By a Rapper Under 20
- Best Mixtape by a Major Label Rapper
- Best Group Mixtape
- Best Mixtape of 2014
- Best Mixtape by a "New School" Artist
- Best Mash-up Mixtape
- Best Mixtape by a Rap God
- Best Mixtape by an Independent Artist
- Best Classic Mixtape
- Best Instrumental Mixtape
- Best R&B Crossover Mixtape
- Best Mixtape of All Time
- BONUS! Most Anticipated Mixtape
- BONUS! Dream Mixtape
What is a "Mixtape?"
Even if you are a hip-hop head like me, it is getting increasingly hard to define exactly what a mixtape is. Way back in the day of ACTUAL tapes, a mixtape was a crude collection of beats on a cassette, usually borrowed from popular tracks put out by other rappers, that struggling MCs would lay their raps over. Today, mixtapes have evolved a lot, and have become more and more like full length hip-hop albums. However, there is still a lot that makes a mixtape unique: mixtapes are usually independently released, have lower production values or uncleared samples in their beats, and are usually released for free. Additionally, they are often lower quality than official album releases. But if you know where to look, mixtapes offer some of the best and most authentic hip-hop there is, and are a great place to discover legal, free Rap music. Read on or click the table of contents links to the right to see my list of the best mixtapes of all time!
In rating the following mixtapes and declaring winners in each category, I will rate projects based on 5 metrics: creativity (the overall artistic merit of the work), originality (the uniqueness or "fresh factor" of the project), beats (the production value/mixing of the project), lyrics (the rhymes) and overall impact (how the project works as a whole).
Best Mixtape By a Rapper Under 20: Joey Badass' "1999"
Joey Bada$$, "1999" Review
Creativity: 8/10. Originality: 5/10. Lyrics: 9/10. Beats: 8.5/10. Overall: 9/10.
On "1999," Joey Bada$$ burst on to the scene, and established himself as one of the most interesting, complex, and talented young rappers of all time. His lyrics rival and harken back to a young Illmatic era Nas, and his creativity shows through on every track. "1999" is essentially a throwback tape, taking it's inspiration and beats from the sounds of the golden East Coast boom-bap era, and as such it takes a serious hit for originality. Even still, the project is phenomenal as a whole, and stands as Joey's best work to date.
Stand-out Tracks: "Waves," "Survival Tactics," "World Domination"
Runner Up: "10 Day" by Chance the Rapper
Best Mixtape by a Major Label Rapper: J. Cole's "Friday Night Lights"
J. Cole, "Friday Night Lights" Review
Creativity: 7/10. Originality: 6/10. Lyrics: 9.5/10. Beats: 8/10. Overall:8.5/10.
If you ask a J. Cole fan what their favorite album by the rapper is, many will answer "Friday Night Lights," despite the fact that the project was officially released as a mixtape. On this tape, Cole is so raw and emotive that his music is simply irresistible. Without the pressures of a major label that have largely made his albums feel watered down (until 2014 Forest Hills Drive anyway) Cole gets to be himself, and the result is some of the realest, most impressive lyricism of the decade. There isn't anything particularly unique about this project, but Cole is able to come off as creative anyhow due to pure artistic talent.
Stand-out Tracks: "Before I'm Gone," Home for the Holidays," "Back to the Topic (freestyle)"
Runner-up: "War Angel" by 50 Cent
Best Group Mixtape: Tech Nine's "Bad Season"
Tech Nine, "Bad Season" Review
Creativity: 6/10. Originality: 8/10.Lyrics: 8.5/10. Beats: 6/10.Overall:8/10.
While "Bad Season" was officially released as a Tech Nine solo mixtape, it truly feels like a crew tape to anyone who has paid attention to the meteoric rise of Strange Music. Kriz Kaliko provides luscious and soulful hooks on many of the tracks, and the tape features most of the Strange Music roster at one time or another. Importantly, the tape was the first official Strange Music appearance of Ces Cru, the powerhouse duo now signed to Tech's label. DJ Whoo Kid's prescense probably gave the project a bigger profile, but the mixing of his trademark "Whooooo Kiddddddd" ad-lib over much of the tape gets grating, costing the project points in the beats department. However, the prominence of acapella style tracks makes the project feel very personal and original.
Stand-out Tracks: "No More Music By The Suckas," "Livin Like I'm Dyin," "Speed of Sound (Acapella)"
Runner-up: "PEEP: The aPROcalypse" by ProEra
Best Mixtape of 2014: Childish Gambino's "STN MTN"
Childish Gambino, "STN MTN" Review
Creativity: 8/10. Originality:7/10. Lyrics: 7.5/10. Beats:7/10. Overall:8/10.
If Gambino's odd and rambling career has proven one thing, it is that the renaissance man isn't afraid to take risks and have fun while creating amazing projects. On "STN MTN" Gambino goes absolutely crazy, rapping aggressively over trap beats in a style that is totally different than anything he has previously released, and totally works. "STN MTN" is half of a larger project, released with the EP "Kauai," but works well as a stand-alone tape. If you haven't taken Gambino seriously in the past, the complete and intentional lack of seriousness throughout this tape should make you reconsider the MCs skills and creativity.
Stand-out Tracks: "Candler Road," "All Y'all," "Go DJ"
Runner-up: "King Remembered in Time" by Big K.R.I.T.
Best Mixtape by a "New School" Artist: Kendrick Lamar's "Overly Dedicated"
Kendrick Lamar, "O.D." Review
Creativity: 8/10. Originality:6/10.Lyrics: 9/10. Beats:6/10.Overall:9/10.
When Kendrick Lamar says on Section.80: "dropped my mixtape and it sold like an album," this is the project he is talking about, and for good reason. O.D. is a monumental release by the young Lamar, and proves that he had skills way before GKMC. On "Overly Dedicated," Lamar helped contribute to the trend that is currently sweeping hip-hop of releasing 'mixtapes' that sound like fully developed LPs. While the mixing on the tape leaves something to be desired, and there isn't too much here that is super original (Lamar seems to be intentionally referencing back to a lot of his west coast idols and contemporaries on this tape), Kendrick's lyrics are on point and his artistic voice shines through, and the project as a whole is legendary.
Stand-out Tracks: "Opposites Attract," "Barbed Wire," "I Do This (Remix)"
Runner-up: "Long Term Mentality 2" by Ab-soul
Best Mash-up Mixtape: Jay-z/Nas, Mick Boogie & Joey Fingaz's "God's Gift"
Nas/Jay-z, "God's Gift" Review
Creativity: 6/10.Originality:9/10.Lyrics: 9/10.Beats:8/10.Overall:9.5/10.
Mash-up mixtapes are a huge part of hip-hop, and "God's Gift" is the best example of this genre that exists. Nas & Jay-z had an infamous rivalry at the start of the 2000s, but later became label mates. However, their old feud means the two legendary MCs haven't been on too many tracks together, until now. This remix project puts classic Jay and Nas lines over perfect beats, which range from Kanye to Swizz Beatz and beyond, and comes together as a cohesive piece that makes listeners wish Jay and Nas put out a real collab album together. While the lyrics are great (Jay and Nas, duh) the mixing is muddy at times, and the piece misses creativity points as the DJs at the helm didn't take too many opportunities to put their own spin on the classic beats selected.
Stand-out Tracks: "The Rulers," "Hater," "What's Beef?"
Runner-up: "The Grey Album," Jay-z/The Beatles by Danger Mouse
Best Mixtape by a Rap God: Talib Kweli's "Right About Now"
Talib Kweli, "Right About Now" Review
Creativity:8/10. Originality:7/10. Lyrics:8/10. Beats:8/10. Overall:8.5/10.
Talib Kweli fans know that the man has put out a huge amount of quality music via mixtape, but in my opinion his best mixtape work is found on "Right About Now: The Official Sucka Free Mixtape." On this project, Talib pays tribute to some of his personal idols, most notably Lauren Hill, and the result is an authentic and soulful mixtape that has stood the test of time. Hip-hop heads were pissed off when it was released because "Right About Now" was officially put out on a label, but the distribution and concept of the tape was original for it's time, and the work as a whole is very creative and soulful. The only place it seriously misses points is in the lyrics department: not because they are bad, but because Talib can do GREAT things lyrically, and some of his bragging lines feel only good here.
Stand-out Tracks: "Ms. Hill," "Roll Off Me," "Where You Gonna Run?"
Runner-up: "Trap or Die 2," by Young Jeezy
Best Classic Mixtape: 50 Cent's "50 Cent is the Future"
50 Cent, "50 Cent is the Future" Review
Creativity:7/10. Originality:9/10. Lyrics:6/10. Beats:8.5/10. Overall:9/10.
What can I say about this mixtape that hasn't already been said time and time again? 50's early work here is the stuff of legend. With "50 Cent is the Future," the rapper stepped to the mic so aggressively that he inspired a whole generation of mixtape artists: when a kid in any city in the U.S. puts out a mixtape today, more than a decade after "50 Cent is the Future," that kid is STILL trying to capture some of the energy and ferocity that 50 bottled on this seminal project. No, the lyrics aren't Shakespeare (despite being some of 50's best) and there isn't anything too creative about the work, but there is SO MUCH ENERGY and so much aggression that the project demands attention and remains a classic and changed the mixtape game forever.
Stand-out Tracks: "Bump Dat Street Mix," "G-Unit That's What's Up," "Got Me a Bottle"
Runner-up: "Champ is Here" by Jadakiss
Best Instrumental Mixtape: J Dilla's "Donuts"
J Dilla, "Donuts" Review
Creativity:10/10. Originality:10/10. Lyrics:?/10. Beats:10/10. Overall:10/10.
Is this even a mix-tape? Or an album? A beats CD? I really don't care. It is one of my favorite projects of all time, and I wanted to put it on here. "Donuts" at once pays tribute and harkens back to old school golden era beat tapes and serves as Dilla's magnum opus: it was the last project he ever completed, and was released days after his death. I've given the man all 10's out of respect. And because he deserves them. If you can find a more cohesive, creative, and well rounded instrumental hip-hop album, you deserve a medal.
Stand-out Tracks: Just push play. The whole project is stand-out.
Runner-up: Not even going to try.
Best Mixtape by an Independent Artist: Ab Soul's "Long Term Mentality 2"
Ab-Soul, "Long Term Mentality" Review
Creativity: 8/10. Originality:5/10. Lyrics:9/10. Beats:8.5/10.Overall:9.5/10.
While there are many amazing independent artists putting out amazing mixtapes at an amazing rate (Freddy Gibbs is a machine.) I haven't been able to find very many projects in ANY category or genre that I enjoy more than "Long Term 2." On this tape, Ab-Soul displays unmatched lyrical ability, and isn't afraid to switch up his flow constantly. "Long Term 2" is everything that an independent project should be: authentic, unique, hungry as hell, and true to who Soul is as an artist. I docked him a lot of points for originality, only because his flow is very derivative in many parts of this tape, paying tribute to the greats like Nas and Big. However, he does this intentionally and pulls it off, and the project as a whole is incredibly heartfelt and impactful. Plus, soul deserves props for staying independent.
Stand-out Tracks: "Still a Regular Nigga," "Turn me Up," "Long Term 2"
Runner-up: "Acid Rap" by Chance the Rapper
Best R&B Cross-over Mixtape: Frank Ocean's "Nostalgia Ultra"
Frank Ocean, "Nostalgia, Ultra" Review
Creativity: 8/10. Originality:8/10. Lyrics:7/10. Beats:9/10. Overall:8/10.
It somewhat rare for an unsigned underground R&B singer to release a mixtape, at least compared to the frequency with which unknown rappers push their material. What Frank Ocean did with "Nostalgia, Ultra" was truly remarkable and not just because of its noteworthy mixtape status. With "Nostalgia, Ultra" Frank Ocean launched his solo career in a big way, taking the musical prowess that had led him to pen hits for others in the past and combining this musicality with an incredibly smooth and confident vocal presence. This tape immediately cemented Frank's status as a young artist to watch, and remained at once explorative and steeped in pop sensibility. The beat selection fits Frank's voice and style well, and the artistic aspect is there, but some less than deep lyrics (these are pop songs...) made the project not feel as cohesive as it could have.
Stand-out Tracks: "Novacane," "Love Crimes," "There Will be Tears"
Best Mixtape of All Time: Chance the Rapper's "Acid Rap"
Chance the Rapper, "Acid Rap" Review
Creativity: 9/10. Originality:9/10. Lyrics:8.5/10. Beats:10/10. Overall:10/10.
From the first notes on this tape, it is obvious that you are listening to something special. I am sure this will be a controversial choice, but I am calling it now: time will prove that "Acid Rap" is one of the greatest mixtape projects ever. Chance the rapper came out of left field to drop what is already being called a classic, blowing up faster than any of his peers. "Acid Rap" is backed to overflowing with lush and creative instrumentals which pay tribute to the Chicago greats whose legacy Chance carries on, and sonicaly the mixtape feels so complete and comprehensive that it could easily stand as an album more so than any other project on this list. The textures and concepts in this project are incredibly original and creative, and on the whole it is hard to believe that Chance is so young, as this sounds like such a mature and refined product. The only place where this project isn't close to perfect are in some of Chance's lines: the majority of the tape is quality lyricism and balances punchlines and introspection well, but a few verses feel last minute. Overall, "Acid Rap" has changed the game, changed what independent artists can hope to do in the internet age, changed how rappers interact with their fans, and changed the definition of "mixtape" forever.
Stand-out Tracks: "Good Ass Intro," "Cocoa Butter Kisses," "Interlude (that's love)"
(Bonus!) Most Anticipated Mixtape: Kutt Calhoun "Flamez Mixtape 2"
Many of you may not know who Kutt Calhoun is, and I don't blame you: he hasn't had the most consistent career, and despite being one of the label's earliest signees has recently broken away form the independent powerhouse "Strange Music." However, with his first album and his first mixtape, "Flamez Mixtape," Kutt showed incredible promise as a grimy street rapper who combined the best parts of Game and 50's intensity with a more laid back and versatile flow. And he has the potential to become a great rapper still: "Flamez" is one of my favorite mixtapes ever, and "Flamez 2" is rumored to come out later this year. Will Kutt reach the level of greatness that his fans have always believed he can achieve, and jump start his career with "Flamez 2," or will he fade away without the name recognition of Strange Music? Time will tell.
Kendrick raps VERY WELL over Cole beats.
(Bonus!) Dream Mixtape: J. Cole & Kendrick Lamar Full Mixtape
A while back, it was rumored that Kendrick and Cole were working on a full project together, a "Watch the Throne" style compilation produced by Cole and featuring the duo on every track. However, the project has yet to see the light of day. Based on Cole's large mixtape output in the past, and the fact that both artists are so huge that any compilation may take forever to see an official release, I am betting and hoping that if this project is ever released, it will be as a mixtape. Let's all pray to the rap gods that this becomes a reality.
Closing Words on Mixtapes and Free Rap Music
Mixtapes, by definition, are free, and you can find all of the tapes above online for no charge. However, you can also pay for most of them. If you love these artists and want to see them succeed, prove it. Whether that means buying their albums, buying concert tickets and merch, or buying a copy of your favorite mixtape, remember to support the music you love.