Updated: Apr 18, 2021
The culture of mixtapes started back in the 80s with DJs like Ron G and Kid Capri, who took exclusive tracks, remixes, or new records and sold them for consumption. Before mixtapes, music consumers either bought the album of their favorite artist or a top hits that were more like a compilation of that artist's discography or the year as a whole: examples "Best Of Prince" or "Top Hits of 1991". Mixtapes allowed DJs to take a blank audio disc, whether it be an actual Tape or CD, and burn records to it without the restrictions of sticking to one artist, year, or even genre. The king of the mixtape era and the man who stood at the forefront of the movement was New York's very own DJ Clue.
DJ Clue transitioned the tradition of mixtapes being seen as just o playlist of good songs from various artists and started taking up-and-coming rappers and having them spit on beats that were already popular. The rest of the song would be the same but a verse or two would be different. Obviously, these weren't made for public consumption due to legal issues, but if you went down to Canal Street in the 90s you'd find DJ Clue mixtapes everywhere. From DJ Clue on, this became a formula for rappers to get signed in the music industry.
Now, for anybody who doesn't know there's the pre-50 Cent era of mixtapes and the post-50 Cent era of mixtapes. In the early 2000s, 50 literally changed the mixtape game by not only doing verses on other people's records but by changing the whole song. He did the hook, verses, bridge, he basically made other people's songs his own. Sometimes, 50 Cents versions were so good that DJs would play his tracks in the club instead of the originals.
To backtrack, 50 was already known around the industry for his hit record "How To Rob"(1999), where he literally dissed every popular rapper during the time and described how he would rob them for their riches. But as many know, 50 Cent was shot 9 times during his first taste of fame, so he literally used mixtapes as a way to come back into the music scene. In 2002 alone, 50 released 4 classic mixtapes: Guess Who's Back, 50 Cent Is The Future, No Mercy No Fear, and God's Plan. Through his mixtapes, 50 became an icon in New York's underground music scene, and eventually reached the ears of Eminem who signed him. The rest is history.
From this point on, mixtapes replaced the demos that record execs would usually ask for, and also allowed artists to build their fan bases independently. The blogging era only enhanced this trend, where you literally had artists like Drake, J. Cole, and Kendrick Lamar, using outlets like MySpace, Youtube, Limewire, and DatPiff, to build their own buzz and showcase their talents through mixtapes. For example, Meek Mill was literally signed to Maybach Music 3 years before he dropped his debut album because his mixtapes did so well. Contrary to popular belief, many artists don't actually make money through album sales, a good chunk of the money artists see are from touring so it didn't impact Meek in the long run.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, kids would go home and hop online just to see what new mixtape was hot. It was free. It was fun. And there was a sense of exclusivity to hearing music that wasn't on the radio and downloading it to your MP3 to show friends in school the next day.
In homage to that era, here are the Top 10 Mixtapes Of All Time!
10. Mac Miller, Macadelic
Mac... We miss you. We love you. And we will forever hold in you our hearts.
Macadelic released in March of 2012, marked a shift in Mac Miller's career from being just another "white rapper", to gaining the respect of the black community and solidified legends in the industry. With features from Cam'ron, Lil Wayne, Kendrick Lamar (before he was famous), and Juicy J, it was clear that this was a different Mac Miller than the one on Kids. It was as if everybody in the industry said "yeah he's gonna be here for a long time".
From the first song, "Desperado", Mac literally rips apart the beat spewing lyrics at a rapid pace with imagery reminiscent of 97' Eminem. Even on the hit song "Loud", it wasn't poppy or typical. There was a hard bass, fast hi-hats, and eery sounds in the background, and Mac was going off. Though this was before Mac really dug deep into his own production skills, this mixtape was the foundation of the sound that Mac Miller would go on to perfect throughout the rest of his career and that fans all over feel in love with. Long Live The Legend!
9. Joey Badass, 1999
Way beyond his years, 17-year-old Joey Bada$$ stormed into the music scene with all of Brooklyn behind him, with the classic mixtape that is 1999 (2012). Joey caught everyone by surprise. He had a smooth rhythm in his flow with clever lyrics that hit you immediately, and early comparisons to Nas. It was very reminiscent of the 90s, and ironically the tape was called 1999. The most popular song, “Waves”, has a smooth boom-bap style and a light piano to compliment Joey’s semi-biographical soliloquy. He’s also accompanied by a Tupac clip, paying homage to one of his idols and showing his ambition.
Not only was this our first introduction to Joey, but to the rest of Pro Era, including the legendary Capital Steez. Cap was the leader of Pro Era and started the group, but due to depression from lack of recognition, he committed suicide. This death loomed over Joey during his early years in the spotlight but motivated him to work even harder.
R.I.P. Cap Steez
Long story short, this tape started Joey's career and brought another NYC rap group to the scene. We'll talk about the other one later on!
8. Travis Scott, Days Before Rodeo
In many people's opinions, Days Before Rodeo (2014) is Travis Scott's best project to date. There was this raw distorted hunger that Travis held before fully being accepted by the music industry, that early fans fell in love with. Although he was already signed to GOOD Music and Hustle Gang, and working with big artists like Jay-Z and Future, Travis was still a very underground artist in the early 2010s. He only had one mixtape under his belt with Owl Pharaoh, and many weren't sure how his sound would translate to mainstream crowds. Days Before Rodeo proved everyone wrong, and for fans waiting for his debut album, Rodeo, the anticipation only built.
The coolest thing about Travis was that like his mentor, Kanye West, he had full creative control over his sound. He was the producer and the artist. Throughout this project, he bends and breaks and recreates his beats, and doesn't fall short when it comes to bars as well. Looking back now, it only makes sense that Travis has reached the level of fame that he has. He will always be legendary!
7. Tyler The Creator, BASTARD
Bastard released in December of 2009, was our first introduction to the crazy uncensored "how the fuck did he just say that" Tyler, The Creator. This was a 17-year-old rapper who didn't care about anyone's opinions, said things that he even admits were far from acceptable, and made weird synth-heavy beats inspired by Pharrell. Bastard also introduced us to the rest of Odd Future, including Casey Veggies, Domo Genesis, Hodgy Beats, Taco, and the beloved Earl Sweatshirt.
Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All was really a rap version of a teen angst rock band, for kids in high school during the early 2010s. You either loved Odd Future or hated their guts. Tyler was ignorant and always looking to make an ass of himself and everyone else. He drew many comparisons to Eminem when he first entered the music industry, simply because he did not hold his tongue. He talked about rape, sex, drugs, and was probably experiencing or doing none of those things. They were young and didn't care and that's what everyone loved.
Though not on Bastard, "French" is another good example of the essence of Tyler during the Bastard pre-fame period. He was also single-handedly responsible for the popularity of Supreme, and the trend of young rappers stepping away from music blogs and creating their own lanes and buzz.
6. The Weeknd, HouseOfBalloons
Arguably The Weeknd's best project, HouseOfBalloons (2011), which is also the first 9 songs of his streaming album Trilogy, has become a cult classic and deemed the beginning of dark R&B. Many fans came to know The Weeknd through this mixtape, which showcases his addiction to women, drugs, and partying. It features hit records like "Wicked Games", "The Morning", and "House Of Balloons / Glass Table Girls", and was a perfect compliment to his feature on Drake's "Crew Love".
It was clear that The Weeknd was going to be the next star out of Canada following Justin Beiber and Drake, but I'm not sure if people expected him to become the global icon that he is today. On HouseOfBalloons he blends R&B with a melancholy sound. His pitch and sound are very reminiscent of Michael Jackson, but his subject matter of sex, drugs, and heartbreak, lean toward Prince. There’s an edginess about The Weeknd that deciphered him from his peers, more specifically Burno Mars. With electric guitars, deep basses, and eery background noises, The Weekend fit perfectly within his own madness.
5. Wiz Khalifa, Kush & OJ
Whether you smoked or not, everyone was bumping Kush & OJ (2010) when it came out. Wiz Khalifa was already in the music industry for 4 years before he caught fire with this classic mixtape. When Kush & OJ released Wiz already had his own record label in Taylor Gang, connections with celebrities, and build a solid fan base in his hometown of Pittsburg, PA. He was a young businessman ready to enter any music deal with the upper hand over the record execs that passed up on him years before.
He drew early comparisons to the rapper who would eventually become his mentor, Snoop Dogg, if not only because of his heavily medicated music but also because of his mellow voice and smooth flow. Wiz was also one of the first rappers to use YouTube as a vlogging platform, documenting his daily life as a rapper and placing it on WorldStarHipHop to reach a wider audience. He was a seasoned veteran ready to takeover.
4. Meek Mill, Dreamchasers 2
Coming off of the anthem "House Party", and with his boss Rick Ross at the top of the rap game, nothing was stopping Meek Mill when he dropped Dreamchasers 2 (2012). The tape held hit record and summer anthem, "Amen" ft. Drake, and was immediately deemed a classic, and god damn is it good! It features a slew of celebrities and rising artists, including Big Sean, Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, French Montana, 2 Chainz, and of course Wale. It also finds Meek in this weird space of accepting fame while still being consumed by his street life.
Currently. this mixtape is the highest-ranking project of all time on DatPiff and has gone on to be a staple in Meek's long career. This project told the rest of the industry that Meek was more than just a one-hit-wonder, and made MMG that top rap group of that year.
3. ASAP Rocky, Love Live A$AP
A$AP Rocky's Live Love A$AP single-handedly set New York City on fire! Rising from Harlem and named after legendary rapper Rakim, A$AP Rocky had the braggadocious lyrics of Manhattan's Uptown with a woozy deep background voice reminiscent of Houston screw. He talks about his rare designer taste, obsession with women, and indulgence in various drugs. With hit record and now recognized as a Harlem anthem, Peso was the song that brought everybody's attention to Rocky.
At the time, we didn't know but A$AP as a group would grow to be so much more than just Rocky. Organizer and co-founder A$AP Yams had a very strong presence in NYC before his death and used anonymous blogs to build Rocky's fan base. He was truly a visionary and one of the reasons AFTR PRTY was created.
Two other members that really stand out from the crew are A$AP Ferg and A$AP Bari. Ferg, as many of us know, has gone on to have a very successful music career and is a celebrity separate from Rocky. It's typical for relationships like this to have one overshadowing the other but the two compliments each other well while also staying in their own lanes.
Bari is the founder of popular clothing brand V-Lone, which has become a staple piece in many famous rapper's wardrobes. It's also rumored that he helped Virgil Abloh come up with the name Off-White, another dominant global clothing brand. And with additions like Playboi Carti and Shmooky Margiela, A$AP Mob as a whole has taken on a life of its own.
Live Love A$AP helped propel Rocky and the rest of A$AP into fame. Now, years later, AWGE is considered a New York-based creative agency that helps artists of all kinds, and Rocky is deep in a relationship with Rihanna.
2. Chance The Rapper, Acid Rap
Oh, Chance… The good ole cigarette smoking tab addict we called our best friend. He was like a cartoon character that smoked weed with you during your free period in High School. His adlibs, although sometimes annoying, were catchy and funny and blended well with his clever punchlines and unorthodox flows. Not to mention, he had this free-spirited sound that turned the 4 walls of your bedroom into a dream.
The time period was perfect for Chance. There was a huge amount of talent coming out of Chicago and Kanye West was at the top of culture. Amongst other surging artists like Vic Mensa, Mick Jenkins, Saba, G Herbo, Lil Bibby, Noname Gypsy, etc., Chance was the first one to rise above all the noise and reach stardom. His affiliation with Donald Glover (Childish Gambino) also helped him learn the ropes of the industry early and taught him the importance of independence.
A lot of people remember Chance for the iconic video above. "Juice", though a mediocre song, in my opinion, had visuals in Times Square, which everyone immediately connected with. It shows a young Chance snapping while having fun in the most popular city in the world.
Many of us wish we got this old Chance back. Sadly he's gone from our favorite stoner to our least favorite husband. Hopefully, he can redeem himself with his next project.
There are a ton of projects that could've made this list or may have got overlooked, so I just wanted to highlight some of those projects and artists before we wrap up.
Drake, If You're Reading This It's Too Late
It was hard leaving this classic, and in my personal opinion Drake's best project off of this list, but Drake had already reached a level of stardom that was undeniable. Many may say that this project is where Drake officially claimed the title of the best rapper alive, which he still holds today, but the concept of this project being exclusively a mixtape can be a bit convoluted. It's currently available on streaming platforms and was after it's release. Many of the other projects on this list were not released on streaming platforms, keeping the genuine exclusivity that many have come to correlate mixtapes with.
Kendrick Lamar, O.Verly D.edicated
Yeah, Kendrick killed every single track on OD, but it seems more like a well thought out album than just another mixtape. It's no shade to Kendrick or the rest of the TDE family, but it would've been hard to put this as part of the list as well.
Childish Gambino, Royalty
In all honesty, my personal preference would have been to have this album as part of the list. But, I am biased to anything Donald Glover does being a fan since Culdesac and it did not have the impact that these other projects did. This is a classic mixtape and a great project, if you haven't heard it definitely give it a listen. It features Nipsey Hussle, Ab-Soul, Danny Brown, RZA, Ghostface Killah, and as always Chance The Rapper.
J. Cole, Friday Night Lights
This is the last tape I want to lightly touch on because, in comparison to the other projects on this list of honorable mentions, this is a project I actually expect slack for not listing. I love J. Cole. I'm not a hater. But I feel like he was still very much under the radar during the time of this project's release. He was signed to Roc Nation, featured on songs with Jay and Kanye, but still, the industry didn't give him a spotlight until his debut album. Even then, it took Cole to make and release Born Sinner for people to really start believing in his longevity.
1. Lil Wayne, Da Drought 3 (Disc 1) / No Ceilings
Let me preface this by saying that Lil Wayne is the greatest mixtape rapper of all time. Period.
At a time where legendary MCs like Nas and Jay-Z were dropping songs like "Hip-Hop Is Dead" and "DOA", there was Lil Wayne ready to take his crown as Hip-Hop's next king. We already knew Wayne from his time with the Hot Boyz and his solo projects with Birdman and Slim's Cash Money Records, but it seems like Wayne reinvented himself through mixtapes and came out a better rapper. With the help of DJ Drama, Wayne created a slew of projects that shook the world, and right before the release of his critically acclaimed album, The Carter 3, Wayne dropped Da Drought 3.
Revisiting 50 Cent's formula and approach toward mixtapes, he literally took every hot song of the past year and made them his own. The most popular song on the tape was his "Upgrade U Freestyle", which has him spitting over a classic Beyonce anthem and turning it into a trap house of straight bars.
This tape also marks the beginning of Wayne's independent label, which he mentions on this track: "We are Young Money, bitch, and I am the leader/ He are: Curren$y, Mack Maine, and D-Raw/ And I just signed a chick named Nicki Minaj". Ironically, Nicki is featured on this tape and this is right before Lil Wayne discovers and signs Drake.
After solidifying his title as the "Best Rapper Alive", No Ceilings was Wayne's way of separating himself from the rest of the pack. Released on Halloween of 2009, many deem this the greatest mixtape of all time, which is a statement that's hard to argue against. This project was recorded in multiple hotels during his Carter 3 tour and released as Wayne's prepared to tackle a prison sentence.
As mentioned above, Wayne takes the blueprint from 50 Cent and recreates multiple popular tracks that went on to be classics in their own right: "Ice Cream", "D.O.A.", "Run This Town", and "Let's Do It". It even features the classic toxic masculinity song "Single", which though first on a mixtape was later officially released as a single.
Many mixtapes were left off of this list, but as mentioned these are only 10 of the best mixtapes of all time. There are plenty more to be covered and shown appreciation to. Hope you enjoyed!