Without getting into the history and the morality of mixtapes, or the myth of illegality and “sticking it to the man” and the general heard-it-first bullshit that comes out of people crafting flimsy identities from buying the latest mixtape on-line, it’s worth mentioning that Pharrell isn’t the first rapper who’s scored more artistic points with a mixtape than with a sanctioned label release. My favorite mixtapes catch rappers with their guards down — carefree, in love with their art, uninhibited by fears of albums tanking or samples not clearing. They talk candidly about their careers, rap over instrumentals important to them or simply ones they think they can do a better job with, give fans a taste of what they’re working on. In the process they create context and figure themselves into a tradition. Whether mixtapes are more honest representations of what an artist is really about, well, who can really know. But here are a few that suggest maybe that’s the case.
Juelz Santana | Back Like Cooked Crack Vol. 1-3 | The Harlem rapper and Dipset clique veep gained a rabid following off this 2005 series, his lovably humble young hustler identity coalescing further on each subsequent volume. He showed a knack for flipping the big hits: he turned the Ying Yang Twins’ “Wait (The Whisper Song)” into a nervous stick-up anthem, made Kanye’s hook on “Golddigger” into the get-to-the-gym jam “You ain’t nothing but a fat bitch.” And, keeping theme, Snoop’s “Drop It like It’s Hot” became “Drop a Couple Pounds.” All great stuff — all missing from his Def Jam CD What the Game’s Been Missing!, which traded Juelz’s humor for unconvicted gangsta posturing and, inexplicably, left off “Pick It Up,” a sex rap of train metaphors and choo-choo toot-toots.
DJ Drama and Young Jeezy | Can't Ban the Snowman | Following the Atlanta rapper’s smash debut, Thug Motivation 101 (Def Jam), a steady stream of well-received radio hits (“Go Crazy” was NYC traffic’s song of the summer), controversy surrounding his child-friendly, coke-citing snowman iconography, and (generally speaking) a change in attitude regarding Southern rap’s more-is-less production and less-is-more lyricism, Can’t Ban the Snowman further explored Jeezy’s icy minimalist/nihilist tendencies. He realizes here that his stardom is based less on skill and more on purported realness, even slamming rappers who spend time putting pen to paper in the studio. The best rappers, he suggests, don’t rap at all.
DJ Drama and Lil Wayne | Dedication 2 | Wayne’s Tha Carter 2 (Cash Money) slipped by 2005, with the New Orleans rapper’s Leno appearance, the radio single “Fireman,” and the suddenly dense rhyme schemes and endless punch lines turning only a few heads. Once a former Hot Boy with a pottymouth, he’s been putting out mixtapes like Dedication 2 where high lyricism, the coke trade, bitches, Hurricane Katrina, ESPN Sportscenter, and quality blow jobs are of equal and paramount importance. Nobody out there has a better, more variable delivery (by turns impossibly syncopated and weeded-lungs cool), nobody’s funnier, and save for Cam’Ron’s Purple Haze (Roc-a-Fella), nobody’s espousing so fascinating a world view, so vigorously.
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