- "So Far Gone - Drake" While this list isn't in any particular order - none of mine ever are - it's arguable that So Far Gone was the best mixtape of the year. It dropped February 13th, and it became the archetype for what a well-crafted mixtape can mean to an artist: a career-maker. Two videos, two Grammy nominations, and the all-important BET Hustler of the Year nod later (seriously), Drake had taken over the rap game. All you "I was on Drake since Room For Improvement" lames, I hear you. Those tapes didn't get your boy a $2 million deal and two Top 10 singles in the same week. So Far Gone did. This raised the production bar for mixtapes. Not a DJ drop the whole way, complex samples, and respectable wordplay. Tough to argue against that, as much as I want to. *Here's your benchmark test. Put a camera in your gooniest goon friend's car, and just wait till "Brand New" comes on. See if he doesn't sing every word despite there not being a bed or a girl within 50 feet without saying "no homo". That's how good the tape is.
- "Back To The Feature - Wale" Another album-quality mixtape. Don Cannon and DJ Drama's screams were nowhere to be found on Back To The Feature. What we did get was the best tape of the summer, full of incredible features and more stellar lyricism from Wale. Only 3 producers - most prominent being 9th Wonder - worked on the tape, giving it a flow and continuity that most albums don't enjoy. In other words, this shit bumps. Every time I listen to it - every Wednesday at 2 pm to be exact - I catch a punchline or metaphor I'd missed. My favorite still remains, "...and my brain travels like Yung Berg jewels." When a rapper has to help you get the meaning of a line after his 16 is over, dude is doing something serious. For simple, straight-up collaborative hip-hop, this is where you come. Wale calls the underlying theme of the tape, "niggas be rappin'". Couldn't put it any better.
- "The Warm Up - J. Cole" If you knew who J. Cole was after The Come Up, good for you. Your trophy is in the mail. For pretty much everyfuckingbody else, The Warm Up was J. Cole's introduction to the world. And it was a hell of an introduction. Dude is quickly getting the "murder you on your own track" reputation, and if you listen to this tape you'll understand the hype. Not only does he have the punchline braggadocio that mixtape audiences demand, J. Cole really shines through with his range and versatility. He raps about things real people can relate to; college, not knowing what to do after college, stalking women, things like this. You become invested in his lyrics. He produces his songs as well, which is pretty much like a demolition crew building their own buildings, and so we get to listen to an artist's entire vision - from snare to simile - which is incredible. Drake's debut album may be 2010's most anticipated, but I'll be first in line to support J. Cole.
- "No Ceilings - Lil' Wayne" You know you have a monster of a mixtape when you make people forget about the original songs. I can't even listen to "Swag Surf" and "Ice Cream Paint Job" anymore. They're Wayne's songs now. With the official drop coming on Halloween 2009, Weezy F. dispelled any doubts about him losing it/selling out/going "rock". I remember Kamau sitting on Demas' couch when I brought the leaked version over a couple nights before Halloween, going on about how Wayne had fallen off so hard and hadn't made real shit since the Drought 3. That stopped after we'd gotten through No Ceilings, and the tape was on repeat all night. Wayne, if you can make a believer out of Kamau again, nothing can stop you. No Ceilings is 21-track wake-up call to the rest of us. Wayne may mess around with Scarface-guitar samples, but he's still a beast. I'm not exactly a Wayne fan, but this tape was probably the most played thing in my car this fall. Favorite line: "I make the pussy Microsoft like Windows Vista." Never felt prouder to be a PC owner in my life.
- "He's The King, I'm The DJ - DJ Jazzy Jeff" Shouts to Lo for putting me on, knowing the unnaturally huge Mike fan I am. It's obviously not rap, but who says mixtapes have to be. Jeff mixes, scratches, and blends his way through a 49-track masterpiece. Making a great MJ tribute tape sounds easy; the man has an unparalleled discography to choose from. But, just imagine how hard that would be. Imagine if I gave you the keys to Fort Knox and asked you to find me the 49 best bricks of gold in the whole place. You'd probably break down Donald Duck-style. Well Jazzy Jeff took on that task, and succeeded. When you play this tape, you forget your iPod even has a skip button. He seamlessly combines old Mike with new Mike, black Mike with white Mike. I could go on for pages, so I'll stop, but if you don't download any other tape on this list please download this one. I don't care if you don't support Mike, you aren't putting any money in his sequined pockets here. This is just as much about Jazzy Jeff as it is Mike. Just give it a listen and appreciate the magic that happens when two geniuses collaborate.
Honorable Mentions: "Gone Fishing" - The Cool Kids, "Church League Champions" - Pac Div, "Flight School" - Wiz Khalifa, "Midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmusic" - Freddie Gibbs, "Enemy of the State" - Lupe Fiasco