The distinction between albums, LPs, EPs, and mixtapes was at it’s cloudiest point to date in 2012, and there is relatively no chance that any of those distinctions crystallize into something meaningful ever again.  The reality is that these days most rappers put together “projects,” and those projects either get released for free or they get released for a fee.  Among the projects that get released for free are those where a rapper raps over other people’s instrumentals or samples he or she has no intention of trying to clear.  There are also projects labeled as mixtapes or given away for free, that have entirely original production that get released for free and some of those projects ended up on Hardwood Blacktop’s Best 15 Albums of 2012 list.  To be honest, I’m not overly concerned with those distinctions anymore other than the fact that those of us who like to write about rap like to have a way to differentiate between certain types of releases for the purpose of end of the year lists and things like that.  So here are my picks for best mixtapes of 2012, by my own current loosely defined understanding of that term, which does not necessarily take into account whether a rapper deemed something a mixtape or not (but it might).  In general these projects are not of nearly as high quality as the top albums of 2012, otherwise they would’ve made that list, as you can see from that list there are a couple of “albums” that made the cut that most would classify as mixtapes (Sunday School, ParaphernaliaGod of Black EP, MMM Season).  If you’re keeping score at home, those projects would have been at the top of this list.

Meek Mill featuring Big Sean – “Burn”

1. Meek Mill – Dreamchasers 2 – Download

Sometimes a rapper’s (Jadakiss, Fabolous, and Joe Budden just to name a few) game just translates a little bit better to the mixtape circuit than it does to album making.  Whether that has to do with them being better situated to making “street singles” than it does to them making tracks for the club or radio, or whether it has to do with the lack of record label oversight in the mixtape process, or whether the DJs they work with in the mixtape process are actually better A&R’s than their record label A&R’s, the end result is a consistently better free product vs. fee product. It’s too early to say that Meek Mill will always fall into that category as his major label debut Dreams & Nightmares certainly showed promise and contained some great individual songs (“Dreams & Nightmares (Intro)” and “Traumatized”).  There is no doubt though that in 2012, Meek dropped another mixtape (he’s done this a few times before) that was better than a vast majority of the albums that came out in the same year.  Perhaps the most interesting part of Meek as a mixtape artist is that he’s not just someone who drops a flurry of battle-ready sixteens over a bunch of other people’s instrumentals. In fact, some of his best radio singles have been the result of his mixtape work over the last couple of years, hits like last year’s “House Party,” “Tupac Back” and “I’m A Boss” and this year’s “Burn,” “Amen,” and “Flexing” all came from his mixtapes or from the MMG compilations.  By contrast  only  from the first MMG compilation (a mixtape-like project) has really garnered the same buzz.  And while his label has pushed the hell out of “Young and Gettin’ It,” there’s just no way that’s a better direction for Meek than any of the aforementioned tracks.  Dreamchasers 2 was Meek’s most complete offering to date, bringing tracks suitable to almost every type of rap listener and packing plenty of that V-12 energy we’ve come to expect from Philly’s brightest star. While it does drag on a bit as songs begin to run together a little bit after the first nine or ten tracks on the mixtape, there may not have been a better example of hungry street-oriented rapping in 2012.

Choice Cuts: “Burn,” “Amen,” “Ready Or Not,” “A1 Everything

Troy Ave ft. Avon Blocksdale – “Cokeamania”

2. Troy Ave – Bricks In My Backpack Vol. 3 – Download

NYC has continued to slowly rise out of the detritus of the 2006-2009 era thanks to a few key ingredients (A$AP Rocky, Action Bronson, Joey Bada$$, Roc Marciano, Ka, Das Racist (RIP), and others) getting more and more attention over time.  Troy Ave finally saw his buzz build to a suitable level in 2012 thanks in large part to the release of the excellent third volume of the Bricks In My Backpack series.  This mixtape combined a downright Clipsean coke-rap proficiency with a glossy Jet Life-ish vibe, replete with Troy Ave’s hat in the ring for the best ad-lib artisan of 2012 with “Powderrrr.”  Of his contemporaries in New York it seems like only Rocky has a brighter future ahead of himself on the mainstream stage. It’s surprising that a major hasn’t given Troy Ave an offer he can’t refuse yet, but I think they’ve been a little too focused on Chicago in 2012.

Choice Cuts: “Snow,” “Red Cup,” “Chiddy Chiddy Bang Bang,” “Lord As My Witness

Nell & Ethelwulf – “Pistol Grip”

3. Ethelwulf – The Wolf Gang’s Rodolphe – Download

There’s absolutely zero doubt that Ethelwulf is the Raider Klan’s most talented vocalist and for that reason he may well have the brightest future of any of the Klan’s rappers.  Wulf’s ability to move from high-pitched Bone Thugs inspired melody to a more bass-filled tone shows a lot of range from the rapper who cites vocal influences as broad as Bone, System of a Down, and Korn.  The ability to use one’s voice as an instrument on a record is something that most rappers don’t fully comprehend until they’re much deeper into their career progression, but Rodolphe was Ethelwulf’s first forray into the funk.  The production on this EP was stellar and the inclusion of the screwed-up versions of each track was smart as well.  Furthermore, Ethelwulf doesn’t mince words, and had no problem addressing the reasons certain Klan members were dismissed this year, nor calling out the foes of his brothers directly on multiple occasions (whether Soulja Boy, A$AP Mob, or others) making him one of the most intriguing and talked about figures in the 2.7.5 hierarchy.

Choice Cuts: “Black Magic,” “Trillanation,” “1st Chapta Of Tha Phonk” “Flaw of Perfection

King Louie – Val Venis

4. King Louie – Drilluminati Download

It’s likely that if you heard of one the members of Chicago’s drill scene prior to 2012 that it was King Louie.  His 2011, mixtape Chiraq Drillinois was a big success and he was one of the most promising artists from Chicago coming into 2012.  For the most part drill music is clearly directed at teens – a combination of an extremely hardcore aesthetic, danceable melodies, and a general smooth – I don’t need to enunciate any of my syllables – I don’t give a fuckness. While Louie’s music certainly contains all of those elements, Drilluminati fits in very nicely with the best work from Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane, Fat Trel, and others who have made names for themselves through by making aggressive cathartic trap music.  More importantly, whereas so many of the drill projects this year were driven by individual singles and lacked continuity and cohesiveness, Drilluminati feels more like a mixtape with an album like direction and purpose behind it.

Choice Cuts: “Dope Smoke,” “Rozay Flow,” “Val Venis,” and “Rated R

Jackie Chain ft. Bun-B & Big K.R.I.T. – “Parked Outside”

5. Jackie Chain – Bruce Lean Chronicles – Download

Jackie Chain is one of the unsung heroes of the Alabama rap scene.  Although he has a deal with Universal Republic, he has gone through some label limbo and has really never had any of his material receive the kind of push that it deserves.  There is no doubt in my mind, based off of his recorded material over the last half a decade or so, that he has everything it takes to make it on a major label, unfortunately he doesn’t make the type of music that’s really in vogue at this moment – it’s not drill, it’s not really trap – and the spotlight that was on Alabama a few years back is dwindling a bit.  But honestly, that’s politics of the game shit that fortunately doesn’t have any impact on his ability to create great music.  Bruce Lean Chronicles is a great project, showcasing the versatility of Chain’s talent as a songwriter and hit-maker and introducing him to some of the members of his crew.  Between this and his After Hours mixtape that he dropped back towards the beginning of the year, Chain had a great year and showed the kind of skills that Republic needs to get behind, or get out of the way.

Choice Cuts: “Parked Outside,” “Numbers,” “First Love,” “Windows

Gunplay – “Guillotine Swordz”

6. Gunplay – 601 & Snort – Download

Short of Chief Keef and the drill scene you’d be hard pressed to find a rapper who had more hype surrounding him than Gunplay did in 2012.  Considering the fact that Gunplay has been on the rap radar since his feature on Rick Ross’s Port of Miami back in 2006, it’s a little strange that he’s taken so long to catch this momentum and at times the fervor that has developed around him seems a little bit excessive.  Without a solo album to his name, and with several uneven mixtapes to his credit, Gunplay no doubt still stands as one of the most hyped rappers in the game.  The prime reasons behind this seem to be a frenetic energy, crazy gun clapping persona, and frankly a downright junkie-ish tint to his whole style that fans find equal parts dangerous and intriguing.  There is no doubt more than a little bit of Ol’ Dirty Bastard built into his style, and as such it’s great to hear him rapping over classic Wu-Tang instrumentals, something he does a couple of times on 601 & Snort.  For those that prefer Gunplay over a greater percentage of trap beats, his mixtape from earlier in the year Bogota Rich is probably the preferred release this year, but I generally feel that Gunplay sounds his best over beats that don’t match (and therefore better augment) his energy level.  It is unclear whether Gunplay will ever put out that project that quite lives up to the hype, but 601 & Snort gives you a good sense of what the fuss is all about.

Choice Cuts: “Take Dis,” “Bible On The Dash,” “Guillotine Swordz Freestyle,” “Criminology Freestyle

Lil Durk – “L’s Anthem”

7. Lil Durk – I’m Still A Hitta –  Download

Durk is kind of like an angry, younger version of Future in the midst of the Chicago’s drill scene.  His autotune proficiency seems tailor made for the charts if he can manage to temper his murderous rage with his hit-making sensibility just enough.  Not since Hell On Earth era Mobb Deep can I remember a group of young artists who seemed so immersed in the absolute depths of humanity as Keef, Durk, Reese, and King Louie.  For all of the insane buzz around Keef this year, all of Keef’s mixtapes feel like collections of songs, whereas Durk is sequenced and sounds like a complete album.

Choice Cuts: “L’s Anthem,” “Right Here,” “My Niggas Don’t Change,” “Off The Shits

Grandmilly – “Muddy Water”

8. Grandmilly – Bandanas & Black Magic – Download

If what sets Purrp a part from most of the Raider Klan is a kind of fifth element, the development of his own spirituality and his ability to blend elements of ’95 with elements of 2012 so seamlessly that you forget he’s even doing it, than Grandmilly is probably the closest to tapping into that same level of success.  While many were swooning over Joey Bada$$’s 1999 this year and watching him catapult himself into a high profile position in the game (seemingly overnight, though probably not actually overnight), Grandmilly dropped a much better mixtape that showcased his own production talent – a great feel for classic samples (even if many of them are over the top recognizable) and the ability accentuate the loops with some unique flourishes and a little bit of  Purrpish alchemy – and his great voice and mic skills.  Grandmilly went on to contribute to a solid mixtape from himself and Th@ Kid as well, but this is the project that gets people excited about the possibilities of blending the NYC rap scene with the BRK aesthetic.

Choice Cuts: “See You In Hell (C&S version),” “Muddy Water,” “Into Pieces (C&S version),” “Snakes”

Young L – “Automated Oceans”

9. Young L – Enigma Theory – Download

For all of the hype around the cloud rap movement sound coming into the year, Enigma Theory was probably the best thing to come out of that aesthetic in 2012.  With Enigma Theory, Young L crafted a tape that is personal, emotional, and numb on one end, and raging, declarative, and powerful on the other.  His production work throughout the album is great – beyond just the lifting of some high profile samples – and while his rapping isn’t technically very compelling, it comes off as personal and heartfelt.

Choice Cuts: “Powder Blue Pills,” “Automated Oceans,” “Enigma Theory,” “Heart of a Lion

Chief Keef – “I Don’t Know Dem”

10. Chief Keef – Back From The Dead – Download

It’s impossible to make a list of the best mixtapes of 2012 and not acknowledge Keef.  It’s hard to think of a more polarizing figure in rap music in recent years, but the massiveness of his success and influence are impossible to ignore.  While Durk & King Louie each arguably dropped better projects in the 2012 drill scene, Keef was the one that garnered the national attention and made the whole thing move.  Keef has an undeniable ability to captivate the audience, and unless Finally Rich is an epic flop (which seems unlikely) record labels will continue scouring Chicago for the next Keef for the next couple of years.  And if his major label singles, and subsequent tracks and mixtapes, are any indication, Keef shows no signs of slowing down.  It’s also important to mention the influence of Young Chop in 2012, who went from bedroom producer to industry sensation primarily through his exposure working with Keef, but also through his work with Durk, Reese, King Louie and now multiple members of the industry’s elite.  In all honestly, there really hasn’t been a definitive Keef tape in 2012, because he’s continued to release so many individual hits on different projects that his best mixtapes are just compilations of his material, but there’s no doubt that he thoroughly ran shit in 2012.

Choice Cuts: “3Hunna (remix),” “I Don’t Like,” “I Don’t Know Dem

Illogic & Blockhead – “Dreamin'”

11. Illogic & Blockhead – Preparing For Capture 2 – Download

Illogic & Blockhead dropped a couple of well crafted free EP’s in 2012 as teasers for their upcoming album Capture The Sun.  Hopefully these projects helped them gain the necessary momentum towards finding a home for their project, but unfortunately the viable options for spoken wordy/poetic backpack rap release are basically down to Rhymesayers, and a few fly-by-night indie operations.  The market for this type of product is probably not as strong as it was during the height of the HHI era either, which is too bad, because it’s clear that Illogic and Blockhead have a great chemistry and if none of the cuts off of these EPs made the cut, the liklihood is that Capture The Sun will be an inspired release.

Choice Cuts: “From Scratch,” “Past/Future,” “Heartless,” “A Mile From Dead

100’s “Brick $ell Phone”

12. 100’s – Ice Cold Perm – Download

Ice Cold Perm is definitely more of an album than it is a mixtape, but as our formal introduction to 100’s and a free release, we’ll lump it in here mainly for the purposes of passing on due respect to this project.  The cover is an obvious homage to Snoop (Doggy back then) Dogg’s Doggfather album, and while the production is mainly stripped down simple keyboard and drum work (as opposed to more robust Parliament influenced g-funk) the rhyme book is straight Iceberg Slim.  Something of a guilty pleasure along the lines of Too $hort meets Slick Rick, the secret is clearly in the activator.

Choice Cuts: “My Activator,” “Brick $ell Phone,” “1999,” “Closer (BSBD Remix)”

Trinidad James – All Gold Everything”

13. Trinidad James – Don’t Be S.A.F.E. – Download

Foolishness can sometimes go further than raw talent, especially if there is talent behind the foolishness.  Trinidad James is silly, in a little bit the way that Gunplay is, and a little bit the way that 100’s is.  It’s hard to draw the line 100% between seriousness, jest, and performance piece.  That said there is undeniably a method to his madness and he’s had as meteoric a rise from unknown to major player in the rap game as anybody on this list outside of the drill scene.  Trinidad had this to say about the mixtape when he released it via his bandcamp site: “The Life of a 24 year old. I did this project for my friends and family mostly. For people who dont know me and listen, thank you. If you are real with yourself and real about life we should be on the same page. If not not well my motto is Fuck the FucNiggas.”  I’d say that pretty much sums it up.

Choice Cuts: “Females Welcomed,” “All Gold Everything,” “$outh$ide,” “Tonk For The Money

Mikkey Halsted ft. Cocaine 80’s – “Pain”

14. Mikkey Halsted – Castro – Download

Calling Castro a mixtape, while referring to MMM Season as an album is arguably the most dubious distinction on all of the end of the year lists, but hear me out.  Castro was pushed by Don Cannon, whereas MMM Season did not have a mixtape DJ behind the project, and MMM Season was one producer and one rapper working on a cohesive project, where Castro had a collection of tracks produced by a handful of different producers.  None of that takes away from the fact that Castro was a very good project, featuring beats from No I.D., Young Chop, and Don Cannon and guest appearances from Pusha T, Cocaine 80’s, and BJ The Chicago Kid.  Castro is undoubtedly the more soulful of the two tapes Halsted dropped in 2012, thanks in large part to the contributions of No ID and Chop.  If the drill scene hadn’t been such a powerful force in Chicago this year this project undoubtedly would’ve gotten a lot more publicity with the Chicago rap blognoscenti.  As it stands, Castro and MMM Season probably weren’t revered quite as much as they should have been.  It’s rare when a rapper can drop two projects this solid in a year, let alone, only a couple of months a part.  Here’s to hoping we get to see a sequel to both in 2012.

Choice Cuts: “Pain,” “P.T.S.D. (Voices),” “Momma In My Ear,” “Obamanomics

Big K.R.I.T. featuring Slim Thug & Lil Keke – “Me & My Old School”

15. Big K.R.I.T. – 4EvaNaDay Download

It feels a little bit like people were “over it” before K.R.I.T. really got his chance to shine on the big stage, and that’s too bad.  Fortunately, if 2012 was any indication he’s a strong enough artist to endure the twitter generation’s child-like attention span.  4EvaNaDay showcased K.R.I.T.’s ability to stick to a conceptual framework and make meaningful music across several sub-genres of rap music.  If you’re a fan of K.R.I.T.’s more sample heavy production, then 4EvaNaDay was probably the better of K.R.I.T.’s two releases this year and like most of his work, it’s a great project to throw in the ride on a Spring or Summer road trip.

Choice Cuts: “Red Eye,” “Down & Out,” “Package Store,” “Temptation

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