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The Decade In Rap Mixtapes

The underground mixtape has long been a staple in hip-hop, with blended DJ selections being all the rage throughout the '90s. But this decade saw the format mutate: Rappers began to take matters into their own hands, working directly with DJs to create artist-specific tapes of original material. As the format shifted to a digital medium, the "mixtape" became shorthand for releases that were neither mixed nor tapes. These days, mixtape DJs rarely blend or scratch on their tapes, and instead play more of a host's role — which usually entails them shouting the artist's name loudly or overdubbing the sound of explosions.

Distributed through semi-official means — such as street-corner bootleggers and, later, shared MP3s — the artist-oriented mixtape has just about fully supplanted the album as the definitive full-length form in hip-hop. Some of this year's biggest rap singles found their footing on mixtapes, including Drake's "Successful" and "Best I Ever Had" and Gucci Mane's "Wasted," to name a few. Many up-and-comers aren't even eying deals anymore, instead touring solely off of tape buzz. Make no mistake: The future of the genre lies not in the hands of the industry, but at your corner bootlegger or favorite blog. Here's a look back at some of the decade's most memorable tapes.

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1. 50 Cent Is The Future (2002)

50 Cent might not have been the first rapper to work the mixtape model, but he was the most successful. After surviving a shooting and an aborted deal with Columbia, 50 Cent embarked on a relentless attack of the street circuit that drew the attention of Eminem and Dr. Dre. The Future is the strongest of these outings, finding 50 and his G-Unit cronies at their most playful and menacing. Note: This song contains explicit lyrics.

50 Cent Is The Future is available at Datpiff.com.

2. In Da Streetz (2003)

When Arista fumbled his debut, T.I. repackaged many of those tracks alongside new material and went for himself. The tape blew up and earned him a new deal. Millions of "actual" records were sold after that, but perhaps none of his work has been as inspiring as the work of the brash dope boy who rocked In Da Streets. Note: This song contains explicit lyrics.

In Da Streetz is available here.

3. Mixtape Messiah (2004)

The mixtape can also provide a forum for the airing of grievances. In 2004, then up-and-comer Chamillionaire dedicated his whopping three-disc debut to the mocking of rival Mike Jones. Cham and Jones have since made amends, but Messiah stands on its own, thanks to Cham's mechanically precise flows and Ron C's ability to build on Houston's rich legacy of slowed and chopped mixes, as pioneered by DJ Screw. Note: This song contains explicit lyrics.

Mixtape Messiah is available at Datpiff.com.

4. Public Enemy #1 (2004)

Green Lantern was one of the few old-style DJs able to make the transition to the modern artist-oriented mixtape world. And still his tapes -- notably collaborations with Nas, Jadakiss and The Beastie Boys -- remained meticulously constructed and blended. Public Enemy #1 stands as the finest example of his talents, thanks in part to South Philly hardcore spitter Beanie Sigel. Note: This song contains explicit lyrics.

Public Enemy #1 is available at Datpiff.com.

5. Trap Or Die (2005)

With Trap or Die's exaggerated rasps, Young Jeezy became the most popular rapper in Atlanta. The disc also solidified Drama's Gangsta Grillz series as the definitive brand in Southern mixtapes. (Drama would later turn into the first mixtape martyr when his studio was raided by federal agents at the behest of the RIAA in 2007.) Note: This song contains explicit lyrics.

Trap or Die is available at Datpiff.com.

6. Back Like Cooked Crack Vol. 2 (2005)

Cam'rons Diplomats crew and its many splinter acts have done more for and with the artist-driven mixtape than perhaps any rap collective. (In fact, many claim that they invented the model, though it's a murky origin to pinpoint.) It was their youngest member, Juelz Santana, who seemed most at home on the tapes; his Cooked Crack 2 consists of an extended string of often goofy and occasionally heartfelt rhymes. Note: This song contains explicit lyrics.

Back Like Cooked Crack 2 is available at Datpiff.com.

7. We Got It For Cheap Vol. 2 (2005)

Another scorned major-label signee, Virginia's Clipse took to the tapes while its heralded sophomore LP Hell Hath No Fury sat on the Arista shelves. With Philadelphians Ab Liva and Sandman added to the team, the group's remorseful and literary drug-dealer anthems won it the unexpected adoration of hipsters everywhere. Note: This song contains explicit lyrics.

We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 2 is available at Datpiff.com.

8. Dedication 2 (2007)

Where many artists saw mixtapes as a mere opportunity for alternative distribution, Lil Wayne saw a chance to improve. He started the decade out as an underrated pop rapper, but over the course of dozens of tapes, Wayne became one of the most respected MCs on the planet. The Squad Up series saw the most growth, and his Drought 3 got the critical acclaim, but it's Dedication 2 that stands as his most well-constructed tape. Wayne is fully energized and occupies Drama's instrumental selections with densely constructed bars. Note: This song contains explicit lyrics.

Dedication 2 is available at Datpiff.com.

9. Writing On the Wall (2009)

After Lil Wayne transcended mixtape stardom to become a pop icon, Gucci Mane stepped in to work a similar blueprint. A mainstay on the Atlanta underground circuit, he began recording tapes at a rapid pace a few years back, improving by leaps and bounds and building a ravenous following in the process. That frenetic focus is most audible on his Writing on the Wall, recorded over the course of a weekend immediately following an extended prison sentence.
Note: This song contains explicit lyrics.

Writing On The Wall is available at Datpiff.com.

10. So Far Gone (2009)

Drake, a Canadian child star turned rapper, somehow managed to take the mixtape world by storm with this well-groomed album disguised as a mixtape. (Drake was technically unsigned at the time of the tape's release, but was already being managed by the same team that handles Lil Wayne and Kanye West.) So Far Gone is a DJ-free collection of Kanye and Wayne imitating concessions to various demographics -- ladies, Texans, Texan ladies (probably). But the kids seem to like it, and that's truly the only requirement for a successful tape.
Note: This song contains explicit lyrics.

So Far Gone is available at Datpiff.com.

Andrew Noz
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