The Best Mixtapes of the Last 15 years

Like the food trucks of hip hop and rap, mixtapes have have become a mainstay in the industry. Sure, it۪s great that they۪re free and they۪re a key way to expose us to a lot of future legends before they get big deals, but also they give the artist a way to experiment artistically without worrying about whether they۪re making radio-friendly songs. Sometimes, you even get your hands on one that۪s so well done it completely changes your relationship with music.

From current legends like Drake and Wayne to future ones like, well, Future, these mixtapes set the stage for what have become some of the biggest names in hip hop.

Drake - So Far Gone (2009)
You۪d end up questioning the legitimacy of this list if Drake۪s first opus wasn۪t on it, so it seems crucial that it۪s at the top. Released seven years ago, when those who۪d heard of him at all still mostly knew him as just an actor, So Far Gone ushered in a new era in hip-hop. Drizzy dug into his emotional side, blending rapping and singing as he recounted tales of past loves and being in love, and aired his frustrations about the path to success. Come on now, don۪t act like you still don۪t get all in your feelings when you hear the intro to Best I Ever Had.

Essential Tracks: Best I Ever Had, The Calm, Houstatlantavegas, November 18th

Wiz Khalifa - Kush & Orange Juice (2010)
Wiz Khalifa۪s See You Again, a tribute to late actor Paul Walker for the Furious 7 soundtrack, was the best-selling song of 2015 (unfortunately). But once upon a time the rapper was way on the outside of mainstream music. When he dropped Kush & Orange Juice in April of 2010, he really only had his social media efforts and diehard fan base to help him promote it, but they worked. The mixtape quickly became the number one trending topic on Twitter. It۪s easy to figure out why people loved it: he۪s completely in his element, self-assured and cocky as he celebrates weed and boasts about women, all layered over old-school funk and psychedelic beats. It۪s probably his best work and really gives credence to the notion that rappers are sometimes better off without a major label۪s influence.

Essential Tracks: The Statement, Still Blazin, Spotlight, Up

Lil۪ Wayne - No Ceilings (2009)
Even if you۪ve been a card-carrying member of the Weezy Fell Off club for some time now, there was a period when he was your favorite rapper. Maybe in 2009 you were still holding on to that hope when you heard No Ceilings. On this effort, Wayne flawlessly raps in the frenetic style that made him so fun to listen to, all over the beats of popular songs, like the Black Eyed Peas۪ I Got A Feeling, Dorrough۪s Ice Cream Paint Job, Gucci Mane۪s Wasted, and Swag Surfin۪ by F.L.Y. Clearly, the title meant there was no limits on how well he could dominate other people۪s beats and almost make their lyrics forgettable.

Essential Tracks: Wasted, Ice Cream Paint Job, Swag Surfin۪

Nicki Minaj - Beam Me Up Scotty (2009)
On Drake۪s Up All Night, Nicki Minaj boasts, Which bitch you know made a million off a mixtape?۝ and when you listen to Beam Me Up Scotty, you get why this may be true (It۪s hard to verify this claim on the internet.) The rap industry can be a hard place for a female lyricist, but Minaj clearly wasn۪t intimidated by what she would face once she landed a deal. She was out for the crown. She was just as flashy, arrogant and brash as her male contemporaries, and she definitely didn۪t sound like an amateur. In 2009, her verses and wordplay were strong, and she had already honed her signature personalities and rap-pop sound. Beam Me Up was so good it almost makes up for the absolute atrocity that was Starships. Almost.

Essential Tracks: Itty Bitty Piggy, Beam Me Up Scotty, Go Hard, Can Anybody Hear Me

Future - Dirty Sprite (2011)
By 2011 rap was shifting massively, at least as far as the mainstream was concerned and the druggy vibes of trap were making their presence felt everywhere. Already a local legend by this time, the wider music scene really started to take notice of Future۪s potential when he released his now seminal tape Dirty Sprite. That he then revisited the Dirty Sprite moniker again in 2015 should let you know how strongly this tape۪s influence was felt. Jam packed with the spacey beats, dark vibes, and liberal doses of lean, Dirty Sprite was the sound of the new Atlanta.

Essential Tracks: Never Been This High, Racks, Bands

J. Cole - Friday Night Lights (2010)
Friday Night Lights has a journal-like quality to it, like we۪re intruding on J. Cole۪s most private thoughts, even though he willingly opened up. It۪s deeply introspective, with a focus on where he came fromhe reflects on childhood moments and his college yearsand where he was hoping to go in his rap career. Though Friday Night Lights was well produced, his lyrical skill easily overshadows the work on the beats. No doubt you recognized this guy was smart. The mixtape preceded his studio debut Cole World: The Sideline Story, but it felt good enough to be an official album.

Essential Tracks: Back to the Topic, Enchanted, In the Morning, Blow Up

Kid Cudi - A Kid Named Cudi (2008)
A Kid Named Cudi predates So Far Gone, and Cudi was already experimenting with the now Drake-ish mix of rap and vocals and putting his vulnerabilities out there way back in 2008. He was also playing with genres in an innovative way for the time. You can hear indie rock, electronica and folk music throughout this mixtape. It also didn۪t feel forced or that he was trying too hard to be different. He really carved out his own niche with a moody, futuristic sound, which arguably set the stage for the appeal of albums like Kanye West۪s 808s & Heartbreak.

Essential Tracks: Is There Any Love, Man on the Moon, The Prayer, Embrace The Martian

Honorable Mentions:
A$AP Rocky, Live.Love.A$AP (2011)
Frank Ocean, nostalgia, Ultra (2011)
Chance the Rapper, Acid Rap (2013)
J. Cole, The Warm Up (2009)
The Weeknd: House of Balloons (2011)