The mixtape format continues to bleed into album territory as the free release becomes a way of experimenting with new sounds away from the watchful eye of label A&Rs, reaching the fans directly or even as a centre point for touring and selling – eschewing a traditional release strategy altogether.
It’s for this reason that mixtapes are often an indication of the names to watch in the future within the urban realm; it’s a level playing field, as anyone with a computer and a Wi-Fi connection can enter into the mixtape game. In some years there are clear peaks and troughs – there was no doubt that Chance The Rapper’s ‘Acid Rap’ was the number one in 2013, for example – yet this year was closer than ever.
To assemble this year’s top 10 mixtapes, we asked a number of writers and bloggers for their favourites, ultimately generating what you see below. It is a list that reflects a multitude of tastes, and while we have ordered them, they could easily be mixed and matched depending on your own preferences. Give these tapes a chance and we guarantee you’ll end up adding some great new music to your collection.
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10. Kevin Gates – 'By Any Means'
On the surface, it’s easy to compartmentalise southern hood-boy Kevin Gates as your typical trap rapper. However, what saves him, and his music, is off-duty persona. There’s nothing particularly new here, but take a look at his interviews, and learn about his story (a thug with heart who spent time in the penitentiary and boasts having a Master’s degree in psychology), and you can’t not be intrigued. SD
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9. Ty Dolla $ign – 'Sign Language'
2014 has been the year of the Dolla $ign. The Taylor Gang affiliate, whose smash hit ‘Or Nah’ got a little added touch from The Weeknd, dropped ‘Sign Language' as a teaser to the work he’s been doing on his forthcoming debut album, ‘Free TC’. With vibes ranging from turned-up club bangers to more chilled-out panty droppers, this is one project that definitely whets fan appetites for a full LP. MW
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8. Raury – 'Indigo Child'
The genre-hopping Stone Mountain future star has had a great year, releasing ‘Indigo Child’, a debut that sees him candidly sharing his mindset and musical influence with the world. Full of raw talent, the 13-track release shows the journey of the rising star so far as he argues with his mother about his pursuit of a career in music. It’s certainly paid off, and 'Indigo Child' secured Raury’s name as one to watch out for moving forward. GB
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7. GoldLink – 'The God Complex'
GoldLink is one of those DMV rappers who popped up out of nowhere. ‘The God Complex’ is a refreshing alternative to a lot of the monotonous material that’s been floating around the hip-hop sphere. He’s just as vulgar as the next rapper, but he’s also one of the most experimental; delving into jazz, electro and Latin genres with the skill of seasoned rappers such as André 3000, who was spotted in the audience of ‘Link’s London show earlier this year. SD
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6. Rich Gang – 'Tha Tour Part 1'
What happens when you take the head honcho of one of hip-hop's most successful franchises, and team him up with two of the game's most talked about rappers? You get the formidable Rich Gang: made up of Birdman, Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan. Stuffed full of those turn-up bangers, crazy ad-libs and some really solid production, from London On Da Track, Rich Gang have everyone waiting on their next move. MW
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5. Mac Miller – 'Faces'
If 2013's 'WMWTSO' marked Mac Miller's transition from "Easy Mac with the cheesy raps" to a credible artist, this year's 'Faces' saw him really come into his creative own. Largely self-produced under his pseudonym Larry Fisherman, ‘Faces’ features Earl Sweatshirt, Rick Ross, Vince Staples and many more, and was made available for free when you made Mac a "sammich" on his website. What more could you ask for? LL
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4. Little Simz - 'E.D.G.E'
We already knew that London’s Little Simz could rap her ass off, but she took things to the next level this year when she released her first all-original project. 'E.D.G.E' proved that she has that rare ability to assemble a compelling full-length, standing up to any of its peers from over the Atlantic and allowing the listener to get up close and personal. Simz is a relatable protagonist and 'E.D.G.E' disproves anyone who lacks the motivation to get out there and chase their dreams. GB
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3. Mick Jenkins - 'The Water[s]'
Possibly the most cohesive mixtape of the year, 'The Water[s]' centres around his use of drinking water as an allegory for truth and spirituality. The tape builds on Jenkins' 2013 debut 'Trees & Truths', and is as much a product of the burgeoning Chicago music scene as it is Mick's own vision and creative ambition. LL
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2. Travi$ Scott – 'Days Before Rodeo'
'Days Before Rodeo', the follow up to Travi$’s hugely underrated ‘Owl Pharoah', sees the young Texas native further cement his name as one of the rap game's most promising prodigies. With some clear influence from his mentor, none other than Kanye West, ‘Days Before Rodeo’ is backed by some of the year’s most bangin’ tracks, like ‘Mamacita’, ‘Don’t Play’ and ‘Sloppy Toppy’. This project is also feature-heavy, including appearances from Migos, T.I. and Young Thug. MW
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1. Rome Fortune – 'Small VVorld'
The self-proclaimed Beautiful Pimp has had an amazing year, smashing through confines and expectations and working his way across markets; working with the likes of Four Tet and Suicideyear, as well as touring with Glass Animals. His vulnerable and honest 'Small VVorld' mixtape was simultaneously his most experimental and comprehensive release so far, bettering most of the year's commercial releases and setting up Rome Fortune for big things in 2015. GB
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Words by Grant Brydon, Mike Wood, Lewis Lister and Safra Ducreay.
So what's your favourite mixtape from 2014? Any we missed out? Join in the discussion on Twitter.