Duke tanked in the Sweet 16 this year, which meant that my persistence through the schizophrenic weather of North Carolina in the month of March could not be justified vicariously by the accomplishments of younger and more interesting people on the basketball court. Fortunately, younger and more interesting people in the music industry picked up the slack, making last month one of the best I can recall for the mixtape game. So much so that our nation’s attention-hungry rappers couldn’t even keep the spotlight all to themselves: In a crazy twist of fate, I counted not one but two R&B mixtapes among my favorites. And Butler’s in the finals tonight? What planet do I even live on?
Kicking off March Mixtape Madness with a powerful collection of alt-R&B jams, Odd Future associate and newly minted Drake-for-folks-who-are-too-indie-to-admit-they-like-Drake Frank Ocean dropped nostalgia, ultra via his Tumblr. The mixtape went viral following a March 1st Twitter blast, in which Ocean tore into Def Jam, saying he was tired of getting jerked around and was ready to share his music with his fans. Not only do I empathize with the general crappiness of Def Jam when it comes to honoring commitments to their new talent (are we ever gonna get that J. Cole album?), but I think the quality of the material completely vindicates Ocean’s hunch that he can succeed without the machine behind him. My favorite track is “There Will Be Tears,” a mournful and generously Auto-Tuned dirge that abruptly turns upbeat and cathartic when Ocean declares: “My granddaddy was a player, pretty boy in a pair of gators.” The song is a tribute to the deadbeat dad that Ocean never got to know, both moving and infectious. And it earns its place as the mixtape’s standout against some stiff competition: the powerful single “Swim Good” and the blogosphere favorite “Songs for Women,” wherein Ocean gets all despondent over the fact that his girlfriend would rather blast Drake and Trey Songz than listen to his stuff.
Similarly on-trend via the increasingly prominent underground R&B movement, the Weeknd, a secretive Canadian performer named Abel Tesfaye, takes the genre to even rawer places. His House of Balloons, which blew up at the end of the month thanks to a Drake co-sign, is as sexy as it is unnerving, an audio documentary of the nightlifers who use sex and drugs to dull their gnawing loneliness. But unlike other indie R&B acts like James Blake or How to Dress Well, the Weeknd never lets his existential concerns stand between his listeners and a good jam. “Wicked Games,” for example, sounds like prime Michael Jackson singing over a Portishead track. Generally, the vocals on House of Balloons are immaculate, while the tracks are the moody sort of minimal R&B that Drake would give his Sprite endorsement for a chance to rhyme over. Highly recommended.
But the month’s mixtape offerings weren’t all dour and experimental. On the funkier side of the spectrum was DJ Quik’s Audio Biography of David, a career retrospective-cum-dance-floor-ready-mix that only the legendary Compton producer could have crafted. Exemplary cut: “Way 2 Fonky” serves up West Coast P-funk worship that Dre wishes he could still pull off accompanied by Quik’s master-class lecture in beatcraft. That crazy rhythm line, he assures, is played by an ordinary bass guitar, not anything more or less exotic. In fact, working that track eventually led Quik to investigate Bollywood music—and as he reminds us, he was the producer who blazed that particular trail, one which more commercially successful producers (ever heard of this Timbaland guy?) would follow. If you like to learn a little history while nodding your head, this is a must-have mixtape, one which bodes well for Quik’s forthcoming Book of David.
Having given props to the West Coast, we turn our attention to the East. I don’t know about you, but I dig Wale. His flow is so nimble, like if Blackthought had a sense of humor, and if you add to that the breadth of his cultural references and his affinity for multisyllabic SAT words, he just sounds like a fucking ninja. What got me through my 50th listen of “No Hands” last winter was the fact that Wale just got up there, sandwiched between two of the worst rappers to land that kind of hit in years, and sounded like a champ going at maybe 60%. Unsurprisingly, the best parts of No Days Off are where you hear Wale spit over familiar tracks: “Unthinkable,” “Bedrock,” “Aston Martin Music.” The original tracks sound pretty half-assed compared to the freestyles, so I say No Days Off lands solidly in the fans-only bin. If you want to know what D.C.’s proudest son’s been up to since signing to Rick Ross’s Maybach Music crew, cop this one; otherwise, pass.
Speaking of the Teflon Don, he shows up all over March’s mixtapes, doing verses with not just Wale, but Trina and Pusha T as well. We’ll talk Trina in a minute, but Rick Ross really impressed me on “I Still Wanna,” from Pusha T’s Fear of God. It’s a dark slice of drug-rap, as good an exercise in the genre as you’re likely to hear from anyone who isn’t named Raekwon. Though Ross on his best day can’t touch the wily Clipse MC, whose refrain, “Still searching for a fishscale like I’m try’na find Nemo,” would have earned my nod for best line on a March mixtape if not for the great lines that Pusha T throws off elsewhere. On “Can I Live Freestyle”: “Now when the feds watch me, private paparazzi/Still chasing me for war crimes like a Nazi/Against all odds see the judge tried to ’Pac me/Lucky dice roll got my lawyers screaming ’Yahtzee.’” If Pusha T’s show-stealing verses on Kanye’s last album left any doubt in your mind as to his ability to operate without his brother and co-MC, Malice, rest assured: The solo stuff is going to slay. In the meantime, Fear of God is entertaining, if not always inspired, and its frequently dope production gives a sense of what to expect from ’Ye’s G.O.O.D. music label.
All right, let’s dish on Trina. I can’t resist contextualizing her latest by reference to Lil’ Kim’s disastrous Black Friday, which our own Huw Jones rightfully blasted as inane, self-absorbed, and redundant. If not for the release of Soulja Boy’s bizarre, video game-themed 1Up, Kim’s hateful grab at the spotlight would stand unchallenged as the worst mixtape of the month. As every track of Black Friday attests, Kim’s hysterical act of sonic hara-kiri was motivated by the MC’s implacable resentment for Nicki Minaj. As an MC, Nicki could body Kim on any track; in terms of their relative likability and charisma, there’s even less competition. But the obvious fact is—or should be—that Nicki is pretty widely adored right now, making any full-on offensive from her rivals a non-starter.
Trina’s tack is more can’t-beat-’em-join-’em. Like Nicki, she pours a generous helping of frothy girls-night-out jams over a few well-placed tracks of filthy, hard-hitting rap. She talks a little shit to her competition on “Waist So Skinny,” but she’s obviously less interested in settling scores than in trying to down as much champagne as possible between verses. “Put Them Bottles Up” and “Rich Bitch” are two of the perfectly respectable pop-rap highlights on Diamonds Are Forever, rap’s Baddest Bitch sounding so carefree and in control that nobody could cramp her style. And isn’t that just an infinitely better way to assert oneself in the post-Pink Friday femme-rap landscape than launching a bitter attack that’s as transparently masturbatory as it is childishly retaliatory? Anyway, I’d call Trina’s joint the best March mix to put on at a party…that is, if it weren’t for Mac Miller.
Mac Miller’s Best Day Ever did solid word-of-mouth this month, but I’m not gonna lie: I was a little disappointed. Maybe the Pittsburgh rap contingent just needed something to coalesce around in the wake of Wiz Khalifa’s ho-hum Rolling Papers, but Miller’s flow rarely turned my head while I listened to his tape. The tracks do a lot of work for him, and I’d say that the real highlight of Best Day Ever is its quirky, house party-ready production. The first four tracks serve up giddy, bass-driven jams from relative upstarts Teddy Roxpin and Sap, plus ID Labs (who brought only weak tracks to Khalifa’s album, but shows up in significantly better form here). The one-two punch of Roxpin’s “Get Up!” and Sap’s “Donald Trump” is tailor-made for compulsive replaying, and the former even showcases the best verbal acrobatics Miller’s liable to give. More indicative is Just Blaze’s “All Around the World,” which benefits greatly from its producers’ unfailing ears, but little from Miller’s rhymes. Not yet convinced that this guy deserved his place on XXL’s freshman roster.
By contrast, Mississippi rapper Big K.R.I.T., who made the same list in February, blew my mind with his ReturnOf4Eva mixtape. Hearing ReturnOf4Eva was like living in a fantasy where Pimp C had never died, or where he had died but had first contributed some of his sizzurp-y DNA to a deranged scientist’s Build a Better MC project, where it would be spliced with André 3000’s melodic drawl and T.I.’s knack for stern-ass sermonizing. Is ReturnOf4Eva the best mixtape of the month? Yeah, but that’s not the half of it. I’d say it’s the rap album to beat in 2011 so far, but that even doesn’t do it justice, it just means I like it more than the Saigon joint, pretty much the only decent rap LP to hit shelves in the past three months. Just download the thing, all right?