The Mixtape Roundup is dedicated to filling your hard drive with free music. Consider the variety of artists described below – from the ecstatic goofballs in Metro Zu to Prodigy’s veteran sneer – and you’ll agree that we’re living through one of the richest periods in hip hop. Also on the queue: Oakland stoner Shady Blaze, underground sage Brother Ali, and OFWG constant Hodgy Beats.
Metro Zu – Mink Rug
There’s isn’t a whole lot of readily available information about the Miami art-rap kids in Metro Zu. According to their Facebook page, “Metro Zu is an interdimensional art clan sent from a utopian future to usher in the next level of Cyberpunk Funk. …When not creating music, visual art, film, and literature frantically, the Metro Zu can usually be found macking females in abundance and causing chaotic disturbances in the universe.” I may not be able to verify the clan’s claims about visual art etc., but I can bear witness to the power of their “cyberpunk funk.” Mink Rug is one of the more weirdly fun mixtapes to come out so far this year.
Sonically Metro Zu harkens back to bass-heavy Uncle Luke records and the blunted haze of fellow Floridian Spaceghostpurrp, while their raps borrow from the slangy stream-of-consciousness moan of Lil B and Young L. What Metro Zu does better than any other people, however, is sing and write hooks. Take a listen to “Sell Ma Ho,” with its spiraling synth sounds and lumbering low end, and see if you can’t get the irreverent refrain out of your head. Another highlight, “Chikkhop,” takes a completely different tact, as it’s an off-key R. Kelly slow jam laid over a minimalist, windchime-and-bass beat. Elsewhere Metro Zu takes on Clams Casino-esque cloud rap (“Pantheon”), buoyant crunk (“Wet”), and '80s-inflected tongue-in-cheek corniness (“One Nite”).
Whatever the sound they’re exploring, or parodying, Metro Zu are sure to be entertainingly weird and surprisingly catchy. Whoever thought we needed a pop-music middle ground between Lil B and The-Dream? I guess that’s what the Internet is for.
Standout tracks: “Sell Ma Ho”; “Chikkhop”; “RobertSlorBetch”.
Shady Blaze – The Grind, Hustle & Talent
Another mixtape roundup, another release from Oakland’s prolific Green Ova collective: these guys are putting a serious dint in the government’s argument that potheads never get off the couch. Shady Blaze doesn’t have as much personality as his buddies Squadda B and Mondre.M.A.N, but he’s arguably a better technical rapper than either, switching flows frequently and reaching Twista-worthy speeds at a couple of moments during the tape. Shady Blaze also shows himself to be a rapper of surprising inspection, evidenced by the somber, emotive verses on “40 Bars” and “Celebration.”
Perhaps Shady’s versatility is what’s most surprising and pleasing about the mixtape – see how the first verse of “Aimin at Light” switches between gun-toting hood egotism and shaky, whistling-in-the-dark paranoia. The Grind, Hustle & Talent’s potent eleven tracks are anchored by production by left-field master Ryan Hemsworth and Shady Blaze himself, and although none of the muddy, lo-fi beats are as eye-opening or mind-blowing as the best moments on Mondre.M.A.N.’s M A N EP or 808s and Dark Grapes, Shady Blaze more than makes up for the relative monotony in soundscapes by varying his lyrical approach.
As a piece of industrious, subtly inventive hip hop, The Grind, Hustle & Talent easily lives up to its name.
Standout tracks: “40 Bars”; “Celebration”; “Another Dimension”.
Brother Ali – The Bite Marked Heart
As Andrew Martin noted in the Prefix news post announcing the release of this mixtape, Brother Ali is more discriminating than the average rapper when it comes to letting his music out into the world. It’s been a while since Ali’s latest, 2009’s excellent Us, so The Bite Marked Heart is a welcome offering from one of our most thoughtful and soulful emcees. As one might infer from the EP’s title, The Bite Marked Heart has a theme that further underscores Ali’s singularity – all of the EP’s songs are about relationships. And these aren’t your typical hip hop hookups, although there’s plenty of sex on The Bite Marked Heart.
Brother Ali is one of the few rappers who still excels at creating characters and telling stories, and for that reason The Bite Marked Heart has as much literary power as a good collection of short stories. “Shine On” features an extended scene between a woman waiting at a fancy restaurant and a guy who acts like a waiter in order to hit on her. “Electric Energy” starts out with a flirtation between a touring musician and an aspiring group before Ali’s observations grow dark and cutting: “buzzard eat buzzard/ these are not lovers/ two scared suckers masturbrating on each other.” Maybe the most impressive thing here is “Years,” where Brother Ali narrates the life long attachment between two adults, dropping casual profundity about child-rearing, making memories, and the lingering resentments of old battles: “those things that we say when we argue/ never go away, they become part of you/ furthermore with every new scar/ it grew ever harder to open my heart to you.”
Besides Ali’s wisdom, the other star here is Jake One, who provides five of the album’s beats. Jake One has a unique talent for crafting beautifully orchestrated soundscapes that somehow really knock at the same time, and The Bite Marked Heart has such moments of sublime boom-bap in abundance.
Standout tracks: “Shine On”; “Electric Energy”; “Years”.
Hodgy Beats – Untitled EP
There’s reason to both be excited about and to be disappointed with Untitled, the first solo release from Hodgy Beats since 2009’s The Dena Tape. The roster of producers is ridiculously top shelf for a free release, with the Alchemist, Juicy J, Flying Lotus, and Thelonious Martin providing beats. Hodgy raps with characteristic teenaged mania – on “Cookie Coma” he thanks his pastor grandfather for raising him and in the very next line raps “slit your wrists and swallow knives, bitches super-six for life” – and goes hard on every song, proving why he’s OFWG’s most consistent, if not most talented, MC. But as good as these beats sound – and boy do they sound good--with Flying Lotus’s swooning wamp on “Lamented” and “Lately,” Juicy J throwing a down-beat soul sample on “Bullshittin,” Martin’s smoky jazz scenes – Untitled feels as thrown together and ill-considered as its notably lazy, fuck it-style title. The album is only twenty two minutes long, but it has nine songs, which add up to a lot of short songs that are over before making much of an impression. Hodgy may have over-learned the lessons of Tyler, the Creator’s bloated Goblin, or he may just be careless in releasing an album that seems unfinished. Whichever the case, Untitled is a really good mixtape that is blemished slightly by evidence that it could have been a really great.
Standout tracks: “Bullshittin’”; “Lately”; “Lamented”.
Prodigy – H.N.I.C. 3
If you were wondering whether a three year prison sentence would mellow Queensbridge O.G. Prodigy, take a listen to H.N.I.C. 3, the new mixtape from the recently released spitter. Released in conjunction with Complex, H.N.I.C. 3 isn’t perhaps the full-on comeback album everybody wants from Prodigy, but it’s pretty close. With a bunch of grimy, smoldering beats from Havoc, and appearances from aesthetic offspring Waka Flocka Flame, Cory Gunz, and French Montana, H.N.I.C. 3 is exactly the thing for grizzled old heads who like to whine about how Drake and his ilk are ruining hip hop.
Prodigy isn’t as smoothly vivid as he once was, but he’s still liable to turn your stomach or send a chill up your spine. “Smells like shit, piss, and dead body parts,” Prodigy raps gleefully on “That’s Nasty,” the gangster version of Lieutenant Colonel William Kilgore. “Extreme” is one determined threat after another: “Nighttime you goin’ have nightmares about me/ Daytime you goin’ have daymares about P/ Don’t sleep, keep conscious, motherfucker/ Be aware of my creep.” One imagines Prodigy going back to the well of spite and fury like Philip Roth goes back to the well of sexual frustration – it’s the essential lifeblood of his art.
Standout tracks: “That’s Nasty”; “Extreme”; “They Scared”.