Hip-Hop Mixtapes: Unlicensed to Thrill

By Chris Richards
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Got mixtapes?

For the latest sounds in hip-hop, don't bother with the radio. Turn off your computer, too. The good stuff lives and breathes on mixtapes, unlicensed CD compilations crammed with unofficial remixes, unauthorized samples and uncensored raps.

Mixtapes (an anachronistic name -- they're all on CD now) can be powerful publicity tools -- a tactic used by artists to keep their buzz on the streets while record labels push their official release dates further into the future. But artistically they provide rappers, DJs and producers with a medium to experiment free from the constraints of industry red tape.

Aside from an isolated crackdown every now and then (a handful of unlucky retailers have been raided in the past year), the record industry turns a blind eye to the mixtape trade flourishing via retail Web sites and mom-and-pop stores. The hype they create is just too valuable.

With many of this summer's hotly anticipated hip-hop releases pushed back to late summer, fall, winter or sometime in 2012, here's a review of mixtapes that are tiding fans over:

DJ Drama & Lil' Wayne: "Dedication 2"

Lil' Wayne's latest embodies the best that mixtapes have to offer -- a space for rappers to explore their flow. Whether he's pondering his future or professing his love for ESPN, the New Orleans rapper's twangy rasp sounds more versatile than ever -- and the results are utterly hypnotic. Twenty-four cuts deep, "Dedication 2" comes to a rolling boil with "Georgia . . . Bush," a mesmerizing indictment of the president's response to Hurricane Katrina. Alongside a Ray Charles sample, Wayne raps, "I know people that died in that pool, I know people that died in them schools." It's impossible not to hang on every syllable.

DJ Drama and Pharrell: "In My Mind: The Prequel"

You already know Pharrell. After crafting mega-hits for the likes of Gwen, Snoop and Britney, the Neptunes producer finally is releasing his own solo album. "In My Mind" originally was slated for release last November. Then December. Then April. Now late this month (some say he's a perfectionist).

You wouldn't know it based on "The Prequel," a venture with mixtape guru DJ Drama that feels more like a grab for street credibility than a showcase for Pharrell's rap skills. "We gotta go all the way on your first mixtape!" Drama barks before serving up the gritty track from GZA's "Liquid Swords" for his acolyte to stumble over. When the going gets rough, Pharrell takes a breather to plug his shoe line, his clothing line, his endorsements with Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs. The playboy boasts sound more natural over the shimmering beats of "The Message," where Pharrell shouts out the magazine covers he's graced: "Esquire and GQ -- Don't kid yourself trying to say, 'Me too.' "

DJ Benzi & Evil Empire: "Clipse -- We Got the Remix"

Pity the Clipse. A messy record-label merger has kept its sophomore album, "Hell Hath No Fury," locked in cold storage for almost three years. Then again, Pusha T and Malice haven't been sulking -- they've been sharpening their serpentine rhymes on the stellar "We Got It 4 Cheap" mixtape series. So beloved are these underground releases that DJ Benzi has managed to recruit an all-star cast of DJs to give them the remix treatment. And while Diplo, Disco D, Ghislain Poirier and Benzi himself all make memorable contributions, the stars here are still the Clipse -- two MCs who've found a million fascinating ways to rap about two things: pushing drugs and reaping the rewards.

DJ Dutty Laundry and Rick Ross: "Interstate Heavyweight"

More than a mere street hustler, Miami rapper Rick Ross posits himself as a full-fledged drug czar. He takes his name from "Freeway" Rick Ross, the Los Angeles drug kingpin attributed with introducing America to crack cocaine in the early '80s. "I know Noriega, the real Noriega," the not-real Ross brags on "Hustlin.' " Crackling with eerie intensity, the song has become a summer staple on hip-hop radio, dance floors and mixtapes alike. "Interstate Heavyweight" is one of many Ross-endorsed releases floating around in which the rapper uses his baritone to recommend that listeners "Remember the name." Later, he jogs our memory, hissing, "Rawssssss."

Lupe Fiasco: "Touch the Sky"

Chicago's Lupe Fiasco is busy in the streets, too -- riding his skateboard. "Kick, Push" is the 24-year-old's paean to freedom on four wheels, set to a classic boom-bap beat. "Come and skate with me, just a rebel looking for a place to be," he spits in a cadence evoking Jay-Z and Mos Def. The kid's even got a penchant for the conceptual. On "Twilight Zone," a ricocheted bullet stops in its path to ask Lupe if he's afraid of it or the shooter, while "Conflict Diamonds" cleverly elaborates on Kanye West's bling-guilt. Clocking in at a fatiguing 78 minutes, "Touch the Sky" could use more moments like these.

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