Supposedly, albums are where it's at. That's when the artist is supposed to bring their A-game, convert the doubters, all that good stuff. So why is it that a lot of the time it's the mixtapes that are the most enjoyable? Maybe it's because so many mixtapes are when artists are still building their reputation, and they're hungry as hell. Maybe it's because there's less pressure, no worries about first week sales, and the artist feels more free to take chances. It's probably all of these things, but whatever the reason, some rappers just shine when money's not involved. Keep reading for the ten best mixtape rappers of all time.
See also: The ten best mixtape DJs of all time
10. J. Cole J. Cole's a funny artist because even though he's a Gold-selling artist, he still hasn't released an album as good as either of his Roc Nation mixtapes, The Warm Up and especially Friday Night Lights. On the latter, with tracks like "Too Deep For the Intro," Cole proved that he had a raw, emotional honesty not often seen in hip-hop. The mixtape format also allowed Cole to go hard over already popular beats like Kanye's "Devil in a New Dress" on "Villematic."
9. Chance the Rapper Chance the rapper is one of the hottest up-and-coming rappers out right now, and he has yet to release an official album. As such, he's emblematic of the new model for gaining popularity through mixtapes. Last year's 10 Day put him on the radar of hip-hop heads across the country, but he's absolutely blown up after this year's Acid Rap. Chance's mixtape game is so strong, a bootlegged version of it landed at 63 on Billboard's Hip-hop/R&B chart after selling 1,000 copies on iTunes and Amazon in a week.
8. Young Jeezy Before he was a Platinum-selling artist, Young Jeezy was a drug dealer, plain and simple. He makes no reservations talking about that life in his breakout mixtape Trap or Die, calling out studio rappers. Not only did Trap or Die blow Jeezy up, it took what T.I. Started with Trap Muzik and made it more real, much closer to the streets. For T.I., it was a mode of expression, but for Jeezy, death was in the equation. You can hear the urgency in his music.
7. Joe Budden After being nominated for a Grammy in 2003 for "Pump It Up," Budden fell almost completely off the map for several years, sustained mostly by solid, underhyped mixtapes, most notably his Mood Muzik series. Mixtapes have suited Budden as he seems to be more comfortable as the underdog, clawing his way out of whatever corner he's been backed into, than the superstar on top of the game. "Whatever It Takes," a breathtaking epic of misery from Kill Yourself, Part 1, a DJ Kay Slay and Clinton Sparks mixtape, tells a bit about Budden's proclivity for melancholy.
6. Danny Brown It's easy to forget that Danny Brown's career didn't start with 2011's XXX, one of the best mixtapes ever, but the dude is in his thirties; what do you think he's been doing for the past ten years? The answer, mostly, is mixtapes, highlighted by the Detroit State of Mind series, the surprisingly classic-sounding Hot Soup and his collaboration tape with Tony Yayo, Hawaiian Snow. All his work paid off in the form of a deal with A-Trak's label, Fool's Gold, which set him up for his critically acclaimed entry into the semi-mainstream.
5. Gucci Mane Gucci Mane's not necessarily a worldwide rap star, but he is a master of the grind and one of the most prolific artists in the game. Since 2006, Gucci's released 42 mixtapes, including eight already this year! In 2007, he released No Pad, No Pencil, which marked his departure from writing his lyrics and also a meteoric rise in popularity. Since, then Gucci's collabed with some of the best DJs around, including DJ Drama, Trap-A-Holics and DJ Holiday.
4. Big K.R.I.T. K.R.I.T.'s been making music since 2005, but the mixtape that brought him to a wide audience was 2010's K.R.I.T. Wuz Here. The self-produced tape overflows will old-school soul, wisdom and the finest rapping to come out of Mississippi since... well, ever. But instead of immediately capitalizing on his newfound heat with a studio album, which he certainly could have done, he instead kept putting out dope mixtape after dope mixtape. By the time he finally released his studio debut Live From the Underground, K.R.I.T. had already put out so much great music, the album sounded no better (maybe even a little worse) than the mixtapes. To K.R.I.T.'s credit, the album's not bad at all; the mixtapes are just really, really good.
3. Lil B Lil B is the patron saint of mixtapes. He has more mixtapes than most rappers have singles. Actually, he might have more mixtapes than he has singles. The question about Lil B's music has always been consistency. One minute, he'll go absolutely out of his mind, and the next, he'll sound laughably bad. The new mixtape paradigm of a mixtape being basically a less formal album works perfectly for his Based style. He just releases music continuously and doesn't have to worry about his projects being cohesive or up to label standards.
2. Lil Wayne From 2004 through 2009, Lil Wayne was absolutely the king of the mixtape game. Beginning with Da Drought, but especially Dedication 2 and Da Drought 3, Lil Wayne was honing his skills to eventually become the superstar he is today. Although every Wayne album has sold well enough to go Gold, Platinum or better, many fans would argue that he has, for whatever reason, saved his best material for mixtapes like the aforementioned and, more recently, No Ceilings. Maybe it's just that an informal Weezy is a more enjoyable Weezy.
1. 50 Cent The difference between 50 Cent's career before and after he released 50 Cent is the Future and No Mercy, No Fear two months apart is staggering. In fact, it was Fiddy that set the standard for the game-changing mixtape with his debut, which was hosted by DJ Whoo Kid and borrowed beats from New York rap legends aplently, on which he arguably spit better the instrumentals than the original rappers. 50 Cent's earliest mixtapes changed the game for rappers trying to make a name for themselves and showed that it was possible to jump from obscurity to number one. As 50's career has gradually cooled, he's moved back to the mixtape game he helped create to recapture the same fire that he started with, but it seems unlikely that he will eclipse the power of his first.