The top 15 hip-hop mixtapes of 2011



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5. 2 Chainz: T.R.U. REALigion

Maybe the craziest thing about 2 Chainz—besides the fact that he used to call himself "Tity Boy" of all things—is that up until May or so, he was kind of a terrible rapper. His Codeine Cowboy mixtape was sonically intriguing but lyrically middling, and everyting he'd done as a part of Ludacris's Playaz Circle crew had been uniformly unimpressive. But when 2 Chainz struck out on his own, something clicked in him and he kind of turned into the Super Saiyan version of himself—suddenly he could rap faster, more aggressively and with unprecedented levels of gusto. T.R.U. REALigion documents Tity 2 Necklace's magical transformation, and it's one hell of a fun ride.

4. The Weeknd: House of Balloons

When the Weeknd emerged from the ether in March, there were a lot of questions surrounding him and his music: Who produced it? Was he friends with Drake? Did he really do all of that gross, lecherous stuff he sang about? Was he even a he? Ultimately, most of the answers to those questions were answered, but the Weeknd's beautiful, left-field sleaze helped mark a sea change in the way we viewed R&B.

3. Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire: Lost in Translation

More than anyone else on this list, Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire was uniquely New York. A Crown Heights kid who worked blue-collar jobs while spending an adolescence obsessing over comic books and DMX albums, eXquire rapped about real stuff—getting too drunk, going to the chicken spot, and watching TV while trying to figure out your identity in a world that seems to exist solely to rob you of it. While it sounds like Lost in Translation might be a dark tape, what set it apart from the rest of the pack was eXquire's exquisite sense of humor—when you're at the bottom, he seems to say, you might as well have a little bit of fun. Hence works of bizarro genius such as "The Last Huzzah," featuring killer guest turns from fellow-minded weirdos Despot, El-P, Danny Brown and Das Racist.

2. Frank Ocean: nostalgia/ultra

Okay, so if you haven't noticed, Frank Ocean and the Weekend aren't technically rap. But their brilliance is to approach unlikely subject matter—for the Weeknd, Sade-ish quiet storm and for Frank, indie-rock singer-songwriter fare—from the stance of a rap dude. What Ocean ended up with is one of the most enduring musical works of the year, forging an unassuming new style that puts songwriting up on a pedestal with vocal ability and even the hotness of a beat. In a genre such as hip-hop, if that isn't groundbreaking, not much is.

1. Danny Brown: XXX

At the age of 30, the Detroit rapper Danny Brown was faced with a choice: start making a living as a rapper, or give up. He'd been a perpetual square peg, trying to fit into the round hole that was the rap industry, so he signed with the dance label Fool's Gold and decided to carve himself a square hole to fit into. He ended up with XXX, a mixtape that feels like a complete game-changer. Brown's histrionic voice makes his tales of violence and sex seem urgent, desparate even, and when he raps about a childhood gone wrong as he does on "Scrap or Die" and "DNA," he throws his antics into sharp relief. Think Redman, crossed with Cam'ron, crossed with Sole, and you might get close to describing Danny Brown. But really, the guy is a rapping unicorn. And that's why XXX is the best mixtape of the year.

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