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Explorations in Mixtape Nation

Lil Wayne, Q-Tip, and Remy Ma feed into hip-hop's endless musical reserves

It gets me every time, and there's barely any music to it. Mainly it's a naked voice--mellow, soft-edged, playfully playground, flowing liquid over bass drum and down-low "Gold Digger" hook, which now signifies not "Ray Charles" but "classic Kanye you're always happy to hear again (so far)." It's a Q-Tip freestyle, and though it follows the Busta-meets-Pharrell expostulation "Followers"--"Shinin' brighter on niggas just like a fuckin' halogen/Spit clearer than water 'cause I'm lactose intolerant"--please believe that it stops the show.

He "ain't really sayin' nothin' exactly." So try to imagine Q-Tip's simple words not just scanning but lilting: "Bite my style yo they bite my style/Turn up the music little bit more now/There's the knob turn it up more Joe/And then we gonna spit this next verse and then we gon' go/Because there's radio shows by the dozen/But none is fuckin' with this one cousin/It's the Clinton the Sparks . . ." It's lovely, infectious, virtuosic. When you obey Kardinal Offishall on the next track and Google "the best nigga who ever spit," you get nothing, which seems just.

But right after that, things pick up big-time. Busta and project sponsor Kanye join in on "I'm still the motherfucker you love to hate/But cain't" over a canted electric-piano hook I feel I know, and then come four impressive apprentices, with "motherfuckin' savage" Remy Ma taking the cake: "Innocent girls and boys turned into bastards/I want bitches to die deaths that are tragic/And niggas fucked in they ass turned into faggots/Their balls cut off and mailed to their parents." Remy Ma is female. Act like you know.

That's 16 minutes of music toward the end of Clinton Sparks + Kanye West's Touch the Sky, an unofficial recording you can buy for seven bucks both online and in clandestine geographical locations. Last year, producer Sparks, whose chipmunk snippet "It's familiar!" is imprinted like an aural logo on every track he does, oversaw the Clipse & Re-Up Gang's celebrated We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 2: sapient cocaine rhymes over an audacious array of hit hooks, many probably acquired 4 nothing--that is, jacked--like many other mixtape beats. But at least half of Sky's 78 minutes will disappoint admirers of the Clipse CD, despite several helpings of prime raw--exhumed Biggie stickin' ice picks on the tip of your dick, "try-sexual" Lil' Kim, lubricious Ludacris & Shawnna. It will also disappoint fans of West, who presumably undertook the enterprise for street cred I bet escapes him.

Someone should write a book about the mixtape world, which encapsulates hip-hop's complexity. It's dangerous, creative, materialistic, and uncontrollable, up from slavery and on both sides of the law. But as a music critic in for a quick look around, all I can say is that the eight or nine examples I've been sampling are mind-boggling. Since mixtapes are esoteric on purpose (like indie-rock collectibles, except they're immensely more profitable), I should explain that they're not tapes. The cassette era was when DJs began seguing original, remixed, and stolen music into album-length wholes. But CDs are easier to produce (and bootleg). Nowadays, many mixtapes are private product featuring a single artist plus loosely defined crew. These are generally "authorized," as are some multi-artist DJ constructions. Labels often value mixtapes as promotional tools, building word-of-mouth for new artists or whetting appetites for forthcoming releases. But others are accounted criminal. Need I add that the RIAA has no idea what to make of them?

The individual-artist mixtapes I've heard are like regular albums, only not as good. Beats are cruder, hooks sparser, lyrics harder. Lil Wayne's The Carter 2: Part 2: Like Father Like Son, featuring his Cash Money mentor Birdman, declares itself thusly: "This ain't no mixtape, niggaz. This is a gift, from Cash Money, for the streets." And except for the gift part that's exactly right--it's 2005's Tha Carter II in thug overdrive. Substitute the likes of "Whrr Tha Cash," "Lil' Nigga," and the assassinatin' "Problem Solver" for a few weaker Carter II tracks, and Wayne would have quite the off-road hip-hop vehicle. Or take Ghostface Killah's 2004 and 2005 projects: Theodore Unit's 718 on Sure Shot, and with Trife Da God, Starks Enterprises' Put It on the Line. 718 is fine till it turns crew showcase, because knife-voiced Trife merits collaboration and stolid Solomon Childs doesn't, while Put It on the Line, oh well, has too much Trife on it. But though they're simpler, I'd put either up against Ghostface's somewhat disappointing regular release Pretty Toney Album, and call your attention to the decayed synth-horn (?) beat looped below 718's "Who Are We?" I'd never heard a sound quite like that grating buzz, and because of a mixtape now I have, and want to again. Realness fiends who claim, for instance, that Jeezy's mixtapes beat Young Jeezy's bestselling debut, are, after all, only Jeezy fans. But far more than indie-rock collectibles, mixtapes tap the world's endless musical reserves?and render hip-hop-is-dead rhetoric ridiculous.

The traditional mixtape I'll be replaying is DJ Green Lantern's Alive on Arrival, and not just because it doesn't include some overseer's five-minute Alicia Keys interview, as Touch the Sky does. (Sparks: "Me personally I'm a huge fan of your body--of work." Where's Biggie's ice pick when we need it?) Green Lantern's don't-miss track is the dissonant, tortured, funny, defiant "Shotgun Season," in which a screwed-down Junior Walker contextualizes the gun talk of Fat Joe and Styles P., neither any favorite of mine. But there are other highlights, including every element of a sequence that moves from Dead Prez and Immortal Technique's call to "Impeach the President" to Wyclef's heartfelt plea that Bush and Osama smoke dope to Remy Ma's autobiography of a crack baby to Busta and Ghostface's unrepentant, double-time "Blow His Head Off," directed not at a political figure but "any nigga who thinks he's better than me."

Of course, there are two gangsta sequences, one deadly, as in dull. With mixtapes, you take what you get. But if someone can direct me to T.L.E.'s supposedly anti-Bush Hidden Treasures, which I read about on an XXL message board, I'll take a chance.

Village Voice, May 16, 2006