From Mixtapes to the Majors: Best Big League Debuts:
5. Meek Mill
Dreams and Nightmares
(Maybach Music, Warner Bros.)
Meek Mill's spring-launched indie swansong Dreamchasers 2 crashed mixtape hub DatPiff the day it was released and whet the whistles of anyone waiting for the Maybach Music Group member to deliver his major label debut, Dreams and Nightmares. The album may have got delayed a few times, but the opening title track alone, which starts off with a soft piano hook before exploding into an aggro, shouted-out missive to the haters, was worth the wait. Window wiper-sampling revenge tale "Tony Story Pt. 2" and the mean, murky coke-slinger "Believe It" further proved the Philly MC delivers "A1 Everything."
4. Chief Keef
Chicago teen Chief Keef went from the mixtape circuit to the majors plenty quick in 2012 once his massive "I Don't Like" cut, off this year's Back from the Dead mixtape, got picked up by another notable Chi-town rapper: Kanye West. The song had already gone viral in the spring, but Ye brought Keef and producer Young Chop's signature tune to the mainstream with a star-studded remix featuring Pusha T and Big Sean for G.O.O.D. Music's Cruel Summer LP. "I Don't Like," almost predictably, got added to the kid's first album for Interscope — as did a newly Rick Ross-assisted "3hunna" — but there were plenty more skittered slow-bangers ("Love Sosa") and ad-libbed "bang-bangs" for the fans to feed on.
3. Death Grips
The Money Store
Right off the bat, the partnership between aggressive, experimental rap crew Death Grips and Epic Records seemed like a weird match. The Money Store, the band's major label follow-up to 2011's Ex-Military online mixtape (which was later re-released by Sargent House), was described by the band as an "iconic piece of pop art, themed in intense struggle, sexuality, demons, addiction, mysticism and violence," which was shorthand for explaining the still abrasive, industrial noisescapes that pitted drummer Zach Hill's frenetic pulse with Stefan "MC Ride" Burnett's vicious and shouty flow. The major label relationship quickly soured when the band offered another album in 2012, No Love Free Web, for free against their label's wishes. Some employee-baiting tweets and Facebook messages from the band ended up getting them axed from Epic. The band have since said the sabotaging was intentional, leaving us to wonder what's next for the indie-again outfit.
2. Kendrick Lamar
good kid, m.A.A.d. city
(Top Dawg, Aftermath, Interscope)
Following a slew of quality mixtapes on his own or with West Coast supergroup Black Hippy and his self-released first studio set Section 80, Compton-bred Kendrick Lamar teamed up with Dr. Dre's Aftermath and Interscope to deliver his highly anticipated and critically acclaimed major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Lyrically, the concept album — surrounding Lamar's youth, his entrance into gang life and eventual redemption — jumped from the old-school braggadocio of "Backstreet Freestyle" to the panicked, pitch-shifted spitting style on hard-edged g-funk centrepiece "m.A.A.d. city," to the reflective "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst." Beat-wise, the album hit hard with wobblers like "Swimming Pools," or even the Twin Sister-sampling bonus cut "The Recipe." Albums, debut or otherwise, don't generally get better than this.
1. Frank Ocean
Many will tie the release of Frank Ocean's major label debut Channel Orange to those leaked liner notes that led to the artist coming out of the closet, but beyond the important personal accomplishment for the R&B singer, his album also signalled his strongest work yet. While his Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape strung together a number of electro-tinged tunes and tracks sampling the likes of Coldplay and the Eagles, Channel Orange had the dude delivering a heady blend of soul. Where to start with it's many highlights? The deceptively sunny '70s soul snippet "Fertilizer"? The hedonistic, laissez-faire lyrics on glammy stomp "Super Rich Kids"? The epic stripper love story "Pyramids"? No matter which angle you focus on, Ocean's modern-day classic swept over the mainstream in 2012.