Friday, 30 December 2011

The Urbanite End of Year Awards (The Countdown) - R&B Mixtape of the Year

The other week, we gave you The Urbanite's definitive list of the best music and artists of 2011.  With only days away until the end of the year, and after much deliberation and last minute changes, the list has finally been made.  We'll be revealing the winners on the 31st, but here is a look at the acts that just missed the cut and why in the hardest category of them all, the R&B mixtape of the year award as there have been many, many great mixtapes released in this category in 2011.

5. Ed Sheeran - No 5 Collaborations Project

A product of the SBTV generation, Ed Sheeran rose to fame rapidly after recording a live performance for the channel in 2010.  Although he seemed like an ironic, ginger rapper that would quickly be forgotten about (like Just Jack), that appearance inspired Example to ask him to tour with him and thus began the quick rise to fame of the kid from Norfolk.  Touring with Example and appearing on the UK's biggest urban network also gave the young singer a wider fanbase amongst the urban scene, with rappers such as Wiley and JME practically begging to work with the rising star and his guitar.

Due to this demand, what we are given in early 2011 is a mixtape that features the best and brightest in the grime scene collaborating on tracks with Mr Sheeran.  Although the mixtape is very short, at only eight songs, each song has a different twist to it and successfully crosses the magic boundary between indie and grime that many before have tried and failed (remember 'grimie'?!).

Devlin perfectly starts the album with typical force on Lately, whilst Wiley is in a thoughtful mood on the calm and cool You, but it is really with P Money and the fast-paced, soulful Family that the mixtape really kicks into gear and starts to show why the young singer is such a hot prospect at the moment.  The song chronicles P Money's near fatal car crash in 2010 and re-tells the story with such detail and veracity that you think you are there in the car with him when it all happened.  It really is the stand out song of the album and was one of the reasons why the album reached number 46 in the charts with only promotion on social media sites.

Mention should also go to Sway, who delivers a great verse on Nightmares, alongside Wretch 32 and Random Impulse.  This mixtape, if you have not already heard it, still displays some of Sheeran's best work to date so if you are not a fan yet, give this a listen.

Choons to download: Family, Radio, Nightmare, Drown Me Out

4. The Weeknd - Thursday

At number four, we have the first of three mixtapes from an artist that has re-defined the R&B scene in the space of 12 months.  When The Weeknd first came out, such was the mystery around the artist that many people did not know whether he was an individual singer or part of a collective.  By December, Abel Tesfaye had completed a trilogy of mixtapes and was effectively sending the R&B world into a download frenzy, crashing his own website in the process.

His second 'free to download' mixtape, Thursday, racked up 180,000 hits on it's first day, which is a remarkable achievement for an underground artist that has had no label backing and minimal exposure.  After tweeting support to his fellow Canadian it was only naturally for Drake to appear on the album, lending a verse to the chilled out sounds of The Zone with an opener that was surely tweeted by multiple guys ("woah, all these broken hearts on that pole, man if pole dancing's an art do you know how many fucking artists I know").

Despite the great production, the heart and soul of this mixtape is once again in The Weeknd's voice.  This is especially so on the dramatic The Birds Part 1, a drum heavy masterpiece that has the crooner telling us that he is "just a bird" whilst pleading with a girl not to fall in love "with a nigga like me".  It's pretty tragic stuff and by the time the song ends, and The Birds Part 2 kicks in, you're taken into a zone of hopelessness and despair that you weirdly begin to enjoy due to the strength of his voice.  The way that he ends Part 1, in great falsetto, is vocal genius and provides the best minute on the whole mixtape.

It's not all sad stories, though.  On the mixtape's opener, Life of the Party, the subject matters are drugs, drugs and drugs and this is where we have The Weeknd at his mischievous best ("Go downtown with the drugs in your body, take that step you're the life of the party").  The minimalist beat perfectly suits his voice and subject topic and is a great song all round.

Although the weakest of the three mixtapes, Thursday is a brilliant record from a singer that achieved great things in 2011.

Choons to download: Life of the Party, The Birds Part 1, The Birds Part 2, The Zone

3. The Weeknd - Echoes of Silence

Since it was only released on 21st December, The Weeknd's third mixtape of the year did not originally make The Urbanite's end of year list.  In the space of two weeks, however, the mixtape has overtaken others (The Dream, 1977 and Chris Brown, Boy in Detention) to reach the position of the third best R&B mixtape of 2011.

It is the perfect conclusion to the trilogy, combining the best elements of both House of Balloons and Thursday into one nine-track mixtape.  Lyrically, it is the better of the three with the content of The Fall, an ode to a stripper, in particular standing out ("mama I understand why you mad, and it hurts to accept what I am").  On The Same Old Song we hear a song about a girl that didn't believe in his potential and now wants him back.  Of course our host is having the last laugh ("Well you can take another shot everytime you hear me playing in the club"), but the rest of the album suggests that he is not yet over his girl (and drug) troubles.

Other notable songs include the steamy and explicit Outside and on the beautiful Echoes of Silence, but the highlight of the mixtape comes with the fast paced and experimental Initiation.  

The Weeknd continues to expand musical boundaries and test the variations he can come up with in his voice.  Distorting it, using auto-tune, singing in falsetto - we get all of this and more in this mixtape and it is a great way to end the year for the singer.

Choons to download: Same Old Song, Initiation, Outside, The Fall

2. The Weeknd - House of Balloons

After picking up the third and fourth best mixtapes of the year, it seems slightly unfair to give House of Balloons the runner-up award in this category.  The Weeknd's first release, in March of this year, has already made it into the top ten album list for The Guardian, The New York Times and Billboard and was the number one album of the year for Complex magazine.  It was an internet sensation within weeks of release, in part due to a helping hand from fellow Canadian Drake,  It has been described as "brilliant and disturbing" by some critics, as "one of the year's best debuts" by others and was a feature song on the last season of The Entourage.

The strength of this mixtape lies in the fact that it sounds like nothing that had been released before.  Take the brilliant What You Need, with it's techno samples and catchy pop chorus; it appeals to the indie crowd, the R&B lovers and the down right druggies.  The digital drumbeats on The Morning have a massive impact on the listener when the chorus kicks in, as The Weeknd paints a vivid description of a late night out on the town ("Drinking Alize with our cereal for breakfast, girls calling cabs at dawn quarter to seven").  On many of the songs here it feels like you've been out on the lash with the singer, especially on Coming Down, where he gives us an extended version of the drunken text to your ex.

Loft Music is one of the highlights of the album - a laid back track with minimal production and cool sound effects.  But the track of the mixtape, and possibly the track of the year, is Wicked Games - the song that inspired that infamous tweet from Drake.  The song is essentially about drinking, taking drugs and cheating on your partner with a stripper.  By the time we hit the second verse, and he screams "just tell me you love me" at the top of his voice, you can practically feel the pain in his heart, especially when he tells the girl to "bring your love baby I can bring my shame, bring the drugs baby I can bring my pain".  It is a momentous piece of song-crafting and R&B and is one of the reasons why The Weeknd is easily going to be one of the biggest artists of 2012.

Choons to download: The whole mixtape

See all nominations here: Winners will be revealed on 31st December.  

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