The mixtape-to-majors trajectory, and the implicit challenges of converting underground acclaim into a sustainable career, has become part of the modern rap narrative. But it's not the only path. We've all seen how Drake, Kid Cudi and B.o.B rocketed from free downloads to hit albums like Thank Me Later, Man on the Moon: The End of Day, and The Adventures of Bobby Ray, respectively; we've also mocked Wale when he followed his widely acclaimed 2008 mixtape, the Seinfeld-inspired The Mixtape About Nothing, with a disappointing major-label debut, the following year's Attention Deficit. (He'll get another chance when Ambition drops next month.)
The inspiration for this roundup of 2011 mixtape artists is J Cole, the rapper/producer whose Cole World: The Sideline Story just sold nearly 300,000 copies in a week. The rest of the entries here chart a road sometimes marked by a major-label signing, though just as often it's with an independent. Yet these so-called "indies" are hardly industry outsiders: Mac Miller's management launched Wiz Khalifa, while Tyler, the Creator's team includes a former manager for Eminem. Even the concept of a "debut album" is questionable: the only real difference between Cole's largely self-produced Friday Night Lights and Cole World is that he released the former as a free download in December 2010. (I defined the term "debut album" as the first project originally intended for retail stores instead of the Internet.) Meanwhile, Big K.R.I.T.'s recent Return of 4va mixtape received the kind of press coverage reserved for official albums; unfortunately, he pushed his actual major-label debut back to 2012, so he's not included on this list.
In short, the rap game is just as confusing as ever. But mixtapes are a useful signifier for artists on the cusp of greatness or at least those making quality music.