The definition of “mixtape” has changed a lot over the years, especially when it comes to single-artist projects. Mixtapes were once, of course, actual cassettes, documents of DJ mixes, sometimes with exclusives or freestyles thrown in. By the time I started paying attention to them, mixtapes were ways for established rappers to keep their names out there, or for lesser-knowns to make names for themselves, but they didn’t function the same way albums did. They’d have a few new tracks, maybe a previously released single or two that’d already made some noise, a few freestyles over other people’s songs, a remix or two. If the rapper had been on any songs with more-famous rappers, those songs would make their way to the mixtape. They’d collect whatever odds and ends they could find to make the point that this rapper is good and you should pay attention to him. Some mixtapes that we remember as classic, like Young Jeezy’s career-making Trap Or Die, are structured like this. These days, with labels hesitant to release any rap records, and with mixtapes being the only dependable way for artists to build fanbases for themselves, a mixtape more or less has to work like an album; it’s what we expect every time we hit “download” on Livemixtapes. But that old let’s-grab-a-bunch-of-shit model still works, and the new Zuse tape, Plugged, is a prime example.
Earlier this year, Zuse, a Jamaican-born and Atlanta-based rapper, released his Bullet mixtape, which flew under the radar but which stands as one of my 10-or-so favorite mixtapes of the year. Bullet was a full-length statement, a full immersion in one guy’s aesthetic. Zuse has a Jamaican patois and a thick lion-growl ferocity, and he always sounds ready to rip your face off. His ad-libs, most of which are machine-gun sounds or just the word “bullet” shouted really loud, are almost as great as his verses and his hooks. But he raps over weird staring-into-infinity computer-loop beats, many of them from the Atlanta production squad FKi. And that contrast, between Zuse’s braying delivering and the insinuating peculiarity of his beats, was more than enough to build an album. But even though there are a few FKi beats on Zuse’s new Plugged tape, Plugged isn’t an album-style tape or a deep dive back into that same aesthetic. Its whole message is: “Hey, look, this guy can rap.” And since Zuse really can rap, it works anyway. Plugged probably isn’t as end-to-end strong as Bullet was, but it’s an absolute blast regardless.
On Plugged, Zuse isn’t shy about swiping other artists’ instrumentals, though he tends to stay away from super-obvious picks like “0 To 100″ or “Hot Nigga.” Instead, he breathes fire all over B-list hits like Tyga’s “Hookah” or Tinashe’s “2 On” or Jhené Aiko’s starry-eyed R&B midtempo ballad “The Worst.” He also throws on every random track he’s made with a more-famous rapper, which mostly means Young Thug. Those two have recorded a bunch of songs together, possibly because Thug has realized how great his hyperactive helium-yawp sounds when you contrast it with Zuse’s throaty growl. “Mayday,” the Thug collab from Bullet, makes another appearance, and we also get another chance to hear “Treasure,” the awesome and slept-on Thugga single from April. Zuse isn’t shy about using the shit out of those Thugga songs, and there also isn’t a ton of thought put into the structure of Plugged, which is why we get the remix of Thug’s “Eww Eww Eww” single, which has verses from T.I. and Zuse, and then, later in the tape, we also get Zuse freestyling over “Eww Eww Eww.”
It all works, though. Plugged doesn’t bother much with dynamics; it’s pretty much just Zuse in stomp-your-face mode throughout. And since that’s Zuse’s best mode, it never really gets boring. There’s a several-song stretch on the tape’s back half where Zuse tries to stretch out and show his versatility, and that part turns out to be pretty bad, but at least it’s bad in interesting ways. “Different” is a sex-song duet with the R&B singer Natasha Mosely, and it’s funny to hear him attempting to croon in that gargling-lava voice, as Mosely’s paper-thin coo tries to delicately encircle it. And on the next song, we get a remix of “Oiler,” the Houston-rap love letter from Bullet, with Houston underground legend Trae Tha Truth adding a verse. But Trae’s voice is badly mastered, way louder than anything around it, and it works as badly executed low-budget stunt-casting, like a Sharknado 2 cameo. But these two songs are over quickly enough, and it’s not hard to admire the moxie they display. And as soon as they’re over, Zuse gets back to screaming “bullet!” at you, and everything is as it should be.
Download Plugged at Livemixtapes.