5. J. Cole, Any Given Sunday
As if putting out one of the best rap albums of the year wasn't enough, the North Carolina MC leaked this series of cutting room floor favorites in the weeks leading up to Cole World: The Sideline Story's release. The resulting ten-track mixtape, put out over several Sundays, is full of strong material, including three absolutely spectacular songs—the rattling club banger "Bring Em In," the chiptune-and-handclaps boast "Heavy," and the rousing, anthemic freestyle "Be." Key Track: "Be"
4. Jean Grae, Cookies or Comas
Our favorite female MC (sorry, Nicki) dropped this short but very sweet appetizer for next year's Cake or Death album, full of her lyrical beatdowns, hilarious tangents and a couple of moments of affecting introspection. Longtime cohorts Talib Kweli, Styles P and Pharoah Monch put in strong guest appearances, but Jean goes solo on the tape's best tracks. Also, in the last 50 seconds of "I Rock On" she rattles off a series of rhymes using every letter of the alphabet. Key Track: "I Rock On"
3. B.o.B, EPIC: Every Play Is Crucial
We'll be lucky if Bobby Ray's next album-length adventure is as good as this mixtape. It's got lots of his debut record's hallmarks, like the nostalgic pump-up jam "Friday Night Star" (evoking the Rivers Cuomo-assisted "Magic"), the booming Southern boast "5 on the Kush," the catchy put-down "Boom Bap" with assists from T.I. and Mos Def (!), and the weed anthem "Strange Clouds" with its appropriately otherworldly Lil Wayne guest verse. There are some less-than-crucial tracks, too, but not enough to derail this epic mixtape. Key Track: "Boom Bap"
2. Lupe Fiasco, Friend of the People
On Thanksgiving, two years to the day after his Enemy of the State mixtape dropped, the Chicago MC released this Occupy Wall Street-tinged project, which is two tracks shorter and so much better than his most recent album, Lasers. Typically genre-bounding in his beat choices, Lupe raps over M83, Justice, Ellie Goulding and others, providing several indignant rebuttals to his apparent capitulation to record label pressures on Lasers. Key Track: "Super Cold"
1. Elzhi, Elmatic
You'd think that setting out to do a track-for-track remake of one of the most revered rap albums ever would be a recipe for disaster, but the former Slum Village member's Detroit-ified take on Nas's 1994 classic comes ridiculously close to being as good as the original. The slightly tweaked beats and homage-filled verses never suggest imitation, but rather deep reverence and incredibly playful formal innovation. Here's hoping his upcoming sophomore album, The Feed, is even half as good. Key Track: "Detroit State of Mind"