Chicago. Chitown. Drillinois. The place where, in 2012, record label executives ran through the 'hood waving contracts for rappers to sign. The Midwest renaissance, which could be traced back to Kanye West's steadfast dedication to sonic development, is yet to be abated, as the drill music of Chief Keef and King L looks to give way to the infectious young bop music that D-Low and Lil' Kemo love dancing to. Bop is inspired by rap and house, two genres whose lineages run deep in Chicago, but bop also shows us a glimpse of the future: rappers are going to take their music in whichever direction they feel like with little regard for the distinctions between rap and pop.
It's an exciting time to be a rap fan. Expectations and limitations are being dismantled every day, and artists are willing to defy the rules and try something new for the sake of fun and experimentation. Chicago is a hotbed for that type of innovation, so we take a look at some of the city's most talented artists who are yet to reach their full potential. Keep an eye out for these 10 Chicago Rappers to Watch in 2014.
For all the talk about Chief Keef and Chance the Rapper, more attention should be paid to a singular artist like Jean Deaux. She emits a smoky brand of R&B mixed with intermittent spurts of rap; her voice trails on the track, leading you on. She sounds like the girl that summons the boy into the Secret Garden. On the beautifully subtle 'Alone,' you can hear Amy Winehouse in her voice. Many try to mimic Amy’s voice without putting the right attitude behind it – Deaux is the whole package.
While 'T.M.S.' Freestyle' showcases her ability to spit viciously our favorite song is the one that got her buzzing in early 2013 – ‘Escape.’ Rainy day production lets Jean’s voice crawl across the canvas, and by the end you may not even realize she’s hypnotized you. Jean Deaux, along with Tink and Dreezy, is exploring the crevices for female singers/rappers in the hopes of soon carving out a canyon full of talent.
Tree is an anomaly in today’s Midwest rap scene. A mixture of skittering hi-hats, bombastic drums, his raspy, old man voice and muted synths makes for what he calls “soul trap.” He sounds like an old soul when he raps, like he's posted on the corner in a rickety chair. He isn’t preoccupied with being cool or espousing violence – he’s great just where he is, scratching the surface of his own problems while always checking in on his folk. He’s the kind of artist that’s slow to warm up to and easy to cling on to, and his latest, the 'MCTREEG EP,' is some of his best work yet.
In the past two years, Lil' Durk has had an attention grabbing hit for each. ‘L's Anthem,’ produced by Bandkamp member Paris Bueller, eschews the usual drill production for a funkier vibe that still sounds fresh today. ‘This Ain’t What You Want’ is a whole other beast as Durk sounds either hurt or proud about his own city being terrified of him. Last year's standout ‘Signed To The Streets’ mixtape was largely ignored by rap cognoscenti despite being one of the best complete projects out of Chicago in years (one listen to the intro 'Traumatized' should have you hooked). Hopefully Durk's flame isn't ready to burn out -- his Def Jam debut is yet to be released.
We can’t mention Durk without Lil’ Reese, both of whom are signed to Def Jam and run with OTF. Reese popularized Future's ‘Karate Chop’ flow on ‘Us’ before Future did and also has the phenomenal sleeper ‘Haters’ to his name.
“I had a f—ked up life, I’m breakin’ down,” says Dreezy as she explains why she’s always smoking and drinking. Dreezy is like a Midwestern version of Kevin Gates – emotional, precise, multifaceted, and never in one place for too long on her breakout mixtape ‘Schizo’ from earlier this year. The tape is produced entirely by D. Brooks Exclusive (minus one song), giving the tape an album-like feel with everything from musical interludes (‘Mind Games’) to no-hook manifestos (‘Dreamer Pt. 2’). Dreezy’s topics run the gamut from being "a bitch" to getting cheated on, but her songs are stories colored with characters, not archetypes (or stereotypes). Her music breathes and evolves like a living creature. In an atmosphere where authenticity means nothing, Dreezy raps like everything she says really happened to her, and it makes a difference in her delivery.
There hasn’t been a female rap star to match Nicki Minaj’s ascent but rest assured that the next one will be from Chicago. Whether it’s an R&B hybrid like TInk and Dreezy or a straight ahead drill sergeant like Sasha Go Hard and Katie Got Bandz, it seems like the women of the Chi have more to say than the men do right now.
Ever since Pac Man coined the term “drill” to describe the new breed of Chicago rap brimming in the city, King L (previously King Louie before Disney had to hate) has been the sub-genre’s leader. He’s been popular since 2007 mixtapes like ‘Boss Shit’ and ‘Cloud 9,’ despite breaking both legs in a car accident that almost killed him. His command over any track he touches is what ultimately makes him drill’s godfather, and fans still await his next move, knowing it could cause a shift in the landscape.
In 2012 he signed to Epic Records off the strength of ‘Val Venis’ and seemed ready to drop his album, ‘Dope & Shrimp.’ That was over two years ago, and while we’ve gotten a slew of new mixtapes and a ‘Yeezus’ verse from him ever since, we still haven’t seen the needle nudge on Epic’s Richter scale. What’s taking so long over there?
Under the shadow of the city’s looming sound, Lucki Eck$ has carved out his own lane with ‘Alternative Trap,’ a mixtape that departs from most norms in hip-hop. He caught people’s attention with his dreamy ode to dope dealing 'Count On Me,' and he just dropped a new track with the eccentric producer Hot Sugar, ‘All Senses.’
Lucki’s subject matter may not be too far from the likes of GBE, but his sound is what separates him from the pack. ‘Alternative Trap’ was slow, woozy, almost sedated in comparison to the typical drill sound that feeds on energy. That distinction is what makes Lucki Eck$ stand out – how he’ll maneuver into the spotlight remains to be seen.
The SaveMoney crew that Chance the Rapper hatched from is a legion of young rappers that’s created it’s own microcosm in Chicago. Vic Spencer is one of many voices like Vic Mensa, Sulaiman, and Caleb James to bubble, but his sound is the most pronounced of the collective. Unlike Z Money, who is a byproduct of Gucci Mane’s influence and more interested in how his words sound, Vic is a verbal tactician, stitching together images with comedy and gusto. He doesn’t sound disgusted like many of his peers – he sounds amused.
The dopest thing about Chicago right now isn’t the dominance of drill at all – it’s the splintering sounds that drill has seemingly inspired, or at least helped expose to the larger public. Enter Sicko Mobb, a group set to grab the attention of kids (hopefully before the kids grab guns). Their music, called bop, is reliant on the dances that accompany it, making for a fully comprehensive activity that takes more energy and attention to participate in than many others. One hates to politicize music, but bop might be the answer to drill and it’s ever-elusive moral question.
Sicko Mobb is two dudes – Lil’ Trav and Lil’ Ceno. Their sound gets straight to the chorus without any of the bullish gun-toting, and with little more than footwork-influenced production and melody, they’ve taken Chicago rap to an entirely different place. They recently signed a publishing deal with Stargate (the mega producers behind Wiz Khalifa’s ‘Black & Yellow’) through Sony/ATV and their next move is yet to be determined, but you can bet that as the sound of the new youth movement, Sicko Mobb will be popping up a lot more.
Some time ago, the Internets picked up on ‘Kill S—t’ by Lil’ Herb and Lil’ Bibby, two young Chitown spitters. Drake tweeted lyrics from the song and rumors of an OVO remix flew, but while it never happened, it kept Bibby and Herb afloat until ‘Water’ from Bibby’s last mixtape, ‘Free Crack,’ dropped.
Most went crazy for that tape when it dropped but they’ve cooled down since Lil’ Herb’s ‘Welcome To Fazoland.’ Herb sounds calm in the middle of a storm – “I’m coolin’ in this hellhole” he says on ‘Koolin.’ His music is well rounded, perhaps thanks to King Louie’s diverse sound palette, and it helps give the mixtape replay ability. Herb sounds like he draws energy from the city and funnels it into his music instead of simply letting that energy run rampant in his songs. Some are going so far as to say that drill is dead – if that’s the case, Lil’ Herb is at once the undertaker and the preacher, preparing coffins while promoting hope.
Tink is one of the most exciting artists in rap right now, let alone Chicago. She’s shown vocal chops and stinging bars on projects like ‘Winter’s Diary 1 & 2’ and ‘Alter Ego,’ proving her versatility in a genre that necessitates it. Both sides of her talent accentuate each other – for every biting punchline, you know there’s a sensitive singer curled up inside, and for every heartfelt ballad, you know there’s a swift smack waiting for you if you act up. Tink keeps you on your toes.
She recently graduated high school and teamed up with Timbaland, who tweeted about Tink as his “next big project.” Her latest single with Jeremih, ‘Don’t Tell Nobody,’ hasn’t even been officially released and it’s already burning up the airwaves. Clearly, people are hungry for more Tink.