If there is one fact few can deny, it’s that Chicago’s hip-hop scene is killing it at the moment. The city of course has been a mainstay for hip-hop’s most prominent artists for several decades now, but the last five years have achieved new heights. The Windy City has always channeled hip-hop’s inner soul, with Common Sense’s Resurrection cementing the city’s influence and Lupe Fiasco and Kanye West carrying the torch forward. Most recently, the hugely popular, soul-crooning Chance the Rapper has captured the ears of most aficionados. Chance rocketed to prominence after Acid Rap impressed both critics and hip-hop heads alike. He continued to fuel a bona fide hip-hop revolution with his Savemoney collective, as he and Vic Mensa generated more creative spirit than nearly any other label in recent history. While outlier artists exist (Mick Jenkins & Hurt Everybody-both featured on this blog), even the outer circle of Chicago hip-hop rarely strays far from the inner circle’s orbit. 2016 has already proved to be Chicago’s year, both for its plague of gun violence but also due to the tidal wave of hip-hop albums and mixtapes that have inundated the digital soundscape. While I surely will not mention many worthy listens, the three below represent my personal favorites from this year. Joey Purp, Noname and Saba all have filled my headphones and kept my soul light in dark times.
Joey Purp crossed my radar when his single “Cornerstore” ended up on my SoundCloud feed. Apart from the dope cover art, the song itself channels a rawness and pain that acts as the fuel for some very ill bars. Purp uses the cornerstore as a metaphor for Chicago’s beating heart–its ever-changing urban landscape where commerce thrives but lives are also lost. The rest of his album expertly vacillates between dance-hall jams like “Girls” with Chance the Rapper, to more reflective, triumphant tracks like “Winners Circle” featuring Vic Mensa. My personal favorite is “Photobooth” which showcases Purple’s more playful and sex-crazed personality, while also mocking that same drug-laden party-culture that forms the basis of today’s hip-hop scene. Despite that, do not underestimate the fury, intellect and complexity that Joey Purp’s verses emanate. With iiiDrops, Purple elevates himself to a new level of hip-hop as he spits hardcore, joyful and reflective rap bars…all at once. Chicago’s rap icons would no doubt be proud.
Noname recently commented that Telefone was supposed to “feel like a conversation with someone who you have a crush on for the first time” and was supposed to “have all of that awkwardness and laughter and the moments of silence where it’s like ‘ugh, this is really awkward and I don’t know what to say right now.'” While Noname’s first mixtape certainly captures that spastic and awkward energy, it also channels an inner excitement and goofy rambling that often feels like spoken word poetry. Noname seems less intent on speaking her mind and more keen on navigating her own inner conversation, laying out all her uncertainties, her paradoxes and her nostalgia. Guest features like Xavier Omar (formerly SPZRKT), Raury, and Smino, complement Noname’s meandering and introspective bars well. Her album definitely provides head-nodding jams like “Diddy Bop” while the more soul-filled tracks like “Shadow Man” feel like Church gospels. On top of it all, she released Telefone to all of her fans at no cost. Be sure to download it below.
“Bucket List Project”
Saba, the 22-year old emcee, has been one of the more prolific artists to emerge from Chicago in the last few years. After dropping ComfortZone in 2014, I was immediately impressed by his solid command of the microphone. That initial potential has snowballed into one of the more enjoyable listening experiences of 2016. Bucket List Project features Saba and his Chicago friends striving to jam-pack as much as possible into their short lives as possible. The album’s production is remarkably versatile and Saba bounces easily over each song, seamlessly switching moods and flows throughout. He breaks up his tracks with featured interludes as his friends lay out their bucket list goals, which range from the desire to eat In-n-Out Burger to the aspiration for community control in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Saba himself seems to fall somewhere in between, at times reflecting on a difficult past and at other moments, looking towards a more hopeful future as he ascends the hip-hop ladder. Overall, Saba does not disappoint.