Writers of Mick Jenkins’ caliber don’t come around often; neither do high quality projects that are as challenging, deliberate, or as well executed as Jenkins’ latest release The Water[s]. Jenkins deftly dishes on the strife and struggles afflicting Chicago and humanity alike, while continually drawing parallels to the overall plight of black and brown youth in America. Much of this is done through metaphor, but never so loosely that the gravity of Jenkins’ subject matter is lost on listeners. The Water[s] is an impressive feat of literacy and musicality, so much so that the 23-year old Jenkins could make this list on the strength of that one project alone.
Drill Alternatives: The Other Side Of Chicago Rap
If GBE is the poster group for Chicago’s Drill sound, Save Money Crew represents the most concentrated effort to counterbalance Drill’s dark material. As the first to blow out of the crew, Chance the Rapper is easily the most visible non-Drill emcee to come out of Chicago since the likes of Common, Kanye or Lupe. Chance’s breakthrough project Acid Rap simmered on the scene for most of 2013. The 21-year old positively exploded into the mainstream on the tail end of that year. Though his buzz has somewhat quieted in recent months, Chance’s quirky style and raspy vocals still represent the most stark of contrasts to the surly image of Chicago’s youth. For all his eccentricities, Chance’s talent in rap and his command of the English language cannot be dismissed.
Pivot Gang rapper Saba may not be quite as visible as Chance or Vic Mensa just yet, but if his latest release Comfort Zone is any indication, that may not be true for long. Saba positively bleeds relatable youth throughout the tape. That’s not to say he’s angsty (though given the state of Chicago who could blame him anyway). Rather, the mundane details in Saba’s lyrics help paint incredibly vivid, realistic pictures of the young emcee’s life in the city. Like the other artists on this list though, Saba’s material is littered with grim anecdotes and commentary, detailing the alarming realities that are shaping the current generation of young urban Chicagoans. He’s also building an impressive production catalogue.
True to her name, Noname Gypsy is an elusive figure in Chicago’s contemporary rap scene. She flits from song to feature without a full length project of her own, yet her distinctive style and lyricism stands out even amongst the lyrical beasts featured on this list. Gypsy’s writtens are as candid and evocative as they are frankly honest. Her signature spoken-word cadence and delivery lends a uniformity to her disparate lyrical content, putting the writing in stark focus. Unfortunately, Gypsy’s ability to translate this artistry throughout an entire mixtape or album remains to be seen. However, the emcee has a smattering of dope tracks and features throughout the Web. Based on this sparse collection of work, a powerful project looks likely.
Vic Mensa seems the most poised to blow next from Save Money crew’s impressive roster. Similar to Chance (and indeed the rest of the crew) Vic effortlessly blends melody with rap, his bars packed with energized lyrics that tend to come in rapid succession. Vic’s style is a bit more familiar than the Chances and Sabas of the world, which by no means cheapens his art. Vic is as talented a writer as any other young Chicago emcee, and more than many of those.Innanetape, Mensa’s much-lauded debut mixtape, showcases Vic’s rare gift for writing catchy, feel-good songs with none of the vapid or corny aspects prevalent in modern pop music. If there’s any Chicago artist who can organically crossover, it’s likely Vic Mensa.
Jean Deaux is another of Chicago’s burgeoning vocalists, but like many new artists from the region, she doesn’t have much material circulating. She does have a number of captivating tracks though. Deaux’s misty vocals most recently appeared on Mick Jenkins’ song “The Healer.” It’s still early for the young songstress, but her work on Soundcloud sounds promising. Indeed, if her forthcoming project exceeds the quality of her current work, it’s likely Deaux will join the greater soul conversation with progressive heavyweights like FKA Twigs and Janelle Monáe.
Dreezy made a big splash with her “Chiraq” remix earlier this year, so much so that her version all but eclipsed that of the original record. Dreezy went on to enjoy a moderate buzz in the wake if “Chiraq,” and has since displayed a more versatile rap ability with more varied subject matter. That’s not to say Dreezy’s raps were overly violent or anything. She does, however, have quite the aggressive delivery, one that meshes well with the high-energy production of drill music. Unlike exclusively drill rappers, Dreezy has the nuance to be a major force in Chicago’s musical ascension.
The most striking thing about Tree isn’t his trickling flow, his mature rhymes or his penchant for storytelling. It’s his voice. Tree’s raspy vocals sound like something straight off an old Louis Armstrong jam. It’s a rare sound in rap music, possibly even unique. Tree’s vocals go hand-in-hand with his “soul trap” style, an apparent melding of traditional trap themes like drugs, polygamy and violence with elements of soul music’s brooding melodies. It’s an interesting aesthetic. There’s plenty of room for Tree to grow, but also plenty of positive points to grow on.
Alex Wiley’s days of obscurity may be coming to a close. His music and his close affiliation with Save Money crew have launched the young emcee into rap’s larger conversations and platforms. His zaney content, pitchy flow and high energy have garnered comparisons to Action Bronson, Chance the Rapper and ScHoolboy Q. Admittedly, the Chance similarities are a bit strong, but considering the two artists grew up together the similarities aren’t surprising either. Wiley definitely separates himself with his beat selection, though.
As Chance the Rapper’s brother, Taylor’s style is highly derivative. Like Chance, he pitches his voice throughout his bars. Like Chance, Taylor is prone to rasp-tinged harmonizing. Taylor even looks like his older brother. Make no mistake though, Chance the Rapper and Taylor Bennett are two very different artists. Taylor’s material is a bit more grounded than Chance’s, or many of the other artists featured here. Though far from the miasmic messaging of drill, Taylor’s content is outlined by his youth. That means a lot of braggadocio and a lot of references to girls, all over energetic, bass-leden instrumentals. Of course, like his brother, Taylor is quick to contemplate the B-side of the things he raps about.
Similar to Jean Deaux, Tink splits her talents between singing and rapping. Also like Jean Deaux, the quality in Tink’s vocals and her attention to melody are rare in today’s stagnant R&B landscape. There’s not much new in the way of content with Tink. However, the frankness with which she executes on these topics leads to some seriously catchy tunes. This is probably most apparent on “Don’t Tell Nobody.” Tink spits a familiar narrative of a cycle of betrayal, but the stark writing, infectious hook and knocking instrumental make for a fun listen (if a bit dark). This singer has been working closely with Timbaland, and reportedly signed a deal with him, which is a good sign of things to come.
Lucki Eck$’s music is hard to deal with, at least the content. He’s incredibly candid about the psychology and practice of selling drugs. It’s tempting to write this guy off as pushing the same negativity that pulses through Drill rap. This is a mistake. Indeed, much of Lucki’s content is disturbing, but is it any more so than the raps spit from the client’s perspective? There are plenty of emcees citing their drug use, but few going to Lucki’s lengths to give voice to the dealers. Fewer still doing it with Lucki’s technical finesse.
Ibn Inglor has been quite explicit about his aversion to comparisons, to his detriment perhaps. Much of his material is reminiscent of the better parts of Yeezus. Inglor seems to enjoy warping and torturing sounds until they mesh in a chaotic medley. He then layers his own dark lyrics over these sonic tapestries, the end result being some of the darkest, loudest music out of Chicago.
The Guys offer a mixed bag of musical content. This is most evident in their latest release, Free The Guys EP. The duo seem just as poised to release a potential radio hit as they are to drill into social issues. The Guys have plenty of room to grow, but through dynamic production and a keen understanding of songwriting these two are serving a fairly balanced view into daily life in Chicago, and the various topics and interests circulating around its youth.
Towkio has enough charisma and energy for two artists, which says something considering the wealth of talent bubbling out of his crew Save Money. Towkio is perhaps the most experimental artist on Save Money’s roster, but he’s shown a flair for execution throughout his burgeoning catalogue. His latest release, Hotchips and Chopsticks pays homage to Chicago’s house music legacy while simultaneously building on the genre’s historic relationship with hip-hop.
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HNHH calls attention to 15 of the waviest non-drill rappers coming of of the Chi.
Commercial rap conversation often revolves around the same dozen or so artists, with the spotlight constricting further in regional rap discussions. This is especially true of Chicago.
Drill rap has dominated Chicago’s rap scene for several years now, and has been America’s primary lense into the state of the youth in the city. Though organic in its takeover, the Drill aesthetic has skewed the perception of life in Chiraq far toward the negative. Without a doubt, Chicago’s sustained gangbanging, violence and blight has driven the city and its youth to the brink. Despite the bullets and the bloodshed, artistry has bloomed. A musical renaissance has swept through the Windy City and brought a semblance of balance to the sordid narrative that has enraptured the mainstream since Chief Keef eloquently told the world how little he cares for fake Trues and snitches.
Here, HNHH is bringing attention to some of Chicago’s most notable non-Drill artists. In fairness, there are scores of incredibly talented rappers coming out the ‘Go. Only 15 are listed here. For those ignorant of Chi-town’s recent surge of artistry, these 15 acts make great starting points.