Music Column: Chicago rap rises from underground

The history of hip-hop tends to focus on music from the coasts. When the genre was born in the 1970s, most of its early pioneers came from New York City. Later, in the 80s and early 90s, California artists unleashed their own take on rap music. After this, it became common practice to define hip-hop as a struggle between the East and West Coast, with little attention paid to anything in between.

In the last few years, changes in the recording industry—in particular, the advent of accessible distribution platforms like SoundCloud—have led to a rise in underground hip-hop across the country. In particular, the city of Chicago has become a wellspring of alternative rap. Empowered by the success of local talents like Chance the Rapper, a new generation of Chicago artists has created some of the most exciting hip-hop of the last five years. Their music is diverse, creative, and underrated.

Mick Jenkins is one of my favorite rappers of this Chicago new wave. Like many of his contemporaries, Jenkins sounds best not on polished studio recordings, but on the more intimate format of the free mixtape. Without having to worry about releasing a hit single or reaching the top of the charts, he can focus his energy on creative production and complex lyricism.

On his 2018 mixtape Or More, the Frustration, Jenkins collaborates with THEMPeople, a production team that contributed to developing a distinct Chicago sound. “Go Time,” the first track on the tape, features a delicate keyboard line that sounds like a lullaby. On “Energies,” from a project earlier this year, the beat samples a ticking clock. In their work with Jenkins and his peers, THEMPeople and other Chicago producers have cultivated a warm, glittery style that contrasts the thudding basslines and icy 808s of popular rap.

More so than his beats, however, Mick Jenkins has gained recognition for his high concept, socially-conscious lyrics. His past projects focused on a single theme. On his 2014 mixtape The Water[s], water serves as an extended metaphor for truth across the entire tape. His debut studio album, The Healing Component, explores love in all its forms—from romantic, to platonic, to spiritual. This thematic cohesiveness persists across Jenkins’ discography.

On Frustration, Jenkins shows off his range as a writer. He talks about childhood trauma on some songs, such as “6 AM Matinee” when he raps, “I had the knowledge on me early / I knew violence from an early age / I knew dollars couldn’t save me / way more focused on those pearly gates.” Elsewhere he is less serious, speaking of his love for thrift shops on “Rags” or ducking out of a bad party early on “Cry if you Want.” Whether he is discussing trivial matters or deep truths, Jenkins’ lyrics are meticulously crafted, a treat for the attentive listener.

Chicago hip-hop is a close-knit community, but it never feels walled off or exclusive. New talents emerge in the scene often, and always receive support from established artists. One of the most promising new voices of the last few years is Freddie Old Soul. Born Fredrianna Harris, Freddie Old Soul creates intimate, captivating poetry in the form of hip-hop.

Harris, like many Chicago artists, wrote poetry before she started rapping. Her lyrics attest to both her natural ability as a wordsmith and the countless hours she has spent developing her voice. On the song “GOOD” off her new mixtape SINK, she spits rapid-fire, multisyllabic rhymes in run-on sentences. It is difficult to untangle the meaning of a line like “you can feel the karma catch up / the rolled up backwoods / the cry and laughter / the contradictions.” The longer I listen, however, the more I get lost in the texture of these lyrics. In Harris’ capable hands, words become more than just their meaning. Every syllable sounds sensuous and new.

Harris’ lyrics do not prioritize style over substance. Her 2017 song “So Beautiful” discusses her complicated relationship with her beauty routine—a topic seldom touched upon in the male-dominated world of rap. “Beauty and pain attend the same church,” she says in one simple but gut-wrenching lines. In the next line, she personifies her self-image as an abusive lover, begging it to “punch me in the jaw and wrap your hands on throat / throw me out of car and tell me I’m a joke.” The song is raw and confessional, but it does end on a hopeful note. “This pain is kind of beautiful / how I rise out of that coffin,” she says. Freddie Old Soul has yet to gain much recognition, but with her thoughtful lyricism she carries the torch of Chicago hip-hop into the future.

Mick Jenkins, Freddie Old Soul, and their contemporaries don’t sound like anyone else in rap today. Their production is inventive, and their lyrics are engaging and poetic. I enjoy popular hip-hop, but these artists remind me why I fell in love with the genre in the first place. For any rap fan who has grown bored with the mainstream, I urge you to take a trip to Chicago. I think you’ll find it a breath of fresh air.

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