Geography has always been pretty important to hip-hop—there's the famous east-west rivalry of the 90s, of course, and the crazy quilt of regional rap scenes across the U.S., each with its own history and style. In Houston the rappers take their cues from recreational cough-syrup abuse; in Atlanta they take their cues from the strip club. Memphis rappers tend to sound paranoid; San Francisco rappers tend to sound like they do a lot of ecstasy.
Chicago has a long-standing reputation for producing serious and frequently conscious hip-hop—which isn't entirely baseless, despite how annoying it is when people from outside the city see the words "Chicago rapper" and automatically think "Common." (Remember that Kanye literally wore a backpack during some of his early promotional appearances.) But even though I'm fully aware that the city produces hip-hop artists who appeal to their fans' less cerebral side, the first time I heard King Louie—specifically "I'm Arrogant"—I felt compelled to hit Google and make sure he was really from Chicago.
Louie approaches rap music like southerners Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane, and Wacka Flocka Flame: big, flashy, synth-driven beats and raps that value catchy rhythms over tricky writing. But Louie himself doesn't put much stock in such comparisons—he thinks they're the result of people stretching to describe him because they can't liken him to other locals. "The thing is that out the box I was not the norm," he says. "So when something's not the norm, people tend to say it sounds like something else when it really isn't. The beats are more like down south, I can say that, but lyric-wise and the way that I rap I'm being different and original."
He does have a point. While the Atlanta rappers he usually gets compared to tend to stay firmly on top of the beat, Louie often ducks around it in a way that reminds me of Cam'ron in his prime—and Louie's unabashed arrogance only intensifies the resemblance. And while the bigger names in southern rap usually project an image that's either "cold-eyed thug" or "money-throwing millionaire hedonist" (or some combination of the two), Louie has a kind of everyman charm. "I'm Arrogant" may be several orders of magnitude cockier than midwestern manners typically allow, but then again, its video was shot in the kitchen of a decidedly modest apartment. My favorite Louie video, for "Kush Too Strong," is mostly the rapper and a couple of buddies smoking blunts and holding stacks of money in a messy living room decorated with McDonald's bags and copies of High Times.
When pushed to name his influences, Louie says he has a couple of friends whose styles have rubbed off on him, then lists a bunch of superstar rappers—Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross—who sound nothing like him. "Anybody successful," he says. "I can't say who I sound like. I don't know. I don't think I sound like them. Just because they influenced me doesn't mean I have to sound like them."
"Express yourself how you express yourself," he says. "It's just how I express myself, and I guess it's better than everyone else in that way."
A growing number of rap fans appear to agree with him. Since its release in October, his mix tape #ManUpBandUp Pt. 1—which collects material from his five previous mix tapes—has been accumulating buzz at a geometric rate that only Danny Brown has matched this year. In the month before I interviewed Louie, three different music-journalist friends asked when I was going to profile him.
One of them was David Drake, who maintains the excellent hip-hop blog So Many Shrimp; he nominated #ManUpBandUp for Pitchfork's 2011 roundup of overlooked rap mix tapes and gave him some big thumbs-up on the Fader blog. "Louie's sound is contemporary, so it fits in with a style of rapping that has been popular in the wake of rappers like Gucci and 2 Chainz, but it retains its originality," he says. "There's that old Rakim quote, about how you can take a phrase that's rarely heard, 'flip it, now it's a daily word.' Louie has that gift, an ability to coin clever turns of phrase."
Another thing working in Louie's favor is the fact that, thanks in large part to the Internet, the boundaries of regional rap styles are no longer so strictly policed by fans, critics, and other artists. If Louie had started generating blog chatter just a couple of years ago, the conversation probably wouldn't have gone much further than, "Why is this Chicago dude trying to sound like he's from Atlanta?" But as proved by the vertiginous success of ASAP Rocky—a rapper from Harlem who sounds like a rapper from Houston—people don't get too worked up about those things these days. The next King Louie to come up in Chicago might not even have a box to worry about getting out of.