The Palmer Squares defy the stereotyping of Chicago hip-hop with the new Planet of the Shapes

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For this week's Reader music feature, I traveled around the city with Save Money rapper Joey Purp, visiting places that have shaped him and his music. Part of the impulse for that project came from all the writing I've seen from outsiders to Chicago that reduces the city's hip-hop scene to a few bullet points and a handful of easily recognizable names. Though I cover local hip-hop week in and week out, my knowledge will never be complete, and I thought it would be good for me to learn about a local rapper (who's receiving more and more national attention) by listening to him talk about his experiences—otherwise it's distressingly easy to fall into the kind of facile, well-trodden narratives peddled by people who learn about Chicago exclusively from websites based in New York.

Of course, hip-hop history everywhere is polluted with such stereotypes. So many stories about the Chicago scene in the 90s partake of the tired "west side versus south side" trope, but how many mention Uptown native E.C. Illa, who had a long-standing relationship with many of the west-side stars hitting the national hip-hop charts? More recently we've seen an ongoing deluge of writing about drill that clings to the style's breakout in 2012 as a framing device for current Chicago hip-hop, imagining aggressive local street rap as somehow pitted against Chance the Rapper and, to a degree, the rest of Save Money. Artists who don't fit into this sort of narrative often get left out of the "big conversation" about hip-hop, even when they have a commanding presence on their own terms—such as Chicago rappers Acumental and Terminal Knowledge, aka the Palmer Squares.

Acumental and Terminal Knowledge started working together before they began calling themselves the Palmer Squares in 2008—they'd recently moved near the Logan Square park of that name. They've since settled into a giddy, loose-limbed rhythm that feels like they're bouncing bars off each other in real time, though they explained in a 2014 video interview that they rarely write their verses in the same room. Yesterday they released their third full-length, Planet of the Shapes, and by that afternoon it was one of the top 16 best-selling albums in any genre on Bandcamp. The site doesn't release sales numbers, but doing well in its marketplace is hardly small potatoes—per a recent Bandcamp blog post, the site pulls in $4.3 million for artists every month, and users buy roughly 25,000 albums per day.

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The Palmer Squares don't fit neatly into any of the pigeonholes perpetuated by folks only passingly familiar with Chicago hip-hop, and that's much to the group's credit. Their wacky wordplay, tongue-twisting verses, and limber instrumentals make them sound more like Native Tongues-style 90s boom-bap than much of what succeeds today. The fifth track on Planet of the Shapes, "K.O.S.," hints at their vision for hip-hop—its title is an acronym for "knowledge over swag." Of course, if you believe them, Acumental and Terminal Knowledge don't listen to much new music anyway—in interviews they seem to they prefer to talk more about George Carlin than about contemporary rappers.

The streak of humor in the Palmer Squares' work could help explain why they don't attract as much press attention as they warrant (I've noticed that rap writers seem allergic to MCs who like to be funny). Not that these guys need to get crammed into a trend piece to reach a big audience—clearly people know how to find them. The Palmer Squares open for Felly at the Portage Theater on Friday.
Leor Galil writes about hip-hop every Wednesday.



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