- Collage by Sue Kwong
- Cover art for Armanii Day and Henny B & Rage Aurelius (top row), Morocco Brown (middle), and Swade and WemmyMo (bottom row)
Two of 2018's biggest rap singles came out last year. "Mo Bamba," a burbling, combustible anthem that Harlem rapper Sheck Wes made for his childhood friend, Orlando Magic center Mohamed Bamba, originally dropped in June 2017; earlier this month, the song reached number six on the Billboard Hot 100. "Lucid Dreams," a corrosive heartbreak song that Chicagoland rapper Juice Wrld built on a tender guitar melody swiped from Sting's "Shape of My Heart," also debuted online in June 2017; in October it peaked at number two on the Hot 100.
Juice Wrld, born Jarad Higgins and raised mostly in Chicago's south suburbs, is the biggest local breakout artist this year—the last time somebody blew up like that around these parts was 2012, when Chief Keef ushered in drill's mainstream crossover. Higgins, 20, was largely unknown a year ago. Prior to this year, Juice Wrld had only played a couple shows and done one noteworthy interview (with local hip-hop site Elevator), and most of the material he'd uploaded to Soundcloud didn't get any traction. At some point this past winter, though, the EP Juice Wrld 9 9 9 (which includes "Lucid Dreams"), self-released in June 2017, came to the attention of DJ Victoriouz, a scene staple who'd hosted Keef's breakthrough mixtape, 2012's Back From the Dead.
Through Victoriouz, Juice Wrld got his music in the ear of Chicago drill heavyweight Lil Bibby. He joined the roster of Bibby's label, Grade A Productions, and in March he signed a deal with Interscope (reportedly worth $3 million) about a week after Lyrical Lemonade released the Cole Bennett video for Juice's breakout single, "All Girls Are the Same." His debut album, May's Goodbye & Good Riddance, peaked at number four on the Billboard 200. He outdid it in October when he dropped a collaboration with Future, Wrld on Drugs, that debuted at number two.
A brief Vulture review of Wrld on Drugs declared, "One of the biggest new stars in rap is a teenager from Chicago who sounds like he's from Atlanta." But Juice Wrld's sound is more URL than IRL, rooted less in a specific regional scene than in a style that developed online, and Soundcloud rappers who'd succeeded before him helped his blend of trap percussion and third-wave emo go down smoothly. (Benny Blanco's recent single "Roses," which features vocals from Juice Wrld and Panic! at the Disco's Brendon Urie, hangs together better than the Auto-Tune gloop of Wrld on Drugs.) Inasmuch as a rapper can be of the Internet, Juice Wrld is; "Lucid Dreams" was the year's most played song on the entire Soundcloud platform.
The dominant narrative foisted on Chicago hip-hop—a subcultural battle between drill and a hard-to-pin down "alternative" community nurtured by poetry open mikes and usually exemplified by Chance the Rapper—doesn't have any room for Juice Wrld. Of course, the actual output of the local rap scene in 2018 demolished this narrative at every turn, and thankfully it's now being invoked mostly because of its inadequacy: a Pitchfork review of Chris Crack's Being Woke Ain't Fun, a RedEye profile of Cupcakke, and a New York Times story about Valee all positioned their subjects outside this spurious dichotomy.
Valee, Cupcakke, and Juice Wrld are among the many artists who've proved, over and over again throughout the past six years, that Chicago hip-hop is more than Keef and Chance. I defy anyone to find a single template that explains Queen Key's vivacious, vitriolic Eat My Pussy, Sen Morimoto's madcap Cannonball!, Saba's elegiac Care for Me, Roy Kinsey's immersive Blackie, Noname's intimate Room 25, and G Herbo's boisterous Swervo all coming out in one year.
So many Chicagoans released great hip-hop in 2018 that (as usual) not all of it got the attention it deserved. This is an excellent problem to have, of course, and since 2013 I've made an annual "best overlooked Chicago hip-hop" list to help address it. But defining "overlooked" remains a challenge, not least because the easiest kind of attention to track—that is, media coverage—is such a small part of the reception for a given release. I could easily argue that FBG Duck's "Slide" is overlooked because the mainstream press has barely noticed it—but it's also become a Chicago radio staple and racked up nearly 40 million YouTube views. Something similar could be said of Famous Dex: his April 2018 studio debut, Dex Meets Dexter, hit number 12 on the Billboard 200, but the New York Times and Pitchfork mentioned him only in the context of Spotify's short-lived "hateful conduct" policy, noting that his music wasn't removed from the company's playlists despite a video leaked in 2016 that he admits shows him assaulting his girlfriend.
Because I needed a filter, though, I invented one. Its most important component concerns the Reader's coverage: if we published anything at all about a local rapper, whether a 4,000-word profile or a paragraph-long concert preview, that rapper didn't count as overlooked. I also didn't include anyone who performed at a widely publicized festival (Navarro at Red Bull Music Festival Chicago), headlined a record-release show at a midsize or larger club (Pseudo Slang at Sleeping Village), or appeared in a mural on the side of a building (UG Vavy, who's painted on East Room).
Local rappers continue to release material in all seasons, even when music writers hibernate, and I had to skip some great releases because they came out in mid-December, after I'd already spent weeks whittling a list of dozens down to five—among them were David Ashley's Draco and Defcee's A Mixtape as God Intended, Vol 1. Plus there's the possibility one of them will become a hit—I can't argue that something has been overlooked before everybody has had a chance to look at it.
In case it needs saying, I'm not trying to be comprehensive by choosing five releases. I hope this roundup encourages people to keep exploring and listening to Chicago rap they haven't yet heard.
- Photo by Armanii Day
- Armanii Day
Objects in My Mirror
Armanii Day opens the August mixtape Objects in My Mirror by saying, "The songs aren't long, and I still live with my mom." Her performances throughout are similarly endearing and unexpected. On "Im Rambling" she's mixed her vocals low enough against the instrumental that it sounds like she's wandering through a fog, occasionally drowned out by a stuttering sample of Anita Baker's "Caught Up in the Rapture"; when the backing track drops out and she delivers a smart, high-speed rap, the song's drowsy ambience instantly falls away. She's loose and playful throughout Objects in My Mirror in a way that feels like a throwback to the days before "mixtape" became interchangeable with "studio album." It's more fun than a lot of rap studio albums too.
Henny B & Rage Aurelius
Wasted F*ckin Summer
I bent the rules a little to include this EP from Angeline "Henny B" Gil. I wrote about a Labor Day show that several of Henny's friends—including Vic Spencer, Nasim Williams, Mic Terror, Freddie Old Soul, Gzus Piece, and Sisi Dior—hosted in her honor after she died in March. In September, her collaborators released two posthumous EPs: Moments, credited to Nasim Williams and Henny B, and Wasted F*ckin Summer with Virginia producer Rage Aurelius. The instrumentals on the latter alternate between golden-age boom-bap and glammy boogie, with Henny's nonchalant cool as the unifying thread. Only on the track "Champion" does she shed that relaxed poise, listing her frustrations and regrets and contemplating her own death—and even then, she takes some consolation from the music she's created.
- Morocco Brown
Morocco Brown came up in 2016 under the management of rapper Taylor Bennett, though they parted ways a year or so ago. In August, he self-released Manic, a focused debut EP built on effervescent synths and minimal percussion, which sometimes sounds like flurries of hand drumming and sometimes sounds like a trap beat submerged in the mix. Brown occasionally seems frazzled—most notably on the single "Mania," originally released in late 2017—but even his most anxious outbursts feel tightly controlled. On the sweet, pop-forward track "Rubicon," he stretches out the occasional syllable, almost as if he's singing, and in those moments you can really hear his latent star quality.
- Jeremy Mercado
Have a Nice Day
Even though Swade grew up in Florida, he calls Chicago home, and you can feel it on February's ornate and unfortunately brief EP Have a Nice Day. Anxious, juke-inspired percussion kicks off the triumphant-sounding opener, "Run It Up," and flamboyant horns gussy up the closing track, "Window Seat"—Swade seems to be taking cues from more famous local rappers who've borrowed from footwork music or beefed up their live sets with brass. He raps so confidently that it seems he's guided by a craftsman's muscle memory, and there's little doubt that those more famous rappers are part of his intended audience. The stubborn grit in his voice when he opens up about his absent father on "Post Mortem" helps make his fight for a better tomorrow feel tangible—something I needed this year.
- The cover of WemmyMo‘s Bittersweet
Uptown MC WemmyMo started his career two years ago at the Harold Washington Library, when he made his public debut as a rapper at SocialWorks's OpenMike Chicago, the high school performance series founded and hosted by Chance the Rapper. As WemmyMo told Illanoize Radio earlier this year, he got such encouraging feedback from the likes of Social Experiment bandleader Peter Cottontale that he booked studio time that week and recorded his first song, "Misunderstood." It's especially impressive to consider how recently WemmyMo got started when you hear his refined technique on the June release Bittersweet, which came out around the time he graduated from Lincoln Park High School. With his youthful energy, he seems to be hurrying its easygoing, soul-influenced tracks along—and even in his relaxed moments, such as the slow half-singing on the tranquil "Holy Vibes," he still manages to convey an irresistible euphoria. v