Lil Reese is one of many, many teenage Chicago rappers who suddenly finds himself holding a major-label contract, and he secured that position for himself by being the other guy on Chief Keef’s suddenly-iconic low-budget smash “I Don’t Like.” For my money, he’s the guy with the best verse on any version of “I Don’t Like,” including the Kanye remix, since he seems more comfortable sitting on top of that dizzily hard slow-motion beat. But it’s also fun to think about Reese in the context of that song’s video. In that video, Keef and various face-tatted juvenile goons rage around Keef’s grandma’s apartment, blowing weed smoke and waving fists around. In that crowd, though, Reese looks weirdly tentative. He’s one of the few who keeps a shirt on throughout, and one of the few without dreads to shake around spastically. And for all his death threats, he looks less like a fearsome street cannibal and more like a sweetly nerdy kid hanging out with his wilder friends. It’s an image that he’s quick to dispel on Don’t Like, the first mixtape where he really gets a chance to take center-stage.
Listening to Don’t Like, I keep thinking of the 2004 self-titled album from Crime Mob, a crew of snarly Georgia teenagers who seized on the moment’s crunk boom and made their own slowed-down, bass-drunk version of it, getting over on the strength of their bubbling-over delinquent attitude. Crime Mob bottled lightning with “Knuck If You Buck,” one of my favorite songs of the past decade. And even if Reese hasn’t made anything anywhere near that good, and even if he’s not as commanding a rapper as Crime Mob’s Diamond and Princess, he’s working on a similar wavelength. “I Don’t Like” producer Young Chop handled most of the mixtape, and every track has that same epic low-budget thunder working for it. Moreover, the tape picks one feeling — overwhelming directionless animosity — and sticks with it throughout. If you believe the tape, the streets of South Side Chicago are a pure apocalyptic Darwinian hell, and God knows that’s the direction the city’s been going the last couple of years. It’s pure world-ending music.
And that tape works, in part, because it never strays from that particular lane; it just stomps all over it. Even with the reappearance of its title track, Don’t Like is just over half an hour long; it makes its point and then ends. Keef shows up a few times, as do assorted other barely-known Chicago rappers. And when Reese does bring in out-of-town guests, they’re guys who sound completely at home on this sort of track. Freddie Gibbs (who, being from Gary, is only barely an out-of-towner), goes double-time bruiser on “Ova,” and longtime Dipset muscle Hell Rell drips grizzled authority on “We Don’t Count Money.” Reese himself is just a small, thin voice in the storm, but he seems to exist completely in the universe that these Young Chop beats create. He sounds like a kid adrift in a hard world.
There are a lot of troubling aspects to the boom of interest in teenage Chicago rap; a lot of it seems to stem from an understandable fascination with kid-on-kid violence and the culture that surrounds it. But we’re also getting to hear an underground music scene at the exact moment before outside interest and commercial expectations come in and spoil the unfettered intensity of it all. In its own way, the spectacle of Chicago kids piling into a grandmother’s rec room to ferociously decry the shit they don’t like isn’t that different, at is base, from suburban teenagers raging about the government or their parents in a garage somewhere. The highest-profile mixtape of the past week is Azealia Banks’s Fantasea, a slick and sometimes well-executed fashion-rap. It’s not bad or anything, but it just leaves no impression on me. These Chicago kids, barking chirpily over titanic death-synths, have made an impression. Their thud-music hits my gut on a primal level, and god help rap if it ever stops hitting guts.
Download Don’t Like for free here.