Earlier this week, Queens rapper Homeboy Sandman penned a thoughtful essay for The Huffington Post about the perpetuation of negativity in rap music by the rap-music industry. Sandman argues for records like Oddissee’s admittedly slept-on People Hear What They See, a pensive, musical rap LP that hasn’t gotten much exposure (it’s only available on iTunes, which Sandman admits is part of the issue). The whole thing is worth reading and thinking about, but here’s an excerpt from Sandman’s argument:
It’s easy to look at the Billboard charts and proclaim that negativity in hip hop is selling. Only slightly closer observation reveals that whenever given equal exposure, talent sells even better.
While reading this, I immediately thought about what Sandman would think of the music coming from Chicago’s prolific drill music scene, where music made by rappers like Chief Keef and Lil Reese is rife with the “cliches” that Sandman is lined up against. Though I realize that Sandman’s argument is more about the industry’s support of these tropes, and not the environments that the music is coming from, I couldn’t help but think, what if the music comes from such a hard place that there’s simply no positivity to communicate?
Which brings me to Lil Durk. Durk is possibly the least-known artist of the four teenage drill music artists who got recently signed deals (Durk and Reese signed with Def Jam; Chief Keef signed to Interscope; and producer Young Chop signed a publishing deal with Warner Bros.). Part of the reason he doesn’t get as much press as Keef and Reese is because Durk doesn’t always make the music that has so far typified the drill scene; he doesn’t have a signatured hard-nosed banger like Reese’s “Us” or Keef’s breakout “I Don’t Like.” He’s takes a more melodic approach than his more forceful peers; for example, Life Ain’t No Joke’s “Molly World” is more of a sonic peer to Ty Dolla Sign’s excess-and-drugs singalong Beach House than something you might find on Back From The Dead (it would appear that Keef is starting to favor more melodic textures, though). Though he’s taking a slightly different approach, Durk’s music still occupies the same themes as those of his Chicago peers: themes of gang violence, drugs, guns, sex, and status. But that’s not to say Durk’s music can’t get extremely hard-edged (see for example “Homicide,” a paranoid street anthem produced by collaborating producer Paris Bueller). For the most part, though, he channels it, finding a lane between Auto-Tuned hustlers like T-Pain and the tension of the street anthems recorded by an artist like Harlem’s Tim Vocals. While Life Ain’t No Joke isn’t as interesting as Durk’s breakout tape, I’m Still A Hitta — with a label deal in place, you have to wonder about the incentive to give out your A-grade stuff for free — it’s a perfect foil for the music of his peers that have now become major-label property. They might be striking the same note and tone with their music, but the scene is diverse, prolific, and creative enough to allow different shades and viewpoints.
Something that Chief Keef does really well is knowing where to hit; he knows how to really assert himself in as little time as possible, packing each bar with maximum force and impact. Though Durk’s voice is much more spread out on Life Ain’t No Joke, he showcases that same ability on tracks like the Irv Gotti-featuring “Everything All White,” a song where he builds a catchy street anthem around a simple, repeated hook (it’s probably no coincidence that he shares a track, “F*ck Em,” with the similarly abled French Montana). He’s seems to be the most versatile artist in the extended OTF Family; I wouldn’t be surprised if he came up with the next “Zan With That Lean,” but he’s also capable of emotional, introspective rapping like we witness on Life Ain’t No Joke’s outro. Life Ain’t No Joke is a great title for this set of songs; while there’s this urgency instilled in these teenagers by the dire circumstances of their upbringing, the threat of falling in with the wrong people and finding yourself at the front end of a life sentence always looms above them.
One of the things that really interests me about the music made by Chicago rappers right now is the backdrop itself, and how that landscape lends itself to music-making; the South Side of Chicago is arguably the bleakest, most violent part of America right now. Earlier this year, a local rapper outside the OTF circle named Lil JoJo was killed, alleged retaliation for disparaging comments made about Keef and his friends. Keef may be going back to prison, and Durk spent three months in a correctional facility over the summer. Since authenticity is something people still like to argue about — do the rappers really do the things they brag about? Does it matter? — the music coming out of Chicago is directly informed by the poverty and drug-related violence. Can they be faulted for writing about that strife? Is the industry at fault for supporting it?
As Keef’s Finally Rich nears completion and the parallel rise of the scene’s captivating female rappers (Sasha Go Hard, Katie Got Bandz) continues, it’s very likely that Chicago’s stranglehold on rap journalists’ attentions will only increase. It’s exciting to know that someone like Durk exists in that ecosystem; what else is out there?
Life Ain’t A Joke is out now on LiveMixtapes.