Here’s how the Chicago rapper Mikkey Halsted describes himself on the second track of Castro, his new mixtape: “The common denominator ‘tween Chief Keef and Common.” Thanks for doing my job for me, Mikkey Halsted! And it’s true that Halsted does exist somewhere on the continuum between two different eras of Chicago rap: The tortured and self-conscious introspection of early Common and the simplistically nihilistic City Of God gutstomp of Keef and his army of juvenile goon associates. Musically and temperamentally, Halsted is way, way closer to Common. He’s all gravelly smart-thug thoughtfulness over slow-burn soul samples, and No I.D., the Chicago rap originator who produced Common’s best album Resurrection, contributes many tracks to this one. (Atlanta mixtape veteran Don Cannon and Keef’s sonic mastermind Young Chop also handle beats, but Chop in particular seems to be doing his best to stay within No I.D.’s sonic framework.) But Halsted is also very much a product of the same Chicago as Keef and crew: The fractured and falling-apart metropolis that’s now got the worst murder rate of all the world’s big cities. If anything, Halsted sounds like a smart, well-read older cousin to all the shirtless older kids in the “I Don’t Like” video. And that’s good; they need that older cousin.
Here’s Halsted, rapping with conviction about his childhood: “11 years old, witnessed my first killing / At 12, we shot tech nines in back of the building.” In a lot of rappers’ hands, this would come off like a boast. But this line comes from a Halsted song called “PTSD (Voices),” one that’s all about the horrible psychological effects of living with all this death around you, about how he’ll probably never get a peaceful night’s sleep. And lines like that are a big part of the reason that Halsted never comes off as preachy, even when he really justifiably should. He doesn’t sound like an older guy condescendingly attempting to force simplified truths on his younger peers. Instead, he sounds like someone who’s seen a lot of things he shouldn’t have had to see, trying to make sense of them while, at the same time, convincing himself that they’ve made him a stronger person and talking the tough-guy rap talk that he’s come to understand as a requirement of his genre. That’s a compelling place to come from.
Castro isn’t all bombed-out survivor talk. There are brag songs and love songs and an extended intro where he imagines himself as Fidel Castro, adapting a dictator as a personal hero mostly because the American government has famously failed to kill him: “I promise, they tried to Bay Of Pig me, I kept the pigs at bay / The same people that told ‘em sic me soon turned on JFK.” And there’s some half-baked conspiracy-theorizing, stuff about how Reagan’s scientists invented crack and engineered it so that melanin-rich people would be more likely to get addicted. But even with the patently ridiculous bits, there’s a search for perspective and clarity at the heart of the mixtape — something that’s not necessarily too easy to come by when you come from desperate circumstances. And the classic-rap production grit helps out a bit here. Production like this can sound formulaic and weighed-down these days, but No I.D. knows what he’s doing, and the other producers seem to be on their toes when they know that they’re sharing space with No I.D. beats.
It’s not necessarily a great mixtape. Some of that conspiracy stuff is just really dumb, and the relationship songs come off a bit perfunctory. Halsted is a strong voice, but he doesn’t quite have the charisma to sustain an entire tape by himself. The one guest rapper here, Pusha T, cruises right past him on “Momma In My Ear.” But Castro still works as a powerful document of how shitty Chicago can be right now, and of a guy trying to elevate his music rather than just reveling in the darkness.
Download Castro for free here.