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Can You Say Chi City? Chance The Rapper & Family Turning Chi-Raq Back Into Chicago

The first time anyone heard the term “Chiraq” was when Chicago drill rapper King L (then King Louie) dubbed his hometown Chiraq, Drillinois in 2009. Drillinois would be forgotten fairly quickly because it was cornier than your average celebrity couple portmanteau, but Chiraq swept across the media in the same way a celebrity couple nickname would.

Like any relationship can be, that association between Chicago and Iraq is complicated. It’s a convenient and immediate way to raise awareness for just how grave things are in Chicago, thrusting the ailing sections of the city into the forefront for documentaries, features, broadcast packages, etc. But it unfairly exaggerates the violence of an American city and simultaneously belittles the severity of a war-torn Middle Eastern country. Terms like “war zone” and “urban terrorism” followed in reference to Chicago, and it painted the impoverished, predominantly black sections of the city, particularly the South Side, with the deepest and darkest hues. Those neighborhoods became synonymous with gun violence and seemingly nothing else, symbolized by T-shirts that match the Chi’s skyline with the shape of an AK-47 assault rifle.

Chiraq Tee

The drill subgenre of rap exploded off of the exposure the Chiraq name brought Chicago, blowing outward from the Windy City into the rest of rap. The name was adapted from old Chicago slang, where “drill” was another term for a gun, or for shooting or killing someone, as in “he drilled him.” It perfectly embodied the violent, vivid storytelling and aggressive, menacing sounds the subgenre boasts. Nicki Minaj made “Chiraq” featuring local drill star Lil Herb. Minaj’s future beau Meek Mill made another “Chiraq” featuring another local, Lil Durk. Popular drill sonics made their way past Chicago into trap and other subgenres from other regions. Drill artists like Chief Keef, King L, Lil Bibby, Durk, and Herb signed deals with major label subsidiaries.

Though it is crucial those stories be heard, the line between edification and glorification can be as fine as a grain of sand. Once the majors get a hold of anything, there is the ever-present danger of dilution and commodification for a more digestible, sellable product. Without nuance, the music perpetuates the fear of black spaces all over the country. Black people living in those spaces internalize the message of themselves as soldiers and survivors. People outside the community see those areas as battle zones as well. Both perceptions contribute to a negative feedback loop with no end in sight.

The popularity of the name and the music associated with it culminated in the Spike Lee film CHI-RAQ. Though Lee’s film was well-intentioned, many Chicago residents rejected the film because his execution was polarizing and bungling.

Lee modeled the film after the Greek comedy Lysistrata, in which women execute a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian War. There’s that war imagery again. But this time it’s coupled with some corny spoken-word-esque rhyming dialogue from Nick Cannon’s mouth. Lee’s choice of a satirical comedy to highlight such weighty issues of urgent and vital importance is questionable, and many of the residents of the Chicago communities he looked to help with the film saw him as an outsider swooping in to tell a tall tale about neighborhoods he knew nothing about, then vanishing just as quickly as he appeared. Lee defended the film by saying he simply wanted to start a discussion about ending gun violence and hold the perpetrators responsible, adding that “people don’t know what they’re talking about” and “they are going to look stupid and be on the wrong side of history.”

Those who live in the neighborhoods Lee portrayed in the film didn’t take kindly to accusations of being ignorant of the problems they face, and Chance The Rapper’s unique rasp was one of the loudest voices of dissent. He utilized his Twitter account, interviews, and his music as soap boxes to speak out against the film immediately after its release. Chance accused CHI-RAQ of being inauthentic and critiqued what he felt was an inappropriately cartoonish portrayal of the South Side neighborhood he fiercely loves.

CHI-RAQ’s window of attention has long been closed since its December release, but Chance hasn’t forgotten and is still reeling about it, trying to right what he considers is a wrongful image of his beloved hood. So he devoted some jabs at Spike on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” earlier this year and Jamila Woods’ “LSD” just over a week ago. His tweets and commentary outside of the studio were much more aggressive than the bars, though. Chance’s music is characterized by unbridled ebullience, relentless optimism, salvation, redemption, and newfound faith both secular and non-secular. Those qualities are where its power lies, and that is why it’s so undeniably infectious. It doesn’t hurt that he can rap his ass off as well, shifting among the boisterousness, energy, and wild onomatopoeia of Busta Rhymes, the sheer skill and wordplay of an underground lyricist like Homeboy Sandman, popular sing-song cadences like Young Thug or Fetty Wap, and singing warm and heartfelt like a gospel choir. So yeah, dude is nice. When he speaks you can’t help but at least listen, but he will probably lift your mood and entire being while you do.

His music wasn’t made in response to the drill movement, but it certainly stands in opposition. Chance has shown love for the drill guys, he’s even hopped on songs with them. He and Chief Keef came up in the same Chicago Public School system and lived fairly close to each other on the South Side. They both took advantage of building a strong home fan base performing for the same peers while in school. Chance has even praised Keef for his ability to “get in your face,” and expressed a wish to be just as confrontational in certain moments in his own way. So their music is more like a peaceful yin and yang or brothers that squabble and love each other when all is said and done, but they are in opposition nonetheless. Keef revels in the violence and wears his survival and aggression like a Purple Heart. Part of Lil Chano from 79th’s mission is to humanize the people and streets he grew up on and protect them both fiercely. He works to erase the image of his city as a desecrated war zone through overwhelming joy and warmth. It’s not buoyant to the point of overlooking or bypassing the violence that drill artists like Keef so grittily detail; rather, he chooses to emphasize the goodness in his community and champion the people ready and desperate to end said violence.

So he’ll say things like “I know you scared, you should ask us if we scared too/ I know you scared, me too/ I know you scared you should ask us if we scared too / If you was there then we just knew you cared too” on Acid Rap’s “Pusha Man.” He’ll bring up witnessing the murder of his close friend Rodney Kyles Jr., rapping, “I seen it happen, I seen it happen, I see it always/ I see him screamin’ I see his demons in empty hallways” on Acid Rap’s “Acid Rain.” He speaks on how “None of my niggas ain’t have no dad/ None of my niggas ain’t have no choice” while detailing stories of carefree joy amid the shine of the summer sun being dimmed by shootings on Coloring Book’s “Summer Friends.” He asserts that not everyone in his hood is toting guns or doing dirt by saying “we don’t do the same drugs no more” (drugs being a catchall term for “stuff,” according to Chance) on Coloring Book’s “Same Drugs.”

Chance is not alone, though. The people that surround him and bolster him happen to make great music of their own, cut from the same cloth. The Savemoney Militia, the Social Experiment, Jamila Woods, Saba, NoName (formerly NoName Gypsy), Kweku Collins, and Chance’s brother Taylor Bennett are all helping him restore Chicago’s soul, personality, and dimension. They are seemingly omnipresent on each other’s projects with the same sensibilities, ethos, and pride in their city expressed in their own unique way. A moment hasn’t felt so immense, and so special for Chi-centric music since Kanye and Common linked for 2005’s Be. But this moment has already been sustained for much longer than one album. Each album, mixtape, and EP that the Chicago family drops commands attention and thought. And they are making music of a political and conscious nature that is still thoroughly entertaining while managing to avoid preaching or being overly righteous.

The latest to add to the streak of incredible releases is the soulful, powerful Jamila Woods. She’s probably best known for making the Social Experiment’s “Sunday Candy” even sweeter and for being the most redeemable part of Macklemore’s “White Privilege II.” Woods just dropped HEAVN, and it’s a gorgeous body of work filled with all the uneasiness, vulnerability, passion, pride, joy, despair, anguish, hurt, pain, wonder, and hope of a black woman conflicted by the unconditional love she wholeheartedly gives her plagued hood.

Woods beautifully expresses that gamut of emotion with a stupendous pen, an oh-so-soulful voice, and boldly unguarded rawness. Her sensibilities combine with the versatility of the Chi’s bubbling musical family for a powerful portrait of real life for black people in the city — one that resonates far beyond Chicago’s city limits, especially in the current tumultuous racial climate. Donnie Trumpet’s jazz, Kweku Collins’ synth flourishes and wonderfully intricate percussion, Odd Couple’s ever-shifting styles, Saba’s hard edge, and Chance’s unparalleled knack for understanding and maximizing a moment all make this album soar. Woods herself sums it up best in her explanation of what the project means to her and how she hopes it will resonate:

HEAVN is about black girlhood, about Chicago, about the people we miss who have gone on to prepare a place for us somewhere else, about the city/world we aspire to live in. I hope this album encourages listeners to love themselves and love each other. For black and brown people, caring for ourselves and each other is not a neutral act. It is a necessary and radical part of the struggle to create a more just society. Our healing and survival are essential to the fight.

The Savemoney militia, which once comprised Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa, Towkio, Joey Purp, Caleb James, Kami De Chukwu, Sterling Haze, and many others, has dwindled in number over the years. Chance, Mensa, Towkio, and Purp along with honorary member D.R.A.M. are the main players.

Towkio just released his Community Service 2 EP, and it’s exactly what the title suggests. The most eclectic of the clique, he captures the conflicting notions of hustling for the rent by any means necessary — which often means disrupting and destroying another family to feed your own — and how no one should have to make those choices. On the Joey Purp-assisted “Playing Fair” he talks about his mother texting or calling him every day to tell him she loves him because she knows any day could be his last, but he could just as quickly snatch a life by hooking his finger around a trigger. Yet he also turns around and lifts his squad with celebratory, indulgent victory laps like the Mensa-assisted “G W M.” The most penetrating ode to the city comes in “Tear Drop” in which he laments over the city’s ills, expands beyond it to a global view, and delivers a great message of hope and restoration with plenty of verve and vigor. And as with any Savemoney project, the fam shows up lyrically and sonically to make it that much better.

Vic Mensa has historically been a doofy party guy with a tendency to clumsily spill over bars, but he’s matured quite nicely into a more contemplative, conscious artist as of the late. Last month’s There’s A Lot Going On EP was a scathing commentary on police violence in Chicago and all over the country with one of the most striking pieces of cover art this year. Mensa has a gun range target superimposed on him below his South Side neck tattoo, likening himself to the many victims of police killings and imploring people to see him and his fellow rappers as people who are lucky enough to avoid having their lives ended so unnecessarily and abruptly.

The EP is very heavy-handed on the political tip in several spots, and he could have used some features from the fam to cut the density and gravity a bit, but it’s a welcome change from his early buzz catalysts. As he continues to find a balance in his music, though, in true Savemoney fashion he’s been active outside of the booth, and his actions hint at further growth, be it calling out Justin Timberlake for cultural appropriation and canceling a show after the venue tweeted racist remarks about Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Dallas shooting.

Joey Purp traded in the gangster tales of 2012’s The Purple Tape, for a more three-dimensional picture of himself on iiiDrops this past spring. iiiDrops is easily the best Savemoney release this year after Chance’s Coloring Book. Purp has the wherewithal to speak on the pusher’s life, politicians neglecting problems in impoverished black communities, having a sexy little romp in a photo booth, how he feels Spike Lee betrayed his own people, being entrenched in his city’s madness until it gets better, and having fantasies of escaping it all in the same body of work. Chance, Vic, Saba, Towkio, Donnie Trumpet, and many other members of the Chicago family show up to contribute verses and production. Though it seems this formula would get old, Joey has an urgency in his flow unparalleled by anyone in his crew or in the entire rap game right now. Just like the other members of Savemoney he brings a unique perspective and skill set to the table despite similar sensibilities developed in the same environment.

Saba is more a feature type of rapper, but he’s very involved in production and habitually manages to punch up the energy of any song he hops on. NoName is similar in that it’s impossible to find a wack verse from her on anyone else’s songs and the idea of a full-length project full of her unconventional spoken-word rhythms is intriguing. Donnie Trumpet and other members of the Social Experiment leave their hand prints all over almost every project the family releases. Taylor Bennett is what Dick Vitale calls a “diaper dandy”, and though he’s still largely under the huge shadow his brother casts, he has the potential to develop into quite the artist himself. Kweku Collins, based just outside the city in nearby Evanston, has an erudition, knowledge, and nuance beyond his 19 years.

This is such a special, imperative moment for Chicago. No wonder Chance is getting his own festival, and he’ll probably tap the fam to contribute. To have so many talents at once with the communal mindset to contribute to each other’s works as often as possible, bonded by an unwavering love of the troubled city they call home is bringing back the dimensions of the city that were flattened by the Chiraq label. In the midst of what feels like a historic summer of palpable strife, tumult, and tension, this movement registers far beyond Chicago. The problems faced by sections of the Windy City are far from unique. Hopefully by seeing the black folks of Chicago in a more human light instead of as warriors and soldiers, they can see black folks around the nation more completely as well.