Lil Durk, Fivio Foreign, And The Changing Meaning Of “Drill”

Fivio Foreign by Jonathan Mannion

Lil Durk, Fivio Foreign, And The Changing Meaning Of “Drill”

Fivio Foreign by Jonathan Mannion

Does Lil Durk make drill music? On the surface, this seems like the stupidest question in the world. Lil Durk is drill music. When Chicago drill first started to make national waves, Durk was there. Chief Keef’s “Bang” was the first Chicago drill video to achieve any sort of viral attention, and Durk is one of the faces in the background of that video. A few weeks after that video came out, Durk released I’m A Hitta, his first mixtape. When major labels started snapping up drill rappers like Keef, King Louie, and Lil Reese, Durk inked a deal with Def Jam. For the full decade-plus that drill has been in the public eye, Durk has been a key part of it.

Today, we can safely say that Lil Durk is the biggest star ever to come out of drill, which isn’t something that anyone could’ve predicted in 2011. For much of his career, Durk was an afterthought — a guy who got swept up in a media circus and whose music never demanded attention the way certain Chief Keef tracks did. But Durk kept working, building an audience, and he eventually took off in a huge way. Durk’s breakout year arrived in 2020, long after the initial excitement surrounding drill had died down. That’s when he released the big albums Just Cuz Y’all Waited 2 and The Voice and when he rapped on Drake’s massive hit “Laugh Now, Cry Later.” Since then, Durk has kept building. He’s released an album with Lil Baby, and he’s been a featured guest on just about every big rap record of the past few years. A month ago, Durk released his new album 7220, and by the time 2022 is over, it might just be the biggest album of the year.

7220, named after Durk’s grandmother’s address, moved 120,000 units in its first week and debuted at #1, ending the long reign of the Encanto soundtrack. In the weeks since then, 7220 has hung around the top five, and it’s back at #1 this week. This record has staying power. A few of the songs on 7220, like the diss track “Ahhh Ha,” recapture the reckless intensity of early drill. There’s also one naked, forced crossover attempt: “Broadway Girls,” the reputation-burnishing team-up with country megastar and walking PR disaster Morgan Wallen. (That’s the last song on the album, a pretty clear signal that we’re not supposed to take it seriously.) But Durk sings most of 7220 singing sad songs about trauma. That’s become his niche, the reason that he’s loved. Durk has faced plenty of trauma in his life, including the recent loss of King Von. Durk deals with that trauma in public, on record, and people relate.

Durk was singing sad songs from the very beginning. In the initial drill wave, Durk was the Chicago rapper who took the most from Future, the one most in love with melody. Drill didn’t exist in a vacuum; early drill tracks sound like flattened, hopeless takes on the stomp-out anthems that Waka Flocka Flame and Lex Luger were making at the time. Over the years, Durk has adjusted his style to keep up with mainstream rap music, and 7220 is musically closer to Rod Wave’s trap-blues than to the kind of thing that generally gets the “drill” label these days. This isn’t really a surprise. Chicago drill hasn’t exactly been static since 2011, and the Chicago drill figures with the most lasting success — Durk, G Herbo, Polo G — are the ones who have the easiest time working outside the genre. But while Durk’s name has steadily grown, drill music has gone worldwide.

Today, drill exists as a kind of global rap lingua franca and as the favorite punching bag of moral-crusader politicians everywhere. UK rappers and producers came up with their own take on drill, adapting explosive grime-style delivery and wobbly basslines from past generations of pirate-radio dance music. Brooklyn rappers like Pop Smoke latched onto the UK style, and New York drill became its own ever-evolving thing. The UK variant on drill also spread to countries from Ghana to Sweden, developing all sorts of different tributaries and flavors in the process. These days, it’s hard to say what even counts as drill music. It has something to do with clacking drum patterns and violently specific lyrics, but its shape can change whenever necessary. Drill tends to sound good in lots of different languages, and many of the biggest European drill stars are immigrants from elsewhere in the world. In its UK form, drill can also work as mainstream party music. That wasn’t really the case with too much of the first Chicago wave. (Certain Chief Keef tracks like “Love Sosa” and “Faneto” are anthems, but that doesn’t mean that they’re for everyone.)

Last year, Tion Wayne and Russ Millions’ “Body” became the first drill track to reach #1 in the UK. It’s a full-on dance track, and it has very little in common with anything that you’d hear on Back From The Dead 2. The “Body” remix has tons of chattering voices, and one of those voices is American: Fivio Foreign, the veteran Brooklyn journeyman who seized on drill in a big way and who’s been trying to make himself the face of the movement. Fivio started making drill in the late ’10s, and he seemed to have a sort of little-brother relationship with Pop Smoke even though Pop was a great deal younger than Fivio. After Pop’s murder in 2020, Fivio became arguably New York’s biggest drill rapper. Fivio doesn’t have Pop Smoke’s gruff, larger-than-life charisma, but he can convey skittering excitement, and when he really wants to, he can rap.

In the past year, impressive Fivio Foreign performances like the vaunted guest verse on Kanye West’s “Off The Grid” and the solo single “Story Time” have had me wondering whether Fivio could turn out to be a great rapper. But where it counts, Fivio has fallen far short of those hopes. Earlier this month, Fivio released his first studio album, the hyped-up B.I.B.L.E. It’s pretty bad.

Fivio has clearly decided that his lane should be drill crossover, that he’s the person who can turn drill into pop. The album’s first single, the Alicia Keys/Kanye West collab “City Of Gods,” is a forced attempt at a glossy New York travelogue like Jay-Z’s “Empire State Of Mind.” On other tracks, Fivio teams up with obvious pop-rap suspects — Quavo, Coi Leray, Lil Tjay — and raps over drill-infused samples of pop hits like Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” and Ne-Yo’s “So Sick.” In a recent New York Times profile, Fivio said that his goal was “generational wealth,” and B.I.B.L.E. is definitely the work of someone who thinks he’s got a good shot of achieving pop-star status. In its first week, though, B.I.B.L.E. couldn’t touch the streaming figures of 7220. Maybe Fivio should’ve tried to make a good rap record instead.

There are a few hard tracks on B.I.B.L.E.; the Lil Yachty collab “Slime Them,” for instance, has a real breathless urgency to it. (Yachty has yet to discover a regional rap subgenre that he can’t do pretty well.) Along with any bright spots, though, you also get, like, Fivio making enthusiastic noises while DJ Khaled gives one of his stock motivational speeches. Who needs that? I can’t see into an artist’s soul, but my guess is that Fivio Foreign made the calculation that drill music would eventually start showing up in McDonald’s ads and shit, and he decided that he should be the one to take advantage of that. Every decision on B.I.B.L.E. seems to be a cynical attempt to position Fivio in that spot. In the process, the album loses the messy shooting-from-the-hip urgency that made drill exciting in the first place. Fortunately, there’s another new record that gives some indication of how drill might potentially make mainstream inroads.

On Friday, Cardi B showed up on “Shake It,” the new single from teenage Bronx drill star Kay Flock. In the Bronx, Cardi’s home borough, a slightly different version of drill has taken hold — sample drill, where the tracks use big chunks of ultra-recognizable pop songs. Kay Flock has emerged as one of the biggest figures from that whole little world. (In a predicament reminiscent of that early drill wave, Kay Flock has a major-label contract, and he’s also facing a murder charge.) “Shake It” uses pieces of past hits from Akon and Sean Paul, and it pairs Cardi with Kay Flock and his regular collaborators Dougie B and Bory300. Cardi is an actual genuine larger-than-life pop star, but she’s not that far removed from her mobbing-on-corners YouTube-video days, and she makes perfect sense on “Shake It.”

As Cardi recently pointed out on Twitter, “Shake It” is not her first drill track. Way the hell back in 2016, Cardi was freestyling over King Louie’s “BON” on her first mixtape. On “Shake It,” Cardi sounds fully locked-in, like she’s connecting with a feeling that’s been in her music for her entire career. The three younger rappers are all hoarse and intense and kinetic, but Cardi schools all of them. Cardi’s drill move doesn’t sound contrived, and even if she’s just jumping on a current trend, she makes it sound effortless. She’s comfortable with chaos.

Maybe drill, in its current form, doesn’t have a fixed definition, but it seems like chaos should be part of the equation. Durk seems to bring that chaos with him even when he’s singing about trauma through Auto-Tune. Fivio Foreign seems to be trying to smooth drill out into something predictable. It’s not working. Maybe that’s encouraging. Maybe drill can’t go fully mainstream without losing that sense of chaos. We’ll see.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Defcee – “Rossi” (Feat. Armand Hammer)
There’s a lot to like about Chicago indie rapper Defcee’s new BoatHouse-produced album For All Debts Public And Private, but my favorite thing about it is getting to hear Elucid and billy woods, usually so jangled and discordant, rapping in the pocket of a deep head-nod beat like this one.

2. Sauce Walka – “What It Do”
I still haven’t written a full column about Sauce Walka, and I need to fix that. He might be the most purely, consistently entertaining rapper working right now. Also, this beat goes crazy.

3. Ray Vaughn – “Picking Cherries”
Top Dawg Entertainment isn’t the commercial and artistic juggernaut that it once was, but this Long Beach rapper, TDE’s newest signing, has an emotional immediacy that reminds me of the label’s earlier days.

4. Beatking – “TUH” (Feat. Queendom Come)
You know what’s funny? The nastiest male sex-rappers seem to be the ones most comfortable rapping alongside extremely tough women. Beatking, for instance, doesn’t sound the least bit threatened about Queendom Come eating this track.

5. Pouya & Fat Nick – “Seven Figure Habits”
The drums on “Seven Figure Habits” don’t come in for a solid minute, and when Pouya and Fat Nick do this one live, that beat-drop is going to be a moment.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO

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