There's something happening in Chicago. Though it's difficult to pinpoint its exact origins, the music flooding from the Windy City – a scene that is certainly making its case as the most influential and innovative in all of modern music – is increasingly defined by its particularly cerebral, lyrical, and socially-conscious slate. Of course, a case can be made that artists from the West Coast - led by the charge of Kendrick Lamar, from New York - continuously spawning from Brooklyn, from the South - mostly signed to J Cole's Dreamville records, from the North – stemming from the wide-ranging Toronto scene, and from the entirety of the U.K. are likewise producing their fair share of purpose-driven and lyrically-endowed artists, but Chicago, if only by pure ratio, is especially woke.
There is no doubt that the ever flowing wave of hip-hop that bobs between the melody and lyrically-focused ends of the spectrum is in many ways making an adjustment towards the former; there is no doubt that hip-hop is a very loosely defined mega-genre that has seen grand rifts between sub-stylings in recent years; there is no doubt that music in general is in many ways shifting towards a point of respect and appreciation for traditional instrumentation and vocal approach that it hasn't seen in a decade or more, leading to the rise in success of neo-soul, funk, jazz, and R&B artists, while simultaneously adding expectations of musicianship to hip-hop. All of these factors in addition to the leadership of hip-hop's lyrical and politically-charged elite have combined to create an environment ripe for dedicated cerebral songwriters.
To explore the explosion of the current scene, a discussion must first be had about Chicago's hip-hop roots. And common sense brings us first to Common Sense. He is one of those figures in music that exists more as legend than rapper. He's been around since he first appeared in 1992 with his debut project, Can I Borrow A Dollar, releasing two-and-a-half decades worth of solo music, featuring on countless classic hits, and balancing an impressive acting career over the course of his time in the spotlight. The music, the acting, and the myth of the man himself haven't only been defined by quality and confirmed by acclaim and award, but have also long bubbled over with messages of positivity and open, mature discussion about racial, political, sexual, and socioeconomic problems. He is a pioneer of hip-hop's positive and cerebral sectors, campaigning for the genre to use its platform to spread messages of social improvement, equality, and love rather than for things like drug use, misogyny, and violence. His grandiose effect and influence on music and culture is pretty much impossible to gauge and extends much further than his native Chicago, hip-hop, or music as a whole.
Artists like Common or similarly, Outkast who have traditionally used their gift to educate and to inspire hope and change find their lyrical ability as prerequisite to get their messages across, and when talking about wordsmiths from Chicago, there’s no one with a more obvious track record than Twista. The hip-hop artist who, like Common, began his career in the early 1990’s, once held the Guinness World Record for fastest rapper in the world. Though the title is undeniably kitsch, the idea of pumping out 598 syllables in under a minute if nothing else proves his prowess. But it's not just pace. It’s this prowess that makes him a force like no one else when it comes to directly saying what he wants to say with his music, and Twista has long used is voice for positive messages and been an ambassador for community effort and volunteer work to better his native Chicago.
His career has many times crossed paths with and is partly to thank for the rise of Kanye West. The two collaborated early and often in Kanye's solo career - most notably on Slow Jamz which peaked at Billboard number one in 2004. Kanye was particularly outspoken as a lyricist in his early days, unapologetically blending messages of faith and religion, politics, social issues, and even a moving tribute to his mother with more classic hip-hop themes and mainstream focus, all the while moving away from the traditional approach and sounds of hip-hop music. He used his platform, and continues to do so, not in the saintly way that Common does, but in honest, outspoken Kanye fashion often violent and offensive, usually clear and with purpose, and never holding back. After College Dropout's 2004 release, Entertainment Weekly aptly reviewed West's style as a "disarming mix of confessional honesty and sarcastic humor, earnest idealism and big-pimping materialism. In a scene still dominated by authenticity battles and gangsta posturing, he's a middle-class, politically conscious, post-thug, bourgeois rapper — and that's nothing to be ashamed of."
Since his start, Kanye has been a leading force in the evolution of hip-hop as a whole, and his active voice not just in music but across art and media has earned him a reputation one way or another, as being outspoken about the world's problems as he sees them, paving a more obvious and direct road for others to do the same, and continuing the firestorm of socially conscious and incomparably creative Chicago rappers.
Existing and thriving within the same era as early Kanye West, another Chicago hip-hop artist, Lupe Fiasco, has always been referred to as an especially conscious and moving figure. Though his career hasn't resulted in the extremely deep canons of Common, Twista, or Kanye, he's been able to do quite a lot with quite a little. Branding his unique and uplifting style while still continuing to pursue the fight against corrupt social structure and an unjust hierarchy against long overlooked and abused communities, Lupe has a tendency to included themes of religious acceptance, struggles of poverty, and ethical dilemmas in realms as vast as prostitution to war. Sometimes perhaps conscious to a fault, Lupe has been accused of corniness and over-the-top feel-goodedness, but when it's all said and done, it's impossible to deny the reach and positive effect that he too has had on hip-hop, touching and inspiring people on a personal level all over the world, but first and foremost, in Chicago.
Like any city, Chicago has its problems, but not many cities have earned the negative reputation so commonly associated with many of its smearing nicknames. From Chi-Raq to Murder City (an especially uncreative title), Chicago finds itself unjustly used as a punching bag for politicians and media to make a point about whatever nonsensical agenda they are trying to push through. Socioeconomic discrepancy, racial tension, gang violence, drug culture, and manslaughter are not privileges belonging to Chicago alone. Nor are they problems that Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, and Baltimore are facing by themselves. They are worldwide issues all at the forefront of current societal restructuring, but positions of power will have their people believe otherwise for the sake of making a point, even if the point is dramatized, untrue, or invalid. The effect of higher ups in politics speaking so poorly about cities like Chicago, and Guinea pigging their agendas there has proven more toxic than any of the city’s pre-existing conditions, resulting in a furthered lack of trust between police forces and citizens, increased levels of poverty, and a stronger push into independent reform bringing more separation between people and leaders, and providing less opportunity for communities that need it most.
One of the effects least fortunate of it all, is that the beautiful, amazing positives happening in Chicago are never really discussed by media or large-scale politicians, keeping the city to outsiders under an overly dramatized dark cloud of fear and negativity. Thankfully, inspired by the artists of the past and built upon the foundation of pride in their misunderstood city, a new age of Chicago artists is using their platform to spread messages of equality, love, and positivity, and to discuss social issues. In an age increasingly defined by tension, violence, and a lack of hope for the future, Chicago has become a hotbed of conscious creatives pushing for societal reform through their art and their stories.
When it comes to creative, modern Chicago storytellers, it’s hard to think of anyone more grabbing and influential than Chance the Rapper. The young, well-respected, widely acclaimed lyricist, vocalist, and producer, has had us all at his mercy since he first tugged at our heartstrings and brought to life our inner child with his 2013 mixtape, Acid Rap. To be clear, Acid Rap was Chance’s sophomore project but is undoubtedly the work that brought him into the limelight and introduced most of us to his incomparably unique style. Not only is Chance’s left-field style, jazz timing, and vocal approach underliningly uplifting, relatable, and heartwarming, but in combination with his poetic and meaningful lyricism, his music becomes therapeutic and simply special. Chance has been able to successfully bridge the gap between quality hip-hop and relatively family-friendly vibes without ever seeming corny or fake. The reach that these qualities have brought him have granted him with a tremendous platform from which to communicate to the world, and he has used that platform to spread ideas of positivity, love, change, and hope since day one. He is the quintessential positive hip-hop activist who is still able to relay stories of struggle and difficulty without losing his way, guiding a new wave of artists in the process.
At the time when we were first being introduced to Chance, we were also introduced to fellow Chicagoans, close friends, and collaborators on Acid Rap, Noname and Vic Mensa. Noname, who first began her career under the moniker, Noname Gypsy, but decided to adjust it because of the insensitivities surrounding the original, is very clearly an artist in touch with and sensitive to modern day issues. Her genuine and conscious spoken word delivery makes her one of the more unique artists in all of music today and her subject matter which preaches positivity akin to Chance the Rapper and focuses heavily on the socioeconomic and cultural turmoil of today’s world, display her drive to change it. Her 2016 project, Telefone, is a powerful exhibition not just of her jaw-dropping flow or her unmatched skills of storytelling, but also strives to discuss and tackle problems being felt by populations of the impoverished, the minority, and the woman. She uses her clear, well-spoken, and incredibly insightful voice to make all her listeners aware of problems and equally driven to address them.
Vic Mensa, though in many ways existing on a different wavelength of hip-hop styling than Chance or Noname, known better as a higher energy, more hype kind of artist, is also well-known for voicing his strong opinions on social and political issues through his music and his media. He definitely articulates his ideas and messages in a more cutthroat, violent, and in-your-face type of delivery than the others which grants him a unique lens and angle from which to work with. His tendency for confrontation in the manner by which he speaks his opinions can often times be seen as controversial, while at the same time being an important and perhaps more accurate representation of those effected by the socioeconomic problems facing cities like Chicago. His recent collaboration with globally renowned jazz trumpeter, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, is a clear example of his political and musical focus. Freedom Is A Word is sharp jazz production adorned with the heavy and meaningful lyricism of Mensa discussing the broken and unequal definitions of freedom observed in the United States. Like much of his music, it exhibits his unique take on socially conscious and politically-motivated Chicago hip-hop.
At the same point in time as the rises of Vic Mensa, Noname, and Chance the Rapper, there was another voice quenching the thirst for competent and cerebral hip-hop in Chicago. Mick Jenkins, a rapper best defined by his lyrically-endowed and laid-back delivery, has accrued one of the larger cult followings in all of hip-hop music since his first collection of mixtapes to the cinematic release of his debut album, The Healing Component. Consistent pleas for his listeners to drink more water are just the tip of the iceberg in his music’s positive influence. Blessed with a deep voice, a deep vocabulary and the sense of how to wield both, Mick Jenkins has earned himself a reputation as one of the most underrated figures in hip-hop today. But not only that, discussing issues faced by the public and by the individual, Mick Jenkins’ music is far reaching in its meaning and purpose, placing him at the head of the table for the new wave of socially conscious Chicago rappers.
In more recent years, fueled by the reinvention and the reinvigoration of the Chicago scene, that table has been greatly expanded as an explosion of artists, all lyrically, instrumentally, and politically charged, have followed the footsteps left by the young veterans of the new wave.
No one rides it better than Smino. Though not a native of Chicago, proudly wearing his home city of St. Louis on his sleeve, Smino can certainly be considered an honorary member and spiritual leader of the thriving Chicago scene. Attending Columbia College Chicago where his then existing musical talent began to be rounded out, Smino quickly made friends with producer and manager, Chris Innumerable. Eventually, the two collected an enviable circle of friends and founded the Zero Fatigue group, populated by supremely talented soul vocalist, Ravyn Lenae, up-and-coming producer, Monte Booker, and fellow rappers, Jay2 and Bari, all based out of Chicago. Together, they have used their knack for more musically-forward thinking and off-kilter approaches to take over the music scene. Smino's 2017 debut album, blkswn, was a phenomenal exhibition of his talent that greatly influenced the direction of more jazz, R&B, and soul inspired hip-hop while at the same time, covered a list of relatable themes like family, love, lust, sobriety (and lack thereof). The approachable lyricism conveyed in a style entirely Smino's own and never heard before, have made him one of the more lyrically and stylistically intriguing artists of today, using his storytelling ability to promote and influence honest and instrumentally-driven hip-hop at its purest.
Much of the success that Smino has earned is due to his knack for bringing together amazing talent. In addition to his entire Zero Fatigue crew, blkswn also featured his cousin and one of his biggest inspirations, Drea Smith, as well as production and vocal features from Chicago-based masterminds, THEMpeople and THEmind who possess an unmatchable canon of their own.
Not at all exclusive to Zero Fatigue or THEMpeople, a sense of comradery seems to be connecting all young artists in Chicago, creating a whirlwind of inspiration and a powerful and purpose-driven waterfall of great music. Smino's recent work, Troop, with positive and bubbly Chicago rapper, Tobi Lou, has been one of the most enticing songs of 2018 so far, pumping out good vibes and promoting friendship, while simply being addicting as hell.
Saba, one of the most exciting young artists in music, who, like many, first found success as a collaborative feature on Chance the Rapper's Acid Rap, made a monumental splash with his 2016 debut album, Bucket List Project. A lyrical genius and a proponent of the real and the down to earth, Saba continues to release track after track overflowing with personal, open, and heartfelt messages. The recent releases of singles, Busy and LIFE, are just the latest in his growing and much anticipated canon of positivity and relatability.
His biggest career hit, a dreamy, vibe-strewn single titled Photosynthesis, was created with the accompaniment of Chicago R&B songstress, Jean Deaux – a consistently emerging figure not just in Chicago, but in the greater music spectrum.
Her most recent appearance came on one of the most exciting projects to be released from Chicago so far this year. Phoelix, a multidimensional talent, tapped into the vast system of sharing and collaborating to bring his latest project, TEMPO, to life. The album, though certainly his own, displays the team mentality of Chicago’s young talent. In a city where community ties, strength, and action in many ways keep day-to-day life thriving, from urban farming, to community church and education programs, to a massive network of volunteerism, the notion also extends to the music sphere. Featuring Jean Deaux, Smino, Nemo, Dax, and longtime friend, collaborator, and poetic lyricist, Elton Aura, TEMPO is not just a lyrical, stylistic, and instrumental clinic, but also brims with stories of struggle and triumph.
And really, triumph is what Chicago’s music scene has always been about. The music of a city is a representation of its greater whole, and there is no city working harder to undo its poor political reputation and crude nicknames than Chicago. A city teeming with life and positivity in the face of the adversity seen in all cities across the globe, Chicago uses its music as a way to drive social, political, and cultural change while at the same time utilizing messages of positivity and love to influence, inspire, and relate to everyday people. The success that the artists have found, thanks in large part to prioritization of traditional, instrumental musical talent and lyrically-centered songwriting, has been spurring change and spreading positivity around Chicago since the beginning.
From the pioneers who broke ground on Chicago’s conscious hip-hop movement, to the following generation who built upon it, to the new wave of artists utilizing their unique skills to push for similar messages of change, hope, and positivity, to a future as bright as its past, Chicago undoubtedly reigns as haven for the lyrically-endowed and socially-conscious.
It’s sad that places like Chicago and cultural movements like hip-hop carry with them such heavy and undeserved reputations of negativity. And though Chicago and hip-hop certainly have their problems, the city and its artists have long worked in collaboration to fix them, emerging as leaders for creativity, hard work, and free speech not just across hip-hop and Chicago, but throughout music and around the world.
It’s high time we drop the negative, damaging, and corny titles so often smeared to Chicago’s underlying beauty, and come up with a nickname more representative of its people and its music – Woke City.