WASHINGTON – Human tragedy has always been processed through song, and this summer it’s happening most vividly in the city where America’s blues turned electric.
In Chicago, a rising generation of young rappers — Lil Durk, Chance the Rapper and countless others — is coming of age amid an epidemic of gun violence that’s contributed to the deaths of 229 people this year. And counting.
In 2012, Chicago tallied 509 slayings. In 2011, it was 433, with more than 80 percent of those killings reportedly taking place in public spaces, leading some to wonder if Chicago’s youth should be treated for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. With segments of Chicago resembling veritable war zones, the Windy City has lived up to its brutal new nickname, “Chiraq.”
So what does it mean when some of America’s most vital hip-hop is coming from some of its most lethal ZIP codes, where both the victims and the artists are overwhelmingly young, poor and black?
It’s easy to default to chicken-and-egging when it comes to violence and pop songs, but it’s wrong-headed. If the music stopped tomorrow, the killings wouldn’t. To vilify a young artist for growing up in a gun culture that our federal government has shown no interest in regulating is insensible and unfair.
Chicago’s younger rappers appear to be responding to this engulfing violence by challenging it, ignoring it, grieving over it, escaping it, adapting to it, embracing it, exploiting it — sometimes all at once. Every song is different. But ultimately, every song is an implicit declaration of visibility and survival.
Lil Durk’s “Dis Ain’t What U Want” might be the knottiest, most gripping example to seep out of Chicago this year. It’s a slow, lurching sequence of street boasts, half-sanitized with Auto-Tune, and stretched over a chattering, funereal beat. When the 20-year-old sings, “They say I terrify my city,” it sounds like a Delta blues lament from the future. But the pliancy of his delivery is heavy with subtext: What’s so terrifying about music?
You may have heard ear-budded teens singing “Dis Ain’t What U Want” this summer, but the song hasn’t come remotely close to the ubiquity of “I Don’t Like,” last summer’s bruising breakout single from Chief Keef. In addition to snaring the then-16-year-old a recording contract reportedly worth $6 million, the song sparked fevered interest in adolescent Chicago rappers and the coarse, sputtering “drill” sound their producers favored.
But as the ink on the contracts dried, some labels faced criticism for promoting artists with criminal histories. Keef (real name Keith Cozart) was signed by Interscope Records while serving house arrest at his grandmother’s home. Lil Durk (real name Durk Banks), currently with Def Jam Recordings, was arrested last month on a weapons charge, weeks before he was set to finish parole on a similar charge.
Criminal behavior can make headlines in any corner of the blogosphere, but for the music, fans go to Fake Shore Drive, a meticulous and influential music blog that posts roughly a dozen new Chicago rap songs each weekday. It recently unveiled its list of “The Best Chicago Rap Songs of 2013 (So Far),” 28 tracks that illustrate the scene’s rapid and motley growth since Keef’s expedition up the pop charts.
On the list: tough-talkers hoping to re-create Keef’s street buzz (Lil Herb, Lil Bibby, P. Rico), cooler heads flirting with eccentricity (Dally Auston, Lucki Eck$, Joey Purp), tenacious women oblivious to rap’s gender gap (Sasha Go Hard, Katie Got Bandz, Dreezy) and Chicago native Kanye West, who hosted cameos from Keef and fellow drill ambassador King Louie on his recent chart-topping album, “Yeezus.”
Andrew Barber, the 32-year-old editor of Fake Shore Drive, says he feels the currents changing directions. “Last year it was the drill scene,” Barber says. “That’s what all the labels came here trying to sign. But this summer, things are different. People have had enough of drill. … I think a lot of the kids found what Chance the Rapper was doing as an alternative to that.”
Chancelor Bennett’s latest release as Chance the Rapper, a mix tape titled “Acid Rap,” has enjoyed a huge boost from Fake Shore Drive, Pitchfork, Complex, Rolling Stone and others who have fallen under the spell of the 20-year-old’s exuberant, Technicolor babble. His squawky delivery can grate, but few rappers sound happier spitting out words. Even when he’s lamenting Chicago’s gun violence over the wilting melodies of “Pusha Man/Paranoia,” his sense of humor signifies the humanity he refuses to forfeit:
“They be shooting whether it’s dark or not
I mean, the days is pretty dark a lot
Down here, it’s easier to find a gun
Than it is to find a f-cking parking spot”
Then he croons the penultimate couplet, as if trying to freeze time: “I heard everybody’s dying in the summer/So pray to God for a little more spring.”
There are numerous bars being raised here. But if Chance’s success inspires young Chicago hopefuls the same way Keef’s did last summer, could this ballooning scene eventually burst?
“It’s out of control,” Barber says. “Every day it’s somebody new. … And that’s kind of diluted the scene. Last year, a lot of people were fans, and now those fans want to be rappers.”
If fearless amateurism is the psychic epoxy holding the scene together, Sicko Mobb might as well epitomize Chicago hip-hop this summer. They’re outsiders — two teenage brothers, Lil Trav and Lil Ceno, from the North Lawndale neighborhood on the city’s West Side — who brag about girls, guns and tequila in bright, Auto-Tuned chirps.
Their Web presence doesn’t extend much further than a SoundCloud page and a handful of low-budget YouTube videos, but the duo has eked out a handful of tracks that feel childishly sing-songy, deeply instinctual and incredibly urgent. They sound like they’re partying with frayed nerves.
Over the phone, Ceno, 19, describes the duo’s sound as “rap music, music to dance to, music to bop to,” citing a Chicago-born dance style that requires one’s knees to be made of elastic while all four limbs attempt to walk off in different directions.
But you don’t have to know how to bop to recognize that this music is both singular and spectacular. It’s the sound of teenagers singing for their city — only, the city is exceptionally cruel and the songs are like nothing we’ve ever really heard.