Five Rappers Who Are Putting Chicago's Rap Scene On the Map

Noname Billions Corp.
If you’re not paying attention to Chicago, you’re not paying attention.

The city’s gang violence — including a staggering murder rate — has placed it in national headlines. But in the midst of that chaos, a vibrant hip-hop scene has emerged, charged on both political and personal fronts. Standard bearers like Common have emerged rejuvenated, and representatives of the “drill scene” — Chief Keef, Lil Durk, and Lil Reese among them — have proffered a nihilistic take on trap music, influencing the direction of Chicago’s most famous rap export, Kanye West.

But most of all, it’s Chancelor Bennett — better known as Chance the Rapper — who has raised the Windy City’s profile. Mixtapes like Coloring Book and appearances on SNL and The Tonight Show have boosted his celebrity. Heavily indebted to gospel music, Chance’s songs bear witness, providing honest reflection but also genuine hope. His cresting wave has helped bring other vital Chicago artists to the forefront. Here are five others worth taking note of, led by Noname, who performs on Monday, February 20, at Crescent Ballroom.

24-year-old Fatimah “Noname” Warner’s roots in slam poetry define her expressive flow. She grew up listening to Chicago blues, and her full-length debut, Telefone, offers personal reflections that testify to those early listening sessions. Over groovy, R&B-inflected beats, she offers views of her neighborhood, faith, and daily struggles, but death — due to both human violence and as the end result of the human condition — haunts the album. “Blue and white / badges and pistols rejoice in the night / and we watch the news/and we see him die tonight,” she raps on “Casket Pretty.” But Noname is hardly defeatist; on album opener “Yesterday” she raps about the power of communication. “Check my Twitter page for something holier than black death,” she states with a hopeful grace.

Mick Jenkins
Following appearances with dance artist Kaytranada and jazz fusion combo Badbadnotgood, Mick Jenkins released the stunning The Healing Component LP in 2016. Jenkins’ lyrical focus is on love — self-love, romantic love, and love for neighbors — and while he’s eager for salvation (via God or smoke) he keenly illustrates justice as a necessary element toward it: “Drowning” is one of the most powerful singles to reflect the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD.

Vic Mensa
His own There’s Alot Going On EP was great, but one 23-year-old Vic Mensa’s best verses of 2016 came late in the game when he appeared on Phoenix rap trio Injury Reserve’s December release FLOSS. Over the tense slow jam “Keep on Slippin’,” he brazenly dissects his mental state, ultimately arriving that the realization that his struggles tie directly to his creativity: “Sometimes I think my blessing’s a curse / The same depression made me anxious is what gave me this verse.”

Sasha Go Hard
Though Spike Lee’s 2015 film Chi-Raq’s portrayal of gang violence in Chicago drew sharp criticism from many natives — including Chance the Rapper — its soundtrack offered one of the strangest collaborations this side of Judgment Night, pairing Bruce “That’s Just the Way It Is” Hornsby with drill rapper Sasha Go Hard. Over the Noisemaker’s polite blues, Sasha makes it clear her name is no empty boast. “Cause where I’m from/in the streets/your life can get took,” she bellows with ferocity.

On his 2016 album Bucket List Project, Saba raps bluesily over laidback soundscapes, but never fails to express serious concerns. He shares some of Chance’s true religion, but often presents his faith in wearier terms: “Call Obama, Jesus, Yeezus / He can save Chicago from the demons and the deacons,” he raps on “Church/Liquor Store,” finding ills in both those inflicting violence on the city and those who’d proclaim themselves saviors from it.

Noname is scheduled to perform Monday, February 20, at Crescent Ballroom.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.