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 the 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 villainize 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 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” on Metro buses trundling around Washington this summer, but the song hasn’t come remotely close to the ubiquity of “I Don’t Like,” last summer’s bruising break-out 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 was signed by Interscope Records while serving house arrest at his grandmother’s home. Lil Durk, 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.