What makes a rapper distinctively local? Rap journalist Jeff Weiss brought this question up for me with his latest column for LA Weekly, “Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. Confirms It: This Is the Golden Age for L.A. Hip-Hop.” Among the LA rappers Weiss uses as examples are two I’ve always thought of as midwestern: Freddie Gibbs, originally from Gary, Indiana, and Open Mike Eagle, who grew up in Hyde Park. On Twitter, Atlanta rapper Indio Prather asked Weiss if Eagle weren’t really from Chicago. Weiss replied by listing legendary LA rappers born elsewhere: “Kurupt was from Philly, Ice T from Jersey, Domino from St. Louis. DOC from Dallas. Where you blow up and live is where you’re from.”
The hip-hop scene in LA is crowded and competitive, and after they moved there, Eagle and Gibbs no doubt felt the kind of pressure that turns coal into diamond. As Miles Raymer described in a 2010 Reader feature, Gibbs dropped his two 2009 breakthrough mixtapes (The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs and Midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmuzik) after moving to LA, falling into and out of a major-label deal, and figuring out how to scrape by on his own. Eagle, who moved to LA in 2004, found a community of peers through underground open-mike series Project Blowed, many of whom have become collaborators and tourmates (including Busdriver and Nocando).
But some part of each rapper’s personality still lets me imagine they have a foot planted in their old midwestern hometowns. Eagle cushions his acerbic, dystopian vision of the digital present with an affability that I find very Chicagoan, and Gibbs’s line about listening to Do or Die in 2015’s “Careless” colors all his recent releases for me. To be honest, I’ll take any excuse to tie a rapper whose work I admire to Chicago—these guys just make it easier.
Smino, one of Chicago’s current breakout rappers, makes the case that an artist can have more than one home base—or at any rate I’ll make that case on his behalf. He grew up in Saint Louis, but he became the rapper he is by moving to Chicago; here he found a mentor (Chris Inumerable, who runs Classick Studios) and the collaborators who’d help him level up (producer Monte Booker and singer Ravyn Lenae). But Saint Louis is never far from his mind—he threw the listening party for his debut album, March’s Blkswn, in the Gateway City. Smino also foregrounds Saint Louis in interviews and press releases—when he dropped the track “Menu” last year, Stereogum (fine purveyors of regurgitated PR copy) introduced him as a Saint Louis rapper.
When I previewed Smino’s sold-out Bottom Lounge show, I almost didn’t want to mention that he’s a Saint Louis native, since he’s so well grounded in Chicago that many folks consider him a local. But to do justice to the experience that Smino draws on in his music, you’ve got to take both cities into account—you can’t just ignore one because it makes your copy more complicated.
All this brings me to Valee, a Chicago rapper-producer whose drowsy drawl, nonchalant flexing, and concise tracks have made him one of the most distinctive local voices to emerge in the past year. How does being from the city affect him, given that his sound isn’t obviously connected to a larger phenomenon in Chicago hip-hop and he doesn’t easily fit into a specific subscene? His story seems representative of what makes Chicago’s hip-hop communities so exciting, but it’s also so unique to him that it’s hard to see it having more than an incidental effect on the flavor of the scene.
Last week Valee gave his first interview, telling former Redeye music reporter Josh Terry (writing for Noisey) that he got a big bump of professional confidence by doing the hook on “Cash Don’t Bend,” one of the highlights on Ty Money‘s incomparable 2015 mixtape, Cinco de Money. Money, like Valee, has a voice that can’t be meaningfully compared to that of any other contemporary rapper, and the fact that they furthered their careers in part by working together says a lot about the collaborative spirit of Chicago hip-hop today.
Terry’s Noisey piece also premiered Valee’s 1988 mixtape, which includes an extended version of his 2016 breakout single, “Shell” (though “extended” still means “under three minutes”). The original version is less than two minutes long—Valee told Terry he decided to make short songs after noticing that his friends would start talking over tracks by the second verse.
Valee raps in a see-saw flow over glowering synths, and he punctuates almost every line in the hook with an “ooh” he almost whispers. His lines are brief, and his verses feel like they could be the start of a train of thought that runs on for several more minutes. “Shell,” like many of the tracks on 1988, seems to end with an ellipsis, and because it invites repeated listens, you’ll have plenty of time to think about where it might go from there.