A handful of local rappers decided to celebrate Independence Day by releasing new music: Hurt Everybody dropped their debut self-titled EP (which is actually longer than most albums), GLC put out By Ism Means Necessary, and King Louie brought the world Tony. I’ve been thinking about Louie with greater frequency lately. He’s occupied a peculiar position since drill broke out nationally in 2012. The rapper is very much a forefather to that specific Chicago scene, but he’s got a lyrical prowess and fluid flow that doesn’t quite jibe with the rudimentary and all-too-familiar definition of drill—that it’s an apocalyptic mutation of trap filled with hollow, uncreative, and unrepentantly violent lyrics.

To most folks with only a basic grasp of drill, Louie doesn’t fit into the genre’s box, and his choice of instrumentals transcends that ridged definition. One of my favorite songs off his last mixtape, December’s Drilluminati 2, is a bop tune with lightly chirping synths called “Hella Bands.” Louie’s musical flexibility is only part of what’s allowed him to transcend the limitations of the drill scene. He’s been relentlessly working at his rap game for long enough that he’s become a leader to local rappers working in circles that rarely overlap (that is, until he steps in). He’s given cosigns to plenty of locals on the rise the past few years—recently he’s appeared on Dreezy’s Schizo and Taylor Bennett’s Mainstream Music, and I can’t forget he contributed to the mixtape that launched Chief Keef, 2012’s Back From the Dead. Louie’s the rare figurehead referenced by rappers hoping to capture some Chicago rap magic or recall their roots—hell, Kanye gave him the biggest guest spot on Yeezus, and Common is plastering Louie’s face on the cover of his forthcoming Nobody’s Smiling (though, confusingly, Louie isn’t featured on the album*).

The cover of the deluxe version of Nobodys Smiling, with Louies face on the far right
  • The cover of the deluxe version of Nobody’s Smiling, with Louie’s face on the far right

Despite his desirable position in the spotlight, Louie remains in a strange limbo. He signed to Epic two years ago, and even when Chicago hip-hop icons are consistently bringing him to a larger audience he has yet to release a proper major-label album. In fact, it appears Louie cannibalized what he planned to make his major-label debut, Dope & Shrimp, when he released two of the songs originally made for that album last year; that doesn’t mean Dope & Shrimp won’t come out, but chances are if and when it does it won’t include the songs “Goldie Wit Da Pimpin’ (Remix)” and “Heaven.”

And even though Louie’s a genuine star in Chicago, he doesn’t always get the same respect outside this city. I’m reminded of Chance the Rapper‘s response to XXL‘s question about the rappers he was surprised to see weren’t included in the magazine’s “Freshman Class” issue: “If you guys just had six more Chicago rappers, I would be cool. I thought Young Thug was gonna be here. Yeah, Young Thug and King Louie, I thought both of them would be here.” Although I don’t think of XXL‘s Freshman issue as a strong guide to the ever-expanding world of hip-hop, it’s nevertheless an important tool for other folks.

Throughout it all Louie’s been working on releasing music at a steady pace, even though the album covers bearing his name are only available on free mixtape sites instead of on CD racks in big-box stores. Which isn’t a bad thing, because he’s generally able to pack each mixtape with tunes worth storing on your computer’s hard drive (though I’m not too fond of those moments on Tony when Louie busts out his version of the Migos flow).

I’ve gravitated towards the opulent and plaintive “Live & Die in Chicago.” On it Louie twists the most memorable line from “New York, New York” into a dark and multilayered love note to his home: “They say you can make it anywhere if you make it in Chicago / So don’t take offense when I speak about murders and bitches, et cetera / I’m just speaking Chicago.” Those lines weigh heavy, especially after a violent Fourth of July weekend, but Louie’s tone hints at the deep sadness of the reality that inspires him; and yet his unwavering love for this city also bolsters him to do everything he can to lift it up, being motivated to push onwards even as he sounds downcast. And he makes that known a few lines later: “They ask me Louie are you gonna leave? / No, I’m gonna stay in Chicago.”

Leor Galil writes about hip-hop every Wednesday.

* More on that in my forthcoming piece about Nobody’s Smiling.