Say what you will about 2016 as a whole—the cover of our Year in Review issue sums it up—but Chicago hip-hop had a great year. And while December has traditionally been a quiet month for musicians, no one around here seemed to get the memo. Just look at the past week: Chance the Rapper and Jeremih released a joint Christmas mixtape buoyed by collaborations with Chicagoans from a diversity of scenes, including street-rap phenom Lud Foe and Teklife producers DJ Spinn and Gant-Man; King Louie dropped the long-gestating (by his standards, anyway) Tony 2 on the first anniversary of his near-fatal shooting; and Vic Spencer put out his second full-length in two months, The Ghost of Living, produced by Internet sensation Big Ghost. And the past month has seen wonderful releases by Chicagoans with lower profiles but plenty to say—among them Walter J. Liveharder’s We Buy Gold, Lin Z’s Awetumn EP, and Sage, the 64th Wonder’s Sagewav LP.

Which brings me to the subject of this list: the best overlooked Chicago hip-hop from the past year. Year-end “best of” lists can be irritating, of course, because they never perfectly line up with your tastes, but they can be enlightening for the same reason—I’ve discovered many great albums on lists that don’t overlap with my own. Adding the qualifier “overlooked” makes compiling a list even more of a challenge, because you have to guard against the possibility that you’re simply revealing your own blind spots. As I did last year, I asked my Twitter followers to name their favorite overlooked Chicago hip-hop release of the past year, and once again their responses included a few surprises. One person voted for Common’s Black America Again, which I’d never call “overlooked” myself—Common is a household name in Chicago hip-hop, and it hasn’t been that long since he won an Oscar.

Writing about local hip-hop for the Reader gives me an advantage in that I can devote work hours, not just free time, to exploring the variety of Chicago’s rap cornucopia. But I missed out on covering plenty of artists who put out interesting material this year, and those are the people I considered for this list. So while I think that, say, Joey Purp and Saba deserve even more attention than they’ve received, they’re not here because I wrote lengthy features about both of them in 2016. Anyone I’ve covered in my weekly hip-hop column, in a stray blog post, or in a concert preview was disqualified too—though I did make an exception for an artist I referred to briefly in a piece a couple months ago. (Where’s the fun in making up arbitrary rules if you can’t bend them a little?) I eliminated Ibn Inglor’s Honegloria, even though I didn’t write about it when it dropped in October, because I’d previously written about one of the album’s singles. I even cut Holy Smoke’s self-titled release because I’d previewed a solo performance by one of the duo’s members, Jeremiah Jae. I also disqualified releases written about by other Reader team members, whose relevant work you can find by combing through articles tagged “hip-hop.”

But I digress. I think it’s probably a given that lists like this are subjective and imperfect, so I’ll stop explaining myself. I’ve enjoyed using this exercise to examine my own proclivities, and I hope it can also encourage others to seek out lesser-known Chicago acts whose music helps make the city’s hip-hop scene so fascinating and rewarding.

Charlie Curtis-Beard, Childish
Charlie Curtis-Beard grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, but he values the same sort of communal spirit that’s so important in Chicago’s hip-hop scene. In high school he competed in Nebraska’s iteration of the Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam, and as a senior he won the “Spirit of the Slam” award. In an interview with Nebraska’s NPR affiliate, he described the long-running poetry program with a warmth that you’ll recognize if you’ve ever heard its Chicago participants talk about it: “This community is nothing but love and accepting people.” Curtis-Beard moved here to attend Columbia College, and his first full-length, May’s Childish, feels like part of the tapestry of Chicago hip-hop. I enjoy the album’s youthful euphoria and strong soul influence, but its best qualities mirror what Curtis-Beard cherished about Louder Than a Bomb—specifically the self-love and acceptance with which he addresses his own stumble toward adulthood. Playful and self-deprecating, he can make even his occasional clumsy line feel endearing.
DGainz, Oddball
When I spoke with DGainz a couple months ago for my show on Red Bull Music Academy Radio, the rapper, producer, engineer, and videographer said he’d decided to call his album Oddball because that’s how he feels about his unusual position in Chicago hip-hop. DGainz is one of the great unheralded players in the local scene—not just because he made Chief Keef’s first video, having correctly predicted that putting the young rapper in front of a camera would do wonders, but because he’s also made some of the biggest videos for the likes of Lil Durk, King Louie, and Tink. He’s taken a step back from the lens to focus on his own music, applying the golden ear that’s allowed him to recognize others’ talents. Oddball is stuffed with bubbly melodies that can sink into your brain and stick there.
I.L Will, Pill Will
All three members of west-side rap group M.I.C—Lil Chris, Mikey Dollaz, and I.L Will—dropped underappreciated mixtapes this year. Dollaz got a leg up because his Picture Me Rollin features contributions from Atlanta hit maker Sonny Digital and genre-agnostic producers Salve and Obey City, which no doubt brought in more listeners. I.L Will’s September mixtape has only a few guests, and the producers aren’t even named on the sites streaming it. Listen to Pill Will, though, and you’ll understand why people might stay out of his way—and why he’s so comfortable carrying his music himself. Right from the opening bars of the opening track—the thumping, horn-sampling “All the Way Up”—I.L Will tears through beats with a singular determination, pushing himself with unrelenting energy even when he smoothes out his burred vocals with Auto-Tune.
Lucci Vee, Killer Season
Last year Lucci Vee teamed up with Chicago rappers Sasha Go Hard, Katie Got Bandz, and Chella H to form Women With Attitudes, aka W.W.A (an obvious homage to N.W.A). Of the four, Lucci Vee has garnered the fewest accolades for her solo work—and judging by her performances on Killer Season, people need to catch up. The mixtape’s heavy, ominous tracks are filled with hovering synths, bass that sticks to your ribs, and percussion that leaves a coppery aftertaste, but her ferocious, staccato delivery often hits even harder than the production. Lucci Vee can rap with stern rigidity or loosen up and swing—my favorite song on Killer Season, “Who Lookin’,” shifts gears busily between the two.
White Gzus, Stackin N Mackin Vol. 4
White Gzus, the duo of Treated Crew rappers Blanco Caine and Gzus Piece, established their chemistry with the first volume of Stackin N Mackin in 2014, and by the time number four came out this year, making music as a unit was second nature to them. After just a couple years together, they’re producing slow-pulsing, sun-beaten rap so reliably it’s easy to take them for granted—one drawback of belonging to a scene crowded with interesting artists. White Gzus show up to do what I’ve come to expect them to do on Vol. 4, clearly having fun with their work and their friendship—on “Jus Ballin” they play off each other with the kind of energy that could fuel an entire full-length. Wisely, they don’t try to do that on every track, instead letting each one smolder with its own distinctive swagger.
Honorable Mentions:
Bruce Bayne, Civilian
Esohel, Nacho Unusual
Meech, Saints
Ohana Bam, Orientation
Phil G, Revival