When I read year-end “best of” lists, I wonder if I’m living in a different world than the critics who write them. I love Kendrick Lamar as much as the next sentient being, but when I think back on the music of 2017, Damn doesn’t loom as large in my mind as it seems to in everyone else’s (at least judging by its appearance at or near the top of almost every list). I’m not going to pretend that my experience as a listener is universal (for one thing, it’s my job to listen to as much new music as I can), but neither is anyone’s—and that’s another reason I find most “best of” lists so frustrating. We all experience music differently, and often fall for albums because of where we live, who we are, or any of a million other factors that affect how we get information about the world.
To give you an example: I paid for a signed CD copy of Damn (yes, CD—I’m not made of money like you vinyl-buying scrubs), but I also bought an autographed CD of the E.C. Illa compilation Seeds, Stems & Gems LP, the final release from the retired underground Chicago hip-hop legend. When I look through year-end lists, I’m hoping to learn about things I missed or wouldn’t have discovered on my own. The music that touches us most deeply isn’t always what’s omnipresent. What if you listen to a record every day that nobody else cares about?
I’ve written an annual “best overlooked Chicago hip-hop” list for a few years now, not just to share music that resonates with me but also to remind myself of how much great material I’ve been unable to cover. Defining “overlooked” remains a challenge, partly because I’m convinced that so many great Chicago MCs not named Chance the Rapper don’t get their due. G Herbo’s Humble Beast is one of my favorite releases of 2017 in any genre, but it’d be ridiculous to pretend it’s overlooked, despite its absence from many “best of” lists—the album debuted at number 21 on the Billboard 200, and its creator is a household name (at least around these parts). Plus, I’ve already written about Herb and the album, and one rule I’ve set for myself says that any local hip-hop release I’ve mentioned either online or in print doesn’t count as “overlooked” for me. That’s not to say that I expect the general public to be aware that I wrote (for instance) a preview of a Sage, the 64th Wonder show at Beat Kitchen, but as much as I think Sage deserves more attention, I’m not going to forget my own criteria.
Beyond that, I basically chose releases that I like and think more people should know about. But at the last moment I decided not to include Milk, the debut album by local producer Icytwat, who largely goes unmentioned in discussions of Chicago hip-hop. But Icytwat isn’t unknown: he’s part of Divine Council, signed to Epic Records, whose other members all live in Richmond, Virginia. Icytwat produced the single “Decemba” from their Epic debut, 2016’s Council World, and last December the label released a remix of the track featuring a verse from Andre 3000. How many other local artists can say they’ve made a song with Three Stacks? How could I reasonably claim that the person who made that song is overlooked?
I write this not just to explain my decision-making process, but to demonstrate what a challenge it can be to whittle my list down to ten—the five “best” and five honorable mentions. If you’re eager to find new local hip-hop artists you don’t know, I hope this is a good starting place.
Backwood Jones, Aromatic
Nearly every think piece on Chicago hip-hop in the 2010s has applied the same narrative framework to the local scene: first drill exploded in 2012, and the following year Chance and pals tacked toward a more “thoughtful” musical and lyrical approach. It’s a recycled and artificial template that has very little room for artists who don’t fit neatly into either of those well-known movements. Among the most talented artists shortchanged by this oversimplified story is YP, making his full-length debut here under the name Backwood Jones. In 2012 he was the first of about a dozen local MCs to sign a major-label deal, but his limber rapping and swinging flow didn’t fit with what labels and listeners expected from new black musicians repping Chicago back then. On Aromatic he tells the tale of his success (such as it was) and shares the bitter feelings that come from being treated poorly by the same company that promised him the world—and that’s just part of what he covers in album opener “Dear Life,” which also includes lyrics addressing the death of his infant son. Jones/YP is a lucid storyteller and gifted rapper, and he knows how to use a subtle shift in tone to carry a great emotional weight.
Legit was one of the brightest stars in the 2008ighties collective, which rubbed elbows with other young hip-hop crews such as the Village and Save Money. From 2011 till early 2014 (when he dropped the EP Thief in the Night) he released music regularly, but he’s been quiet since then—his highest-profile appearance in years was a verse on Saba’s 2016 album Bucket List Project. Until last month, that is, when he put out Maudlin, a relaxed, sumptuously produced EP that draws from soul and jazz. The sauntering instrumentals seem to breathe easily, and sometimes Legit doesn’t enter with his vocals till 30 seconds into a three-minute song. He tries out multiple modes of performance across the EP: Auto-Tuned cooing on “Press ‘B,'” somber half-mumbling on “Come2DeathRowRecords,” and a mix of singing, slam-poetry declaiming, and rapid rapping on “An African American Werewolf in America.” Everything feels of a piece, despite this patchwork of approaches, because Legit’s friendly openness and understated vulnerability run through it all as a connecting thread.
Lulu Be, Lululand
Classick Studios has become one of the most important incubators in Chicago hip-hop, and not just because it’s the home base of future superstar Smino. Talented musicians also help run the operation, including studio manager Lulu Be, who just released her debut EP, Lululand. She can keep up a fierce, staccato flow with easy nonchalance, and she has a knack for choosing instrumentals whose icy, subterranean chill throws her raw rapping into even sharper relief. On “Rain Dance,” Lulu Be’s steady, assured vocals cut through a collage of hand-drum percussion, and as the layers of beats fall like a handful of jacks at unexpected intervals, she follows a path through them that she’s made for herself.
Malci, Do You Know Yourself
I like to imagine rapper-producer Malci tinkering with Do You Know Yourself in a dimly lit basement littered with power tools, sending enough racket up through the floorboards that his neighbors would imagine he was building a steam boiler by hand. His album is a little cacophonous, a lot curious, and altogether charming. Malci cuts up soul samples so that they butt up against each other at odd angles or enter at unexpected intervals, and he occasionally drops them like bombs, their volume pushed startlingly into the red. But no matter how noisy or aggressive Malci’s music gets, he lends every note a tender warmth, which he doubles down on in his rapping—even when he shouts, he still sounds affable.
Tony Cartel, Cosa Nostra II
Tony Cartel calls his sound “sophisticated trap,” and the songs on Cosa Nostra II sound worldly even when they focus on a single Chicago block. He’s got a swaggering delivery and a smooth voice that’s just weathered enough to persuade you that he’s seen some shit—both of which enliven his stories about building an empire by selling drugs. As a lyricist, he tweaks genre conventions about coke bricks and sudden wealth to give a familiar narrative an unfamiliar note of restraint and austerity. At his best, he’s so confident he makes it seem like he’s the only person who could’ve written a particular lyric, as he does in “Public” with the couplet “Chasing money like they running track / Turning dope into an acrobat.”
Jay Wood, Rain
Marcellis, Summer Cherries
Soule, The Care Package