“What are your favorite overlooked Chicago hip-hop releases of 2015?” I posted that to Twitter as I listened through my own choices for the year, and the wide range of responses I got reminded me that my question isn’t as simple as it seems. Some folks named projects I’d considered well-loved and thoroughly covered, among them Sicko Mobb’s first mixtape of the year, Super Saiyan Vol. 2, which earned praise from Pitchfork. In the Reader, Gossip Wolf covered Super Saiyan Vol. 2 when it dropped in April, and I previewed Sicko Mobb’s Subterranean performance in May.
I realize my perspective is skewed because I make a point of covering local hip-hop. Chicago has a vibrant, bustling scene, but much of it goes unnoticed or underappreciated, even within the city. After King Louie was shot in the head last Wednesday, most local media outlets reduced his importance to “the guy who popularized the term ‘Chiraq,'” which made it difficult to explain to some people in his hometown why the national hip-hop community spent the day in a state of fevered worry on Louie’s behalf.
All of this is to say that the task of choosing the best overlooked releases of the year is a tricky one, not least because the definition of “overlooked” depends on who’s doing the looking. For my purposes, I’ve eliminated anything we’ve covered in the Reader in print or online (here’s a shortcut to much of our 2015 hip-hop coverage). I still think Ty Money’s Cinco de Money didn’t get nearly as much love as it should have, but because I wrote about him twice in print and twice online, he’s not making this list. My method is doubtless imperfect, but I can stand by all these picks.
God, The Gospel
In the spring Juicy J announced a partnership with this local rapper, though God didn’t sign a deal with Taylor Gang, the label co-owned by Juicy J. But the Memphis legend took a liking to God, and he served as executive producer of The Gospel. God brightens the dark corners of his street raps with a ferocious, irrepressible flow and intuitive grasp of melody, and music is in his blood—a couple months ago he told Fake Shore Drive that his father has been a member of Public Announcement, a long-standing R&B group that once included R. Kelly. The Gospel had hooked me by the time I heard God’s flow on “Block So Hot,” which sounds like a flip of Giftz and Tree’s rapping on 2012’s “Nino”—and then Juicy J shows up on a remix of “Broke.”
Shorty K, Staks Fifth Avenue 2
Shorty K, leader of Jefe Cartel and a member of Sir Michael Rocks’s Toothpick Clique, dropped the first Staks Fifth Avenue mixtape in 2012, but its sequel didn’t come out till March. He displays his versatility throughout Staks Fifth Avenue 2, taking on a coiled-spring flow on the sweltering “Dont Make Me” and a sensual purr on “Exotic Interlude.” Shorty K reprises that tune as “Exotic” on October’s Staks Fifth Avenue 3, which is also worth a spin.
Ric Wilson, The Sun Was Out
Upstart MC Ric Wilson opens this EP with a track that samples an album by jazz drummer Willie Jones III—it includes the same snippet of trumpet melody that Kendrick Lamar raps over on “Rigamortus,” off 2011’s Section.80. But despite the familiarity of the sound, Wilson comes across as entirely himself thanks to a flow that shifts from strictly regimented to loose and acrobatic. The 20-year-old juggles slippery dance and sleepy soul, and he slips plenty of personable, politically conscious lyrics into his alternately glossy and chilled-out music. On “Lost Soul” Wilson raps, “We live in a world where we gotta say black lives matter / And then in return they be tellin’ us dog lives matter.”
Angel Davanport, Free Pussy
Davanport, a member of Psalm One’s Rapper Chicks collective, sets the mood lighting to “low” on this five-song EP. Her voice injects plenty of color into slow-moving, R&B-inflected instrumentals, pivoting from inviting croons to staccato raps without breaking the music’s spell. On “Caesar” she mourns a broken relationship, but hopes that in time the two of them will remember only the better moments: “I want the photos to always depict the memories.”
Montana of 300 & Talley of 300, Gunz N Roses
Gunz N Roses is on this list largely because of timing. Had the album dropped before December, it probably would’ve showed up on plenty of year-end lists (Passion of the Weiss contributor Torii MacAdams shares this sentiment). Ever since FGE leader Montana of 300 dropped Cursed With a Blessing last December, he’s seemed increasingly ubiquitous: collaborating with Fetty Wap, hanging with Kanye West, playing an extra on hip-hop soap opera Empire. Montana of 300 and his FGE peers pull in big numbers—the collective’s “FGE Cypher” video has racked up more than a million views since it went online less than a month ago. Gunz N Roses demonstrates what makes Montana and company so great—I could go for a lot more street anthems as irresistible as “Mf’s Mad.”