Last week on WGN’s The Download, host Justin Kaufman asked local rapper William Dalton, aka the Boy Illinois, about what unites local MCs as Chicagoans. “I wouldn’t say it’s a sound per se—it’s a vibe and it’s a lingo,” Dalton said. He’s well-versed in the nuances that connect local rappers, despite the obvious sonic differences that make it tempting to sort them using specious categories—most notably the “Chief Keef vs. Chance the Rapper” duality that continues to dominate national discussion of the city’s scene.

Dalton’s Soundcloud reveals his role in linking artists who might not otherwise work together. Part of his most recent mixtape, DuSable, was produced by rap Renaissance man DGainz, who’s made videos for drill stars such as Chief Keef and King Louie but has also established himself as a rapper with an ear for pop songwriting. Dalton’s latest single, the slippery, dance-inflected “Downtown,” features east-sider YP, whose rapid-fire street raps earned him a major-label deal during the post-Keef signing rush in 2012—and who writes with an empathy that the public perception of drill couldn’t accommodate. And when Dalton appeared on The Download to talk about “Downtown,” he talked a little about his mentor, Lupe Fiasco—who as far as I know doesn’t have any other meaningful connection to either DGainz or YP.
Navarro, a local MC who used to go by Scheme, reflects the frustrations of rappers trying to forge their own distinctly Chicagoan identities in a media landscape dominated by a few big names: in his single “Hunger of Memory,” he raps, “It is hard to find your place / When you’re told you don’t belong, right in front of your face.”

But those lines are also about a much bigger issue—Navarro is facing down the bigotry, persecution, and other structural disadvantages that immigrants face in this country. Most of these problems existed before Trump became president, but his rise to power has intensified the legal and social assault on immigrants—not least because his own hateful rhetoric and xenophobic lies (as well as the blind eye he’s turned to attacks on the marginalized) have emboldened other racists both inside and outside the government. “Hunger of Memory” is Navarro’s personal response to this political moment, and he released it two weeks ago, when at least a thousand protestors convened at Union Park for the “Day Without Immigrants” rally.
On the Soundcloud page for the song, Navarro describes his family’s experience emigrating from Mexico. His father came to the U.S. first and worked on farms on his own. “He came in search of a dream,” Navarro writes. “Hoping to make a life for his wife (my mother) and his daughters (my sisters) back in Mexico. He eventually returned because he couldn’t do it without them and they all came back as a family.”

Navarro was born in Chicago, but that doesn’t protect him from the prejudice and hostility that Spanish speakers and immigrants encounter in many parts of the country. “So conflicted, feeling like a misfit / I was born here, but why the hell I feel so different,” he raps over solemn, minimal keys and sparse percussion. Navarro carries himself with pride, even when he discusses the way the challenges of assimilation can trap people like him in social limbo. His story is a crucial part of the city’s complex cultural ecosystem, and his voice helps open a space for those of us who don’t fit into the preexisting categories that define Chicagoans—regardless of whether or not they rap.

When it comes to fighting back against the expectations placed on local rappers, Taylor Bennett has an uphill battle to fight—Chance the Rapper, who’s shaped so many of the public’s ideas about current Chicago hip-hop, is his older brother. Even if he wanted to hide this fact, the press wouldn’t let him: when the 21-year-old came out on Twitter earlier this year, the Chicago Tribune ran the news with the headline, “Taylor Bennett, Chance the Rapper’s brother, reveals he is bisexual.” I’ve got a lot of feelings about this sort of toxic celebrity reporting—isn’t it hypocritical to deem a person’s tweet newsworthy but simultaneously signal that he’s only notable to you because of a famous relation?—and Taylor has held up well in the media shadow of his brother. He’s creating room for his own voice, not trying to give the public Chance 2.0.

On Taylor’s new EP, Restoration of an American Idol, Chance lends his star power, appearing alongside Jeremih on “Grown Up Fairy Tales.” Taylor also enlisted many other guests with varying levels of fame, including Atlanta lightning rod Lil Yachty, Mindless Behavior singer Princeton, and nerd-inspired rapper Kyle. But I prefer the tracks that Taylor has to himself, or maybe gets a little help on the hook—such as “Outro (Chi-Town Anthem).”
When he introduced the song during Friday’s EP-release party at JBTV, he called it an attempt to combine footwork and bop. Both are present in the song’s spirit: he and producer Ludlow borrow from footwork’s freneticism and bop’s euphoria. In his lyrics Taylor mentions both genres, rewrites the hook for BBU‘s “Chi Don’t Dance No More,” and gives love to his neighbors who try to find joy in the face of everyday violence. “Outro (Chi-Town Anthem)” doesn’t sound like footwork or bop, but it definitely sounds Chicagoan.