October ended with a flurry of engrossing Chicago rap releases, in some cases separated by just a few hours. Last Wednesday night, Saba dropped Bucket List Project, which makes Chicago’s neglected west side feel as big as the rest of the city, and by the middle of Thursday it had landed in the top spot of the iTunes Store’s Hip-Hop/Rap chart. At midnight last Thursday, Air Credits (aka rapper ShowYouSuck and mashup mavens the Hood Internet) released the dystopian sci-fi opus Broadcasted. On Friday DJ Rude One’s Onederful, the local hip-hop veteran’s first album in 12 years, appeared on major streaming services and digital retailers. And that’s just a fraction of what came out last week, never mind the rest of the month. Washington Post pop critic Chris Richards recently made the case that this might be rap’s real golden age, and the output of the Chicago scene makes it hard to argue.

The variety and volume of quality Chicago hip-hop flooding the Web and the airwaves make it tough to succinctly describe what’s happening in this city—an especially acute problem ever since the meteoric ascent of drill nearly five years ago. Drill’s sound and image were so recognizable and so successful that any new Chicago rapper or producer trying to gain a foothold outside the city has had to tolerate rap writers framing them with the lens of drill—even Chance the Rapper. Not a week goes by when I couldn’t rewrite my piece from earlier this year about the off-base oversimplification of Chicago rap as “drill vs. Chance and friends” using a fresh batch of egregious examples.

When NPR premiered Saba’s “Church / Liquor Store” in mid-October, it led off with a lazy comparison before even articulating what makes Saba distinctive: “Unlike his drill-music counterparts Chief Keef and Lil Reese . . . ” A week later, Stereogum published an otherwise thoughtful love letter to raunchy south-side rapper Cupcakke, who self-released her ferocious Audacious last month, that declared her a product of “drill’s universe”—as though rapping hard and living on the south side are the only qualifications to be part of the drill world. Sure, Cupcakke went to elementary school with Chief Keef, but unless he started making music much earlier than anyone previously suspected, that’s just a bit of interesting trivia, not evidence of aesthetic influence. The universe with which Cupcakke’s animated, LGBT-friendly, sex-positive songs exist is called “Chicago hip-hop,” and if we allow idiosyncratic stars like her to shine with their own light, it’ll get easier to see the rest of the cosmos.
Among the recent bounty of local releases, two especially could help broaden peoples’ perception of what defines Chicago hip-hop—and what it can be. Footwork collective the Era, a dance crew who released their first “footwork mixtape” last Friday, don’t exactly consider what they do “rap.” As Jamal “Litebulb” Oliver told me this summer, the Era like to call what they do “footworking with words.” The fast, ever-changing instrumentals on In the Wurkz are straight from the world of footwork, mostly made by members of peerless production collective Teklife: DJ Manny, DJ Taye, DJ Earl, DJ Spinn, and others. This is the kind of hard-hitting music the Era would play while battling other dancers—tracks that carry the history of a sound that mutated out of house.
As the members of the Era have gravitated toward rapping over the past year, figuring out how to translate their gift for dancing into dropping bars, they’ve brought the history of their subculture to the fore. In the Wurkz is filled with lines about the feeling of entering a circle to battle, while an entire crowd is locked in on your moves—that rush comes across in, say, Chief Manny’s excited double-time rapping on “Burning N****z.” The guys in the Era can talk your ear off about the history and culture of footwork dancing, and they preserve the excitement they feel for their craft in song.

When I went to a listening session for In the Wurkz at Jugrnaut in September, Litebulb told me how he listened to Schoolboy Q’s Blank Face while working on the Era’s debut. It’s one of many examples of how seemingly parallel tracks can cross—in this case, a Los Angeles rapper signed to TDE and a fiercely independent Chicago footwork dance collective. I’m reminded of when I sat down with Saba to talk about the west side for my Reader feature, and one name in particular came up: Lud Foe. At the time the sinister street rapper had the top three most “distinctively popular” songs on Spotify (though he’s since been unseated by Steve Goodman’s “Go Cubs Go”).

Saba and Lud Foe both come from the west side, but their careers don’t intersect—nor do their sounds. But Lud Foe’s music is as much a part of the air here as Saba’s, and less than 24 hours after Bucket List Project came out, he dropped his debut, No Hooks. Lud Foe’s grim, nonchalant swagger can get exhausting over the course of the lengthy mixtape, but when his shifting flow caroms off a chattering beat, the tracks can seriously swing. Toward the end of the surging, ferocious “A Lot of This,” he speedily delivers details about growing up with few opportunities and resources—subsisting on ramen, cuffing the pants of his jeans as a kid because they were too long, dreaming of “making it” in the face of rejection.

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Much of the rest of “A Lot of This” is mired in the ugly details of street rap (selling drugs, clashing with cops), but by delving into his upbringing Lud Foe enriches an already outstanding track—he shows his heart, and it gives the tune a pulse. I’m sure someone will eventually slap the “drill” tag on Lud Foe because he raps about gangs, guns, and violence, but his sound and approach have little in common with drill. A track like “A Lot of This” shows how Chicago rappers can find new ways to touch on familiar themes.