Amid the wall-to-wall media coverage of Kanye West’s promotional events for Donda in August, you could be forgiven for imagining that the only notable new Chicago hip-hop release had come from a billionaire who hired crews to rebuild his childhood home in the middle of Soldier Field. That’s far from the case, of course, though more and more great music has slipped through the cracks due to the dwindling of resources dedicated to covering Chicago hip-hop on a grassroots level—or really on any level below “international star.” To pick just one example, I would’ve loved to read more coverage of Queen Key’s Your Highness 3 when it dropped in early August. 

For this roundup, I picked a handful of recent and upcoming Chicago hip-hop releases, knowing full well I wouldn’t be able to get to everything I considered deserving. As I finished, Semiratruth dropped a terrific shot of underground hip-hop called I GOT BANDZ FOR THE MOONLANDIN’. But even though I can’t be exhaustive or even definitive, I hope I can give you enough of a window into the great new tracks and on-the-ground movements in Chicago hip-hop to inspire you to keep searching on your own.

DaWeirdo, Lillie (Daweirdo. Inc.)

It’s hard to tell if Darrel McKinney chooses to focus on the structural inequality, poverty, and violence that have torn apart his native Englewood, or if the pain he’s witnessed won’t let him look away. As DaWeirdo, McKinney navigates the trauma and grief caused by the violence this country perpetrates against its Black people, a grueling task he approaches with heart and nuance. On the new Lillie, he enlivens his dour songs with an eye for detail, a shape-shifting flow, and animated delivery. He sometimes seems possessed by the sorrow he describes, so that loss contorts his words in the middle of a line—and at those moments, his voice carries such piercing tension that it drives his point home. On “The Last Party,” McKinney expands the hook for Biggie’s “Party and Bullshit” into a discursive portrait of a neighborhood confronting a cruel, neglectful world by creating its own joy.

Rita J, The High Priestess (Neak Imprints/2nd Life/Gold Standard Collective)

On The High Priestess, Rita J commands a powerfully casual cool. Her verses gracefully slide across its resplendent, soul-influenced songs, a combination that clearly required a lot of effort to get just right—but the music all feels as leisurely as an afternoon stroll. Rita has been putting out albums since 2009, when she issued her full-length debut through the label run by underground hip-hop collective All Natural. Since then, she’s grown into the role of hip-hop veteran while keeping a foot in the city’s underground scene—her main collaborator these days is long-grinding rapper-producer Neak of the recently formed Gold Standard Collective. Rita carries The High Priestess with her vision, unloading verses about Black pride and history with an elegant poise that demonstrates her affection for every aspect of hip-hop. Her luxurious take on the genre evokes its breadth and depth while leaving room for a little boom-bap grind, as a treat. She honors the past without letting it weigh her down, and saunters through her latest album with the vigor of a newcomer.

Aakeem Eshú, Whatever It Is, It Will Be (self-released)

An experimental streak runs through Aakeem Eshú’s EP Whatever It Is, It Will Be, and even before its release the rapper liked to mix things up. Last year he dropped a couple collaborative albums with two very different artists: Twoblk Worldwide with tenderhearted MC Freddie Old Soul and Black Dobson with footwork producer and Teklife member DJ Earl. In June Eshú released Betrayal & Liberation 2, which takes a loose but in-the-pocket approach to sample-based hip-hop, like a river not quite overflowing its banks—but next to Whatever It Is, it sounds conventional. Throughout the EP’s dramatic shifts in style, mood, and metabolism, Eshú nonchalantly maintains his husky, lilting delivery, often using his voice to add new textures to the instrumentals; his rapid raps contrast with the humid, indolent R&B of “IDGAF,” and his serrated verses sound almost buttery atop the morose, blown-out beat of “30 Pack.” The EP feels a little jumbled, but Eshú has the determination and adaptability to pull its varied songs together.

defprez, Sunday Sessions (Filthē Analects)

CRASHprez and Defcee don’t have to tell you they’re friends—their partnership as defprez succeeds because they clearly care for each other as people as well as respecting each other as rappers. They expertly share the mike on the new Sunday Sessions, feeding off the blissfully imperfect beats of producer knowsthetime—he cross-stitches loose drums with refined bass lines, suave keys, and samples that sound like vinyl damaged by water, mold, dirt, or all three. CRASHprez raps in staccato bursts, sharpening the end of each line to put a sting in it, while Defcee chews on his lyrics so you can hear the meat on each syllable. Both MCs rap with a carefree air, even when they sound like they’re trying to tear apart their verses letter by letter—it’s part of the fun of their cerebral underground hip-hop.

Pugs Atomz, Test Drive (600 Block)

Sterling Price, better known as Pugs Atomz, never seems satisfied by just one creative project. Test Drive, his full-length collaboration with Los Angeles producer Tusk57, arrives just a few weeks after the opening of “Mookie on the Southside,” a solo exhibition of Price’s visual art at Hyde Park’s Connect Gallery that runs through October 22. On Test Drive, Tusk57 helps direct his partner’s ambition with expansive, stylistically wide-ranging instrumentals that yearn to be played at top volume; Price doles out battle-ready rock-’em verses, occasionally easing up on the intensity to indulge in a little suave half-singing. Tusk57 might spike languid Spanish guitar with insistent, skeletal drums (“Test Drive”) or melt low-humming synths into a late-night blur (“Green Means Go!!”). Price invited a handful of guest MCs to polish these songs, and it’s a delight to hear him hold together a clattering track alongside sharp-toothed Chicago rapper Chris Crack and Wu-Tang affiliate Killah Priest.

Only the single version of Test Drive‘s title track was on Bandcamp at publication time.