Water represents knowledge and life force to south-side rapper Mick Jenkins. On his breakout 2014 mixtape, The Water[s], he glides through cerebral raps about the systemic oppression of black populations and the struggles that young people of color undergo to escape the traps society lays for them—even his knottiest, most complicated rhyming goes down easy, thanks to his magnetic personality, the resplendent soul-influenced instrumentals, and the concepts for water that flow through and unify it. Jenkins has been pigeonholed as a “conscious rapper”—he even predicted it on Water[s] cut “Dehydration”—and he’s clearly reluctant to accept such small-minded classification. On last year’s Wave[s] he pulled a 180, enlisting Kaytranada (among other hip, dance-friendly producers) to make relatively upbeat and carefree tracks. Jenkins, like water, is fluid.
Poke around the Instagram feed of Chicago rock band Twin Peaks and you’ll see glimpses of what it’s like to play guitar music in your early 20s today—artfully angled live photos, a selfie with a Minion, a video of singer-guitarist Clay Frankel delivering a diving elbow drop to singer-guitarist Cadien Lake James. Their recent Down in Heaven (Grand Jury), with its dreamy Zombies-like guitar tones and snarled Rolling Stones-style vocals, might sound like the work of older guys, but Twin Peaks wield those classic influences to explore the trials of being a young person in an era when it’s impossible to avoid yellow, semiliterate animated creatures that look vaguely like dicks.
Pop-rock outfit Whitney had a reputation before they played their first show: the band’s cofounders, guitarist Max Kakacek and singing drummer Julien Ehrlich, played in Smith Westerns till their breakup at the end of 2014, and Ehrlich had worked the kit in Portland indie-pop group Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Suffice it to say Whitney would’ve held on to much of their built-in fan base even if their first album, June’s Light Upon the Lake (Secretly Canadian), had struck a slew of bum notes—fortunately, there are none to be found. Pristine and serene, the record’s wistful, multilayered songs sound like classic rock and feel like a lazy afternoon. On “No Matter Where We Go” Ehrlich sings, “I wanna drive around / With you with the windows down,” and the band make it seem like the best possible way to spend your time.
BJ the Chicago Kid
R&B crooner Bryan James Sledge, aka BJ the Chicago Kid, is in demand by in-demand MCs—he’s recorded with the likes of Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, and Vic Mensa. On his own, he’s such a persuasively sensual singer that the Tribune ran an interview with him devoted entirely to silly questions about love and romance. (Sample: “You have a song called ‘Sex Is the Best Breakfast.’ Even better than a really good Greek omelet?”) He does what any good wooer wants to: capture your undivided attention. On his first album for Motown, February’s In My Mind, he seems able to mine any subject—even Sunday services—for metaphors that are equal parts tender and raunchy.
Circuit des Yeux
Circuit des Yeux mastermind Haley Fohr wears many hats in the local experimental scene, including a spangled red cowboy hat she’s donned to play a character named Jackie Lynn. For last month’s Jackie Lynn (Thrill Jockey), Fohr created an elaborate but deliberately sketchy back story for Lynn—born in Tennessee as lightning struck her mother’s belly, she supposedly ran a multimillion-dollar cocaine operation with her partner, Tom Strong, before they both disappeared last year. Jackie Lynn is credited to Lynn, but Apple Music has filed it under Circuit des Yeux—and at any rate Fohr’s unmistakably resonant vocals are a dead giveaway. The album departs from the ominous, atmospheric, slow-building noise of Circuit des Yeux, though, instead delivering its relatively straightforward, sun-beaten country melodies with a loungy lilt.
Golden-voiced R&B star Jeremih has a way of coming out of a bad situation on top. His third full-length, Late Nights: The Album (Def Jam), should’ve been released in summer 2014, when his DJ Mustard-produced hit “Don’t Tell ‘Em” was still hot. Even though his label bungled the release, quietly pushing out the record last December, Late Nights has gone gold and stayed on the Billboard 200 ever since. J. Cole sticks his foot in his mouth during his guest spot on “Planez,” but that hasn’t been enough to drag the album down—Jeremih’s effervescent cool keeps it in the air.
Footwork started with Kavain Space, aka RP Boo (it stands for “Record Player Boo”). He juggled dancing and DJing in the 90s, developing Chicago’s futuristic mutation of house music—he accelerated the evolution (and the tempos) of ghetto house and juke in order to build a style suited to dancers keen on battling. He remained underground for years, even as footwork took off. When one of his thumping tracks got especially popular in Europe in 2003, it didn’t help his profile—because he claims it was released under someone else’s name. (DJ Slugo allegedly stole the song and released it as “Godzilla”; Boo had only previously pressed a few white-label copies under the title “11-47-99.”) Even before Boo finally dropped his first full-length in 2013, his contemporaries (including DJs Rashad and Spinn) were helping get him the credit he was due. Planet Mu has issued both of his two proper studio albums, including last year’s fiercely nasty and gratifying Fingers, Bank Pads & Shoe Prints.
Jerrilynn Patton, aka producer Jlin, lives in Gary, Indiana, but Chicago is very much a spiritual home for her. It’s the birthplace of footwork music—her specialty—and it’s where many of her mentors and peers reside. Jlin knows how to make the hyperfast dance style seem to levitate, and she pays homage to its history even as she pushes it forward. On last fall’s Free Fall EP (Planet Mu), she builds on the legacy of her friend and fellow Pitchfork performer RP Boo, reimagining his “Godzilla” as “Buzilla” (and using a vocal sample that mentions Boo’s name). She distorts the stuttering bass of the original like it’s being fried with high-voltage wires and fuses it to a knobby, stumbling percussion pattern that sounds like bricks slamming around in a dryer—even when it hits at odd angles, it thumps hard as hell.
The members of Homme, Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart, have been part of Chicago’s music scene from a young age. Cunningham hired producer Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Iron & Wine) to produce her first EP, 2006’s Squeeze, when she was 15; Stewart cofounded genre-melding group Kids These Days in her midteens. Cunningham and Stewart formed Homme in 2014, and in their short time together they’ve established a fluid style that combines warm, melodic songwriting and experimental flourishes. On a self-titled EP they self-released in 2015, Homme give assured performances that demonstrate an intuitive sense of how to touch their listeners’ hearts. On “Fingerprints” they alternate between brooding rock riffs and feathery folk melodies, and on the hook Cunningham and Stewart sing volleying vocals that sound like synthetic birdcalls—strange twists that make the tune even more captivating. v