So many local hip-hop artists have helped me see the city anew through their work that I doubt I could name them all. Chicago hip-hop followed up on a tremendous 2016 with a flood of great releases that helped me get through the lows of 2017: to pick just three, Joseph Chilliams’s cheeky and tender Henry Church, Cupcakke’s brash and ecstatic Queen Elizabitch, and G Herbo’s introspective and ferocious Humble Beast.
Depending on where you read the news and discover music, though, you might not have heard of any of these albums. Because Chance the Rapper is from Chicago, the glare of his celebrity has an especially deranging effect on local media. Not only does it draw attention away from his music (the reason he’s famous in the first place) and from the important causes he supports, it also starves the rest of the city’s scene of thoughtful coverage.
For the past few years I’ve kept track of the missteps I’ve noticed in the media’s treatment of Chicago hip-hop. In 2014 I talked with former Reader staffer Drew Hunt about Noisey’s myopic and shallow Chi-Raq videos, and I wrote a few blog posts about the press’s habit of framing Chicago hip-hop with a trumped-up binary that sets nihilistic drill artists as somehow in conflict with Chance and his crew and their positive vibes. Every new think piece that positions Chance and Chief Keef as polar opposites does further damage to an already corrupted critical discourse—one that could’ve instead provided Chicagoans with an enriching understanding of what’s happening in their own backyards.
The Chance-versus-Keef trope should’ve been obsolete in 2013, but the Chicago Tribune‘s William Lee flogged that dead horse when he compared the two rappers for the paper’s Lollapalooza preview package this summer. Not only does he call Keef a “bad boy” and Chance a “golden boy” (groan), he also suggests that the two of them grew up on different planets. Listening to these rappers’ music (and reading the credits) tells you a lot about how their social and professional circles overlap, but I doubt Lee bothered to do much of that. He only mentions a couple Keef songs, both from 2012, and creates a flattened-out picture of the emotive, wistful “Citgo” by quoting a couple lines about violence and ignoring the sound of the track—which is like removing all the verbs in a poem. Reading Lee’s story, I wondered if he’d listened to Keef’s R&B-flavored Thot Breaker mixtape, which had come out in June, or if he knew that Keef appears on the recent debut album by Vic Mensa (who goes way back with Chance). Did he know that one of the openers for Chance’s 2017 post-Grammy tour was King Louie, the drill rapper who popularized the term “Chiraq”?
In the case of Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, who wrote a commentary about Chance’s child-support case two days after he donated $1 million to the Chicago Public Schools in March, I don’t have to guess whether she did her research. She was happy when Chance won his Grammys, she wrote, even though she “hadn’t heard a single lyric the 23-year-old penned.” Mitchell’s column suggests that Chance would tarnish his squeaky-clean image if he gave his child and her mother a raw deal right after that extravagant gift to CPS. But Chance isn’t a cartoon goody two-shoes: on much of his best material, he paints himself as profoundly flawed. As it so happens, the case was resolved amicably a couple weeks later (both sides’ lawyers remarked on how speedy and civil the proceedings were), but that made Mitchell look even more like she was inventing a possible scandal for clicks. Chance isn’t above criticism—the music press pounced on him after news broke that his team had pressured MTV to spike a mildly negative piece—but this isn’t so much criticism as it is salacious speculation.
All year I’ve been returning to a New Yorker piece Alex Ross published in March, “The Fate of the Critic in the Clickbait Age,” to remind myself of how important it is for the country’s dwindling corps of arts writers to cover their beats well. The issues I’ve had with coverage of Chicago hip-hop are symptomatic of the understaffing and cuts that have afflicted all sorts of media for a decade or so—the people reporting on the city’s scene rarely have the time or opportunity to develop deep knowledge of the subject. We want the folks covering politics to have an intimate understanding of the mechanisms of government; why settle for less when it comes to hip-hop? v