In the last few years weve had a regional struggle for dominance in Hip-Hop, with traditional powerhouses like New York and Los Angeles ceding ground to newer hotspots like Houston and Atlanta for both attention and sales. As rappers have aged, retired, gotten locked up, or fallen off, we have seen a shift in the market as newer hungrier rappers emerged. Lost in the rubble has been the middle. The Chi-city, which hasnt made a push for grandiose assertions, but which has arguably submitted the last three heavily critically acclaimed albums, Commons Be, Kanyes Late Registration, and Lupe Fiascos Food & Liquor might have a valid claim as the present Mecca.
Chicago is a peculiar mixture of small town Middle American mentality combined with the aesthetics and physicality of a metropolis. Its current musical offerings reflect this combination as its almost a combination of the best genes of each regions musicality. The East Coasts lyricism, the West Coasts melody, and the Souths hunger and devil may care attitude. Without the attention and hubris, at least stylistically, Chicago may be the Capital of Hip-Hop right now.
Perhaps more known for flashes of brilliance, such as Twistas Adrenaline Rush or Commons Resurrection, the current Chicago movement has churned out a steady stream of consistent, high-quality releases.
The year was 2004. Common had gone too far left and almost ended up off the map. Twista was lost in label drama. Kanye struck the first blow for Chi-town supremacy with The College Dropout.
The College Dropout came at a point where the general tone of Hip-Hop was aggressive and angry. Ye changed the pace up and offered a non-preachy, yet message-laden tone. For the first time in ages the middle was represented and the fringe of the right and the left could feel it. The album was not only devoid of tough talk but also of high horse morality in a way that endeared many people the way Tupac did: with its acceptance of sinner status while trying to improve its lot. Dropout was just so different, from what was available, that you had to listen. It was declared the album of the year and sold well enough to present an alternative route that would prove to be the cornerstone of the movement. It gave Kanye an artistic credibility that solely producing couldnt accomplish.
Kanyes success bled into Twistas, as they shared two singles both powered by Wests production: Slow Jamz, featuring Jamie Fox and Ye on the mic, and Overnight Celebrity. Fueled by those two successes, Twistas Kamikaze also went platinum, and satisfied the hardcore Chi-town aesthetic: hard rhymes backed by beats that bumped. Two polar opposite albums led to the same results: critical acclaim and platinum status.
Common, widely considered one of the best rappers ever, had lost his way. In an experiment gone awry, Electric Circus had taken his career to the verge of extinction. A highly publicized breakup with voodoo-coochied Badu, a stylistic turn from denim to crocheted pants and sweaters, and a change from traditional boom-bap, had alienated all but his staunchest supporters.
Dont call it a comeback. Common, with the help of Kanye retreated into himself and returned with the aptly-titled Be. The 2005 release was short and sweet, featuring a more focused Common, bringing him back to center, garnering stronger sales, and putting him back in the limelight. Be led off with the single The Corner which featured the venerable Last Poets, and appropriately put Commons name back on the block. Houston legend Scarface, and underground hero Mos Def hopped on the remix and let the hood know that the circus was over. The album was widely viewed in many circles as an instant classic, and Common moved 800,000 units. Critical acclaim and commercial viability. Three in a row for the Go.
Unsatisfied with his debut albums award show showing, and unwilling to slump like a sophomore, West took the music up a notch, bringing on film composer Jon Brion to bring amore musical approach to Hip-Hop album making. Late Registration featured a ensemble cast of heavyweights including TI, Game, and features with both Nas AND Jay-z, who had not yet squashed their feud. The album was a step up musically and lyrically for West, and received the only 5 star rating from rolling stone in 2005, as well as the Grammy nod for Rap Album of the Year. More pertinent to this piece however was the guest spot by Chicagos own Lupe Fiasco on Touch the Sky.
According to urban legend the original version of Diamonds Are Forever premiered on Chicago radio. Initially it referred merely to Roc-A-Fella records. Lupe Fiasco, who had been all but anointed by many as the next chosen one heard the beat and remade the song to one commenting on the issues of conflict diamonds. Apparently this song hit the streets and got back to Kanye who promptly changed his song up for the remix with Jay-z. Lupes people were upset and in an attempt to squash it before it became an untenable situation, Ye saved a spot for him on Late Registration.
After years of mixtapes, underground acclaim, flashes of attention and props from guys like Jigga, that guest on Late Registration was all Lupe needed to get some traction. Possessed with phenomenal word play, true to the heart lyrics, and a down to earth sensibility, Lupes Food & Liquor was critically lauded and sold well despite consecutive early leaks. Heralded as the future of Hip-Hop by people like Pharell, West, and Jay, Lupe made his mark and released an album that would make any Hip-Hopper proud.
Also in 2006, Underground terror Vakill released Worst Fears Confirmed. No Kanye on this one, but Vakill and his production team, the Molemen, brought the terror back to the music. Released in the midst of Laffy Taffies and many dance-fueled albums, Fears was constructed to put the chill in your spine. With cuts like Cold War and No Mercy, gritty narratives were in abundance along with shrill production. The underground was properly represented in a no frills format. For those of you hustlers, thats four corners of the Hip-Hop aesthetic: The mainstream(Dropout, Registration), the conscious(Be), the backpackers/underground(F&L, Worst Fears), and the streets (Kamikaze). Whats fu***in with that?
In closing, there is room in Hip-Hop for everybody to have their turn. We go through cycles, we ebb and flow, and the face and flavor change regularly. Every dog has its day but Chicago is not barking about it. They are just tearing everything to shreds. They are not bigging up their movement but whistling while they work, steady putting out high quality releases that we can bump and support, while also providing food for thought and beats to bump. However you want it, they got it covered right now. With Finding Forever, Graduation, The Cool, and Adrenaline Rush 2007 coming up, the saga continues. Your worst fears are confirmed, Chicago rules the world!