More and more big artists are reaching out to the region's young hip-hop movement. But is it a good thing?
Written by David Drake (@somanyshrimp)
The release of Lil Reese’s “Us” remix, with guest verses from Rick Ross and Drake, is a major accomplishment for a rapper who not one year ago was rapping with terse desperation in producer DJ Kenn's apartment about friends of his who were murdered.
Reese is a distinctive rapper. Even if he lacks the effortless charisma and musicality of Keef, the urgency of Durk, or the lyricism of King L, his Don’t Like mixtape from earlier this year found the rapper punching above his weight class.
Drill music’s vitality as a whole is rooted in the spirit of collaboration.
The strength of Don't Like originated in the sense that it came from a collective of artists working in congress. In fact, drill music’s vitality as a whole is rooted in the spirit of collaboration—the sense that a scene with similar mentalities and influences had clearly shaped the sound of the music, making it a distinct phenomenon. The "Us" remix, much like Kanye West's "I Don't Like" remix which came before it, feels like a lateral move—smart from a business perspective, and no doubt a validation for Chicago's artists, but ultimately, not all that interesting for listeners.
Producer/videographer DGainz, who was behind the "I Don't Like" video, sees that kind of collaboration as an important part of the scene's success: "As much as people like to see people get into it [with each other], they like unity more. Young dudes came in and made a statement and they stuck together. People respect loyalty," he says.
"Traffic,” an obvious highlight from Don’t Like is as much about the restrain of Chop’s lightly shifting production, Keef and Reese’s on-screen chemistry, and Keef’s “Maxima…/...Dracula” verse as it is Reese’s performance.
Similarly, “Beef,” perhaps Don't Like's best song, is so strong because each artist knows their role. Chop’s production is at its most apocalyptic. Reese’s verse goes first; as usual, little of his personality leaks out, his voice a taught, exposed nerve. Lil Durk’s verse transforms its harder lyrics with subtle melodicism. But it’s Fredo Santana—the least technique-oriented in the clique—who best epitomizes the cold heart of the song’s concrete edges. It’s his anti-rap style, the way he anti-rhymes “duckin’ police” with “run up on you with that fuckin’ pipe,” the way he threatens enemies: “Lil Durk know where he stay/He’ll be dead by the next day.” It’s where the song’s spirit lies, in its willingness to let unvarnished brutality trump deftness and dexterity.
There’s a strange disconnect when a millionaire pop star or two swoop in and lands a guest spot with an up-and-coming rapper whose national profile is considerably lower.
That doesn’t mean that Fredo’s scene-stealing spot on “Beef” could carry through for a full-length project, but it does suggest that the strength of this scene isn't in its individual talents or personalities, but the results of those talents pooled.
There’s a strange disconnect when a millionaire pop star or two swoop in and lands a guest spot with an up-and-coming rapper whose national profile is considerably lower. Obviously, the main reason for the "Us" remix is that Ross and Reese both fly under the Def Jam flag; Reese is an upstart with a new sound, and Ross is an established name with a wider fan base.
There’s an obvious advantage for both artists. For Reese, it increases awareness. For Ross, he gets to attach himself to a buzzed-about scene and hopefully the aura of unfiltered rough-edged regional rap rubs off on him. From Young Chop's rolling organs to Reese’s chorus, “Us” is one of the stronger songs on Don’t Like, but the musical synergy on the remix is minimal.
In the end, the “Us” remix seems like a smart business decision—if anything could propel the song into radio playlists, it’s a Ross and Drake remix—but the superstars don't add much.
But it’s still stronger than the “I Don’t Like" remix, which surfaced after some delay in early May of this year. Kanye’s remix, which did eventually overtake the original “I Don’t Like” video in total YouTube views, generated considerable headlines. It pushed Chief Keef even closer to the mainstream media spotlight, inspired Young Chop’s angry reaction after Kanye made alterations to the original beat, and inspired a behind-the-scenes video of Keef's recording process with a condescending sound-man. (Notice he even listens to “I Gave You Power” at the end of the clip, just so we know where he stands on the spectrum of lyrically-lyrical rap fans.)
If anything could propel the song into radio playlists, it’s a Ross and Drake remix—but the superstars don't add much.
The “I Don’t Like” remix is obviously one of the year’s most popular songs, but for fans of the original, Kanye’s elaborate alterations to the production, from its overwrought Barrington Levy-esque ragga yelps to the beat build-ups was a bit of a late-period-Elvis-in-Vegas maneuver.
What was once transcendent in its relentless simplicity, from the three-shot video to the ragged chiming melody, became a rococo composition, carefully plotted. It lost its visceral pull. Keef’s vocals, which are charged by the contradiction of being at once energetically projected yet without any affect, feel deadened next to the other guest verses. (It didn't help that the verse as-recorded didn't end up synced correctly to the beat, making Keef's verse seem not only obligatory but inept.)
At Grantland, Alex Pappademas called Kanye's decorative additions "classic underminer behavior"; Kanye, after all, isn't "just" a beatmaker, he's a pop songwriter, and even as he put a bigger spotlight on Keef, he had to reassert his own artistry.
This isn't to say that outsiders shouldn't collaborate with Chicago artists, just that the synergy might be better served between artists who have a genuine rapport. Waka Flocka and Bo Deal's "Murda" was a solid collaboration with Chief Keef that felt like something of a baton pass. Washington, D.C. rapper Fat Trel and his Slutty Boyz crew seem to operate on similar footing, in similar worlds; the mentality and style of their music matches. But when artists in the upper tier of stardom reach down to artists like Keef and Reese, it feels like its driven more by business than musical chemistry.
This isn't to say that outsiders shouldn't collaborate with Chicago artists, just that the synergy might be better served between artists who have a genuine rapport.
Young Chop recently announced that he's already collaborated with Drake on a new song. It would be foolish for a young producer not to jump at the chance to work with a superstar, but it seems evident that Chop's best work hasn't been with outside collaborators. Even though plenty of people credit Chop with the success of Keef's biggest songs, it seems like Keef has also brought the best out in Chop. Chop has worked with Gucci Mane, Big Sean, Mikkey Halsted, and others, but none of it has topped "I Don't Like," "3hunna" or "Rollin." Snippets like "Love Sosa" and "Hate Being Sober" suggest the duo's work together still has some of the same initial magic.
When Keef's buzz first started to reach a considerable pitch, Wiz Khalifa was asked about collaborating with the artist by HipHopDX: "I would hope so," he said, "But I like to do everything organically. I'm such a huge fan that I really don't want to spoil that."
The more outsiders interact with this movement, the wiser Wiz's perspective seems. There's certainly room for artists with a similar sensibility to work with Chicago's rappers as they emerge on the national stage, but for those of us trying to filter the wheat from the chaff in an increasingly flooded market, the notion that all collaborations are good for business is feeling more ridiculous by the day.