Lil Durk Has Reached Greatness in His Second Act
Lil Durk has been on a phenomenal run lately, reaching new heights of mainstream relevance on his own terms. Here's how he's dominated in his second act.
Image via YouTube/Lil Durk
Rap newcomer Pooh Shiesty’s breakout single, “Back In Blood,” is currently No. 17 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, and rising. It’s a hit record by every metric. Some of that popularity can be attributed to Lil Durk, who appears on the piano-laden production and delivers one of the most-quoted rap lines of the year thus far, “Pooh Shiesty, that’s my dawg, but Pooh, you know I’m really shiesty.”
A lively crowd full of people shouting the lyric at a recent Pooh Shiesty concert has been circulating social media. And Roddy Ricch even returned to Twitter after a month-long hiatus to share the line with his 2.8 million followers. He’s far from the only one.
Over the last 24 months, crafty lyrics and standout lines have assisted in reinvigorating excitement around the Chicago rapper. He’s been a consistent moment-maker, popping up alongside Drake and Future, Lil Baby and Gunna, Young Thug and Roddy Ricch, Rod Wave, and Megan Thee Stallion.
Reaching the Billboard charts with each new release and becoming a go-to guest feature are among the signs that Lil Durk, born Durk Banks, has entered Act 2 of his rap career. He’s catching a second wind after 10 years in the game. Following a decade of loss and lessons, he’s maintained a kind of longevity that’s only available to the rappers who work harder than their troubles.
Durk has had troubles—with the law, labels, and the death of family and friends. So when he says, “Been rapping since 2010, whoever thought I would win?” on the Lil Baby-assisted “Finesse Out The Gang Way,” found on the deluxe edition of his sixth studio album, The Voice, it’s a sincere question. However sincere, though, the question was never would, but when?
Fans of the OTF rapper each have a song, mixtape, or album they thought would bring the breakthrough. His 2013 breakout single, “Dis Ain’t What U Want,” an iconic record that has been dubbed one of the Songs That Define Chicago Drill, gave him momentum and the backing of a major label, but the former Def Jam Records signee spent five years teetering between crossing over and missing the mark.
Even with a 2014 XXL Freshman nod, two RIAA-certified gold singles (“Like Me” featuring Jeremih and “My Beyoncé” featuring Dej Loaf) and well-received debut and sophomore albums (2015’s Remember My Name and 2016’s Lil Durk 2X), that middle passage is where he remained after parting ways with Def Jam.
Chicago drill was not as hot of a commodity as it once was by the end of his time with the label in 2018. The artists from that era were respected as pivotal game-changers for a new generation, but no longer moving mountains in the mainstream. This wasn’t a detriment to Durk, however, as he began to pivot away from the sound of high-octane bangers like “L’s Anthem” and “Tryna’ Tryna’.”
He still had the street sensibilities of Chicago drill, most apparent on his 2017 joint EPs with Chicago’s own Lil Reese and Detroit’s Tee Grizzley, but the four mixtapes he released that year, specifically Love Songs for the Streets and Signed to the Streets 2.5, began to lean more into a reflective stream of consciousness, seamless sing-song rapping, and Auto-Tune-coated love songs. Think “Handouts” and “Mood I’m In,” or “Make It Out” and “Pick Your Poison.”
“The streets want me, I’m signed to the street,” he raps on “Streets Want Me” off of Signed to the Streets 2.5, one of many references to how the streets chose him. All this music was for them, not the mainstream. These weren’t songs to crossover, but to build upon the concrete.
Flooding the streets happened concurrently with his 2017 move to Atlanta. Relocating to a city where the music scene was experiencing a renaissance of new talent brought him into the company of kindred spirits. Durk was rebuilding as Future was soaring, as Young Thug was rising, and as 21 Savage, YFN Lucci, Gunna, and Lil Baby were coming into prominence.
Surrounded by these artists, who share a melodic style rooted in true-to-life street rap, was a perfect setting for the Chicago-born rapper to transition into a new phase. The Atlanta scene embraced Durk as one of its own, giving him a home to become a silent trojan horse moving from feature to feature, mixtape to mixtape, album to album, collecting real estate and reverence.
The consistency helped to raise his profile. Think Future or Lil Wayne, two rappers who rebranded themselves as prolific workhorses, omnipresent feature killers, and deeply troubled casanovas.
Although freestyles haven’t been a huge part of his second act, one of the bigger moments that kept his momentum going between the 2017 mixtapes and his third studio album, Signed To The Streets 3, was the release of “No Auto Durk,” a freestyle over G Herbo’s “Never Cared.” For three minutes, Durk raps, no AutoTune on his vocals, with absolute ease. It’s not punchline heavy, but the bars are potent and the delivery is razor-sharp.
“New opp pack in the air, this gas or what? He’d still be alive right now, if you niggas ain’t gas him up,” he raps, an iconic line that led to the #NoAutoDurkChallenge. The music video has over 56 million views and still remains a highlight in the reintroduction of Lil Durk. No Auto is a brand that he’s working into his artistry. During the 2020 All-Star Weekend in Chicago, billboards were found across the city teasing a No Auto Durk album produced by Metro Boomin. Another tweet appeared in March of 2020, after Durk was featured on Lil Uzi Vert’s “No Auto,” off the Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World 2 album.
Signed To The Streets 3, which is promoted at the end of “No Auto Durk,” is the first album released after he joined Alamo/Interscope Records, the final piece for Durk’s career restart. Not only was it a new label, but one that understood his fanbase—a growing audience who loves him as a truth-teller. A street poet. Their voice. Throughout 2018 and 2019, Durk fed them. Never taking his foot off the gas.
At the same time, his young protégé King Von was also building buzz. His late 2018 single, “Crazy Story,” proved him to be a compelling storyteller who could stand in the spotlight as the next star from the OTF camp. All the energy around them was elevation. Even when they were arrested for the 2019 attempted murder case in Atlanta, dire times brought more eyes to them.
Within this tornado of trauma and transcendence, the music only got better. The 2020 release of Durk’s Just Cause Y’all Waited 2, his first album to debut at No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100, was a sign of growth. It was an indication that not only was the music resonating, but also the relationship between artist and audience was at its strongest yet. Although the Lil Baby and Polo G-assisted “3 Headed Goat” was the signature single off the album, a platinum record that peaked at No.43 on Billboard’s Hot 200, “Viral Moment,” stood out as the mission statement of Durk’s second act, showing what it meant to be “The Voice.”
“When you say you the voice, you gotta, like, open up, like
Tell motherfuckers, like, what it is, like, you can’t hold nothin’ back.
You gotta relate to them, relate to the poverty, you know what I’m sayin’?
Relate to the trenches.”― Lil Durk (“Viral Moment”)
Nina Simone believed the artist’s duty was to reflect the times, and Chicago’s Drill music is rooted in that ethos. It’s an examination of the artists’ surroundings. Chief Keef, one of the great Drill innovators, told Complex in 2012: “I don’t sit down and ‘think,’ I write about what’s going on right now, what we just did, what just happened.”
The Voice, Durk’s second LP of 2020, which also peaked at No. 2 on the US Billboard 200, is a true representation of this idea of grasping at reality and shaping a song out of experiences and memories, thoughts and feelings. There are some shiner moments, aggressive bangers, and the love songs that Durk is known for, but mostly, The Voice has the intimacy of hearing a friend pour out his soul.
“I talk about my past with the melody,” he says on “Not The Same,” a sentiment that captures the spirit of the whole album. If Durk was a journalist, every song would be a personal essay. Pitchfork critic Dean Van Nguyen wrote in his review of Just Cause Y’all Waited 2 that, although Durk wasn’t the most famous voice to emerge from Chicago, he’s probably the most detailed. “He walks the line between reporter and preacher, gangster, and citizen.”
That walk has only increased the size of his fanbase. They come to his songs for an update on the purist writer in rap. It’s also why he’s the one who is called to be on these features. Even his peers are aware that, not only is he a boxer who throws haymakers, but the crowd arrives to watch him. They want to see him box with the best and the up-and-comers, legends and veterans. Most recently, he added his charismatic flavor on the long awaited remixes for Coi Leray’s “No More Parties’’ and Young Thug and Chris Brown’s “Go Crazy,” which also features Future and Mulatto.
Oddly enough, stardom doesn’t always sound like success. In Durk’s case, the growth of his spotlight has only made him more honest about his past, present, and potential future. “They ask me where I’m going to be in 10 years, shit, I say the feds,” he raps on “Redman,” not the premonition you expect from the rapper, who, five months before The Voice was released, crushed his guest verse on Drake’s “Laugh Now Cry Later.” But with the passing of his protégé King Von, who The Voice honors, there’s as much to mourn as there is to celebrate.
The weight of loss adds a somberness to The Voice that casts a shade of gray across the album. The gut is where his raps come from. He recites lyrics based on trauma that’s been digested. It’s pure, uncut recollection. He’s a rapper who ruminates on not just the source of his scars, but their shape and size. He examines them how dentists study teeth—tracing the memories with words how kids in middle school trace pictures of Goku.
Some rappers focus on just the imagery, but leave out the feeling. Durk is all feeling. His songs sound like their titles. Simple. Straightforward. Ernest Hemingway would be in awe of his brevity.
“You have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously,” Hemingway stressed to his peer and fellow American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. “But when you get the damn hurt, use it-don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist.” That’s Durk, a faithful writer who doesn’t shy away from the pain or disappointments of his come-up.
On “Let Em Know” he talks about being low-balled for shows in Chicago and how he doesn’t like Christmas because his cousin Nuski, who was killed in 2015, was born on December 15th. It’s these little details that bring you closer to the person behind the microphone.
Fillers aren’t found on The Voice. Even the 12 new songs added to the deluxe, released five weeks after the original, feel like they were made to be heard together. All 28 tracks create a bridge between who Durk was and who he’s becoming. The rapper, the lover, the father, the inmate, and the survivor. He gives you his life through every dimension. Lyrics aren’t said in search of solace, but to further document experiences. The Voice is an album version of “Viral Moment,” showcasing Durk at his most honest, vulnerable, and focused.
Listening to The Voice is like walking on a tightrope to reach a place, but you aren’t sure if you’re heading to prison or paradise. The uncertainty gives the music gravity, but his melodic approach makes every song weightless. Take “Death Ain’t Easy,” a track that sounds like an open wound in song form, yet, it’s not painful to the ears. He’s able to share the struggles on his shoulders, without feeling like he’s forcing the listener to carry boulders. You don’t even flinch when he raps:
“Bitches stealin’ kids, they tryna take ‘em out my testicles/I was fuckin’ strippers, I was actin’ unprofessional/Lookin’ at my son and I tell him, “I’ma better you”/ And that shit we doin’, we get caught, we goin’ federal.”
Critics used to complain about his AutoTune, but “Death Ain’t Easy” shows how he found a texture that fits not only his voice, but the weight of his subject matter. He doesn’t just tell you death isn’t easy; he exudes the emotion. The earlier overemphasis of AutoTune gave him style, but it didn’t accentuate his substance. Now he’s able to balance both.
Durk’s debut mixtape, I’m a Hitta, will turn 10 years old in August. Let him be an example of how longevity is a path paved in endurance. He made himself the voice of the streets, and the streets listened. They supported. They’ve been with him through six albums and 12 mixtapes. They’ll be with him through the next decade as long as he remains their faithful communicator.
“The superstar in waiting” is how narrator Thomas Morton described him in the fourth episode of Noisey’s 2014 docuseries, Chiraq. I thought back to Morton’s description of Durk on Christmas Eve, the night he released The Voice. Meek Mill, 21 Savage, some of the staff from his label Alamo Records, and more than 1,000 others gathered in a welcome room on Clubhouse to commemorate the release and of Durk joining the app. The room went on for a few hours, led by Meek and Savage. They played their favorite Durk hits, sang his verses, and gave him flowers as a peer and friend.
Some quotes from the stage that night:
“We gotta make the numbers astronomical.”
“We need to see him chart on Billboard.”
“You can stream it, but purchase the whole thing on iTunes.”
“We’re supporting Durk all night.”
“Only eight rappers get this type of treatment, he’s one of them.”
It was a celebration fit for a beloved star, one who has arrived, no longer in waiting.