20 years ago, if I had said that any city other than New York was the “Mecca” of hip hip, I likely would’ve been immediately dismissed and possibly physically attacked. Today, in the seemingly boundless landscape of modern hip-hop music, Chicago feels more fit for the title than any other city, and it doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of slowing down.
While Chicago’s footprint in hip-hop dates back to the genre’s infancy in the 1980’s and 90’s, the city’s artistry has taken center stage in the late 2000’s and 2010’s. Given his stature in pop culture, It’s impossible to discuss the current state of Chicago hip-hop without first recognizing the Kanye in the room. Yeezy might be equal parts shocking and talented, but make no mistake about it: Kanye West is an essential character in modern music with one of the most influential and innovative discographies ever produced. A key figure in the growth of Chicago’s influence on an international scale, West consistently reaches into Chicago’s endless bag of talent to retrieve features and collaborations, doing his part in representing his hometown and supporting worthy talent. Across each album, you can find standout performances and writing credits from Chicago artists like Chance the Rapper, Lupe Fiasco, Chief Keef, Common, and more; each feature provides a unique sound and aesthetic while staying true to their Chi-City roots. Without diving too deep into full blown Kanye worship, it’s important to understand how pivotal his success has been to the Chicago hip-hop scene’s come up.
Today, the tight-knit group of leaders in Chicago hip-hop parallels Ernest Hemingway and his group of creative cohorts during the 1920’s in Paris. All hailing from the Southside of Chicago, Chance the Rapper, Noname, and Saba have been helping each other grow and setting the standard for modern hip-hop music for much of this decade. With rapping styles deeply rooted in spoken word poetry, these artists consistently offer thoughtful and technically impressive lyricism; traits that have come to define much of the current sound of Chicago hip-hop. Additionally, the songwriting ability and ear for production between these three is unmatched by the vast majority of relevant rappers and producers, setting Chicago hip-hop apart.
While it’s still relatively early in each of these rappers’ careers, their collective impact on the culture and undeniable artistic success up to this point reminds me of TDE’s rise to prominence in the early 2010’s. Like the members of TDE (Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock etc.), these tree artists have gotten more ambitious and focused with each project, indicating an extremely bright future for hip-hop in Chicago. With Chance, Saba, and Noname only starting to break into the mainstream, let’s take a look at what each artist has done and what you can look forward to.
Chance the Rapper
Even if you clicked on this article accidentally, and seeing Hamilton on Broadway is your lone brush with hip-hop, you’ve probably heard of Chance the Rapper. The de facto leader of Chicago hip-hop’s current generation, Chance has completely reinvented how to market yourself and succeed as an independent artist. With three critically acclaimed and commercially successful mixtapes in 10 Day, Acid Rap, and Coloring Book, the southside rapper has completely bypassed record labels and capitalized on his worth on the back of his irresistibly charismatic music. Chance is the first independent artist to win a grammy and was listed as one of TIME magazine’s top 100 most influential people of 2017 for his philanthropy in the Chicago community, specifically the public school system.
Musically, Chance has evolved from a jazzy and more traditional boom bap style on 10 Day, to a soulful and more abrasive tone on Acid Rap, to a blend of gospel, pop, and trap on Coloring Book; all without sacrificing substance or charisma. Admittedly, I find myself returning to Acid Rap and 10 Day more often than Coloring Book, but I can appreciate how well crafted and revolutionary that album was for hip-hop. Now two years removed from Coloring Book, expect a new Chance the Rapper album in the near future.
Discography: 10 Day, Acid Rap, Coloring Books
Track: Everybody’s Something
One of the most underrated artists out right now, Saba has quietly released two of the best hip-albums in the last three years, accruing a cult fanbase in the process. Saba’s albums, The Bucket List and Care For Me, show off his ability as a producer, with incredibly vibrant jazz and soul inspired instrumentals, and as a songwriter, with complex structures and well developed concepts. As a rapper, Saba is as infectiously charismatic as Chance and just as technically impressive. Saba’s lyrics have a tremendous amount of depth and his flows are mesmerizing, rounding him out as an extremely compelling and dynamic artist.
Saba may not have mainstream commercial success yet, but his fanbase has grown tremendously with each album and his body of work is stunning. Considering he’s only 24, Saba appears to have just gotten started. I highly recommend that you hop on this bandwagon early.
Discography: Bucket List, Care For Me
Formerly Noname Gypsy, Noname is one of the most substantive and technically proficient rappers today. Because she learned to rap in a slam poetry class that she took with Chance in high school, her verses are dizzying and intricately layered. Noname’s commercial debut, Telefone, is widely regarded as one of the best albums ever released by a female rapper; an accomplishment she repeated with her conceptual 2018 follow up, Room 25.
Like Chance and Saba, Noname has managed steady growth both commercially and artistically, indicating a similar trend of success moving forward. As long as Noname continues to evolve and push sonic boundaries, she’s an artist that demands attention.
Discography: Telefone, Room 25
Track: Diddy Bop
Beyond these three, obviously, Chicago’s filled with incredible rappers. To get a more complete perspective on just how incredible the hip-hop scene is, make sure to check out the following list of artists hailing from Chicago. I’ve already mentioned some of them and I’m sure you’ve already heard of a few, but I wanted to highlight some of the best acts to come out of the city.