Today, more than two years after the release of Chief Keef’s drill anthem “I Don’t Like,” Chicago’s hip-hop scene is more a talking point than a driving force. Its breakout stars (Keef, Lil Durk and Lil Reese, in particular) have either been unable to replicate their early commercial success, or are precluded from the possibility of doing so by restrictive contracts or stints in jail/rehab. Oddly enough, though, drill music (and the much-mythologized “Chiraq“) still captures the wider cultural imagination. Scene figures still pop up in larger artists’ features (see Lil Herb’s recent verse on Nicki Minaj’s “Chiraq,” Chief Keef alongside Bon Iver on Yeezus) and are fodder for tabloid news stories or exposes. However, the artists’ solo mixtapes and singles remain marginally popular — due partially to deteriorating (or bewildering) quality and anemic label support — and Chicago seems destined to be simply another niche regional scene.
But it’s important to note that drill music is simply one of many bullet points on the city’s hip-hop landscape. The success of exuberant, Kendrick-ian technician Chance the Rapper last year offered a hopeful glimpse of another part of the city. However, save the rising profile of his compadre and former Kidz These Days frontman Vic Mensa, Chance has remained mostly a stand-alone phenomenon outside of Chicago.
Chance and Mensa started as just two of the many faces of Save Money, a distinctly disorganized and wildly talented enclave of young rappers, producers and artists from various backgrounds. Operating on the outskirts of the group is Englewood MC Vic Spencer, who’s recorded several songs with Chance and got Mensa into the recording booth for the first time. He also frequently collaborates with the North Side-raised MC Tree, whose hoarse rhymes and innovative “soultrap” production style have made him an ongoing cult favorite. But Spencer did not appear on any of his colleagues’ breakout projects, and he remains largely unknown outside of Chicago.
Spencer is 32 — at least a decade over Save Money’s median age — and has been rapping since his late teens. His background in local ciphers is audible in his music; he allows sentences to lead him beyond kosher syllable counts, and his rhyme schemes shift faster than they can be isolated. Stylistically, Spencer’s material is also a cattle call of weird whims and contradictions. He offers up everything from street bangers to Stones Throw-like stoner anthems to richly autobiographical ballads. The rapper demonstrates an unquenchable thirst to advance his style and challenge himself — he doesn’t seem to care if his audience can keep up or not — energetically tackling unwieldy production that might be anathema to lesser rappers. For all the directions his beats and stories go, Spencer’s catalogue possesses a surprising unity thanks to his strong voice and distinctly chameleonic flow.
Because of this, almost any entry in Spencer’s large catalog provides a good starting point. His albums with the L.A.-via-Chicago rapper and Treated Crew corporal Sulaiman are impressive smoke-something music — the Midwest answer to Starlito and Don Trip’s Stepbrothers projects. Alternately, Spencer’s full-length from last year, The Rapping Bastard, is a darkly humorous concept album dominated by gothic, harshly buzzing synths and overdriven drum loops (think early Odd Future production). It’s a pronounced change in tone from earlier releases like 2012′s Walk Away Music — a boom-bappy project he did entirely with local soul-sample-minded producer Doc da Mindbenda — and the ethereal electronica of French producer IKAZ on Spence Ethic.
Spencer’s latest release, Vision Pipes, is a seven-track collaboration with TDE-affiliated producer Rocket, characterized by flanged, trip-hoppy breakbeats and processed vocals. As usual, the EP is chock full of rich and constantly pivoting verses (“I switch my style a lot/ Because the dogs love to bite”) which vacillate between misanthropic heckling, day-in-the-life shop talk and existential ruminations. Musically, it’s one of Spencer’s more inconsistent releases — Rocket’s long instrumental breaks and meandering vocal tags sometimes feel extraneous — but it provides ample evidence of Spencer’s ever-increasing dexterity as a lyricist.
In interviews, on social media and in his verses, Spencer is dismissive of the hip-hop landscape in Chicago. In his estimation, the success of Chance and Chief Keef has only created more imitators: a false belief among Chicago rappers that unifying under certain trends is what will make them succeed. However, even a cursory glance at premiere Chicago rap blog Fake Shore Drive shows that it’s the disparity and fierce individualism of today’s Chicago hip-hop that makes it so special. Delving into Spencer’s music — we can expect three more releases from him this year — and that of the talented members of his extended cohort (Saba, D2G, Naledge, Martin $ky, etc.) won’t yield a picture of a cohesive movement, but will fill out a more detailed picture of the musical landscape in Chicago — one that is just as fragmented as its districts, demographics and gang culture. If drill music/”Chiraq” culture is in danger of becoming a mere totem, perhaps Chicago’s future is in the hands of anomalies like Spencer, who can help cement the city’s place on the wider hip-hop radar — if not on the charts — for the long term.