There is more to the way we process music than sound. There is also mythology, the images we affix to sounds: Brian Wilson leading session players in pursuit of a great pop symphony; Prince in the studio, alone, recording each instrumental and vocal part with perfect virtuosity.
One of the most powerful mythologies in American popular music is the image of the artist devising and executing an idea simultaneously—creation through extended improvisation. That is the mythology of the jam band, the punk band, and, in recent history, the rap mixtape, which grew in stature and renown as artists like Lil Wayne, Clipse, 50 Cent, and Future made releases that sounded as if they were created in fits of divine inspiration. The best mixtapes made tedious work look easy.
On his most recent mixtape, They Forgot, Lil Durk plays into this mythology. Four years ago, he rose to regional fame with a group of young Chicago rappers—including Chief Keef, King Louie, Fredo Santana, and Lil Reese—who formed a subgenre, “drill”, in which they concentrated the ideas and ideals promoted by gangster rap into a received value system. There is a reverent, almost evangelical bent to the way they talk about sex, violence, and drugs, and they create a tension between content and its presentation. The content is vivid, concerned with matters of life and death and the most fundamental ways to experience pleasure. The presentation is often aggressive but disaffected, shaped by the desire to present oneself as invulnerable.
The most effective drill rappers make music with a grave weight, urgency, and force, like Chief Keef, the subgenre’s most famous export. Keef, who was 17 when he released his debut album, Finally Rich, has a knack for expressing masculine ideals of toughness into concise and memorable forms. On his breakout single, “I Don’t Like,” Keef distils his enmity toward cowards and snitches into a simple declaration: “That’s that shit I don’t like.” Keef raps the first four syllables in a monotone staccato, dips and expands the fifth syllable, then snaps into the sixth, creating an exclamation without conveying excitement.
Durk doesn’t have this kind of vocal dexterity or, indeed, a distinctive approach to rhythm, melody, or diction. What he does have is a gift for creating momentum. In the past, Durk has not always used this gift. He is an awkward fit for the big, lumbering beats favored by drill rappers which are built for declaration, not speed.
You get the sense, through Durk’s liberal use of Auto-Tune on his breakout mixtape, 2012’s Life Ain’t No Joke, and debut album, 2015’s Remember My Name, that he has ambitions beyond the sonic tendencies favored by other drill rappers, but he has yet to find a collaborator who can find the right shape for these aspirations. There have been hints of an evolution on Remember Me and his most recent studio album, 2016’s Lil Durk 2X—through collaborations with Jeremih, Dej Loaf, Ty Dolla $ign, Yo Gotti, Future, and Young Thug—- of Durk as a master of ceremonies, able to create room for a broad range of vocal styles. There are curatorial streaks on these releases that suggest Durk’s ultimate gift may be the ability to arrange the space around him.
Hints of this impulse appear on They Forgot, where the unifying strategy is speed, to move quickly and not look back. The beats use short, repeated melodic phrases to drive songs forward, and, as on 2X, Durk hosts a variety of guests, acting as a grayscale against which they can project color. Meek Mill’s tense and breathless phrasing comes into high relief on “Young Niggas”, as does 21 Savage’s croaked diction on “Shooter2x”. But if there is a breakout star on this mixtape, it is Hypno Carlito, a member of Durk’s label, Only the Family. On “Back 2 Back”, Carlito raps in a strained, congested cadence that disrupts Durk’s quest for efficiency in favor of texture. It is a rare moment that privileges sound for its own sake.
One of the keys to executing Durk’s strategy is concision; the listener needs to be left feeling dazed and energized. Though the mixtape runs just 43 minutes, signs of fatigue appear on its final songs. The closer, “Street Life,” is a conceptual misstep and an indication that Durk’s curatorial instincts need refining. The song features BJ the Chicago Kid, a soul singer who contributes a hook about aching for redemption from vicious cycles of violence, and the gesture rings false because it has no precedent. But it is a sign that Durk continues to search for new avenues of expression, and that he has yet to find the collaborator who will take him there.
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