Over the last few years, Chicago has pumped out rap and music talent as consistently as any other city and 2015 was no different. While the year came and went without solo projects from bigger names like Vic Mensa or Chance The Rapper (or, you know, Kanye West), it proved to be another filled with surprises, new faces and plenty of good music to go around. Lil Durk made his proper Def Jam debut with Remember My Name, Chief Keef appeared as a hologram and signed a deal with internet company FilmOn, and a collection of the city’s talent teamed up with a long list of storied acts to make a timeless album. All in all, it seemed to be a set up year for a massive 2016, but provided plenty to get excited about headed into the new year. If you need a little more info on where the scene here is at, check out my recent 'State of Chicago' piece that ran last month for a more in-depth look at where the city is at and headed.
For now though, we give you the Chicago Awards, my best attempt at pointing out some of the finer points of the year in rap music in my hometown.
Best Collaborative Effort:SURF
The quintessential album to come out of the city in 2015, SURF was impressive not only because of the music it held, but also because of the ability by the Social Experiment and their team to put egos aside in making a seminal piece of art. The collective, led this time by Donnie Trumpet, brought close friends from back home like NoNameGypsy, Saba, The O'My's and more and teamed them up with some of the biggest names in music such as Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu, Big Sean and more. Combine that with the fact that the songs actually are as good as advertised and you have a work of art that just might stand the test of time.
Best Chicago Album by a Non-Chicagoan in Chicago:S!CK S!CK S!CK - Smino
Smino is from St. Louis but you wouldn't know it if you ever stop by Classick Studios on the city's west side. The 23-year-old rapper possesses an innate ability to handle himself over a variety of flows, able to break down into a soulful singing at a moment's notice. S!CK S!CK S!CK may have only been a three-song offering, but it serves as a perfect entrance to an artist that has emerged as one of my personal favorites over the last year or so. Working closely with Monte Booker, the pair create a solid EP that should serve to prove what they have in store for the future.
Most Improved: Hurt Everybody
The trio of Supa BWE, Carl and Mulatto Beats have been around for just over a year and a half now and in that time have vaulted themselves from vagabond upstarts with a penchant for multi-faceted hip-hop tracks that come served with Supa's unique vocoder-lined vocals. The group's debut, Hurt Everybody, was a collection of songs previously released and then taken down from SoundCloud through the groups early days. Building off the immense groundswell of support they've experienced since, the group delivered 2K47 a year later, proving they could create a full album with conceptual ideas that boasted features from Twista, Mick Jenkins, Alex Wiley and Saba. With packed shows all over town and plans to hit the road soon, these guys have really shaped into one of the city's best acts.
'Next Up' Award: Towkio
Back when I lived in a house with Peter CottonTale of soX I would see Towkio all the time. Having spent the last two and a half years steadily working and creating and re-creating, the 22-year-old finally got his shot this year with the release of his long-awaited album, .Wav Theory. That project didn't disappoint in the least and its marquee track, "Heaven Only Knows" featuring Chance The Rapper and Eryn Allen Kane has racked up over 12 million plays on Soundcloud, making it one of the most successful independent releases of the year. He also joined Chance, D.R.A.M. and Metro Boomin on the Family Matters Tour and did spot dates this summer with Mad Decent ahead of selling out the Metro, a local benchmark if there is one. With his rise to the big time this year, Towkio joins a growing list of impressive acts to do so, hence the award. Watch out for Joey Purp in 2016 though.
Best New Artist: Ravyn Lenae
Out of the clear blue sky I remember getting a call from Chris Classick, owner of Classick Studios, telling me that he had an act I had to check out. That act turned out to be Ravyn Lenae who came out of left field this year to impress the hell out of just about everyone in the city. At 17-years-old, she's got plenty of room to grow and to be honest, thats's a little scary. Her first two singles, "Blossom Dearie" and "Greetings" got regular play upon release and her album, Moon Shoes, doubled down on the striking lyrical prowess of the young star-to-be. Admittedly, I threw a show earlier this year and had her as the first opener, a move I'm sure I'll be reminded of one day and happily so. If you haven't gotten into her music, do so now.
Best Baritone Rap Voice: Lil Bibby
If I could have a rap voice it would be Lil Bibby's. Well, I guess I can have a rap voice, but....nevermind. Fact is, Bibby has the vocals cords of a 55-year-old man and it makes everything he says and every song he makes instantly more interesting. There's not a ton to say on this one in particular, but if you want to hear more of his voice, check out his recently-released Free Crack 3.
Best Album About a Sexual Taboo: Psalm One: "P.O.L.Y."
One of the more consistent voices from the city putting on for all the ladies in rap music, Psalm One has been as consistent as they come in recent years and continued to prove her evolution with the release of her most recent project, P.O.L.Y., which is a play on polyamory, a central theme to both Psalm's life and the album as a whole. Teaming up often with her group, The Rapper Chicks, Psalm continues an opening process that began with 2014's Hug Life by letting listeners into her life a bit more fully and introducing them to the real Hologram Kizzie. The project itself is amazing as well, with help from The O'My's, My Gold Mask, Drew Mantia and more.
Best Song with a Kanye Verse: Vice Mensa: "U Mad"
Easily one of the more downplayed moments from when it was announced, Vic's signing to Roc Nation was a monumental move that was only undercut by the amount of time most knew about the affiliation before it was official. But this song with Kanye was the icing on the cake. Teased by his "Wolves" performance on Saturday Night Live, "U Mad" was a statement of a track that asserted Mensa as the pre-eminent commercially-viable rapper out of Chicago right now. Forgoing the independent realm that Chance has put his stamp on, Mensa has been able to meld himself into the label world without it overtaking who he is. "U Mad" was just the first step in a long journey for an artist we'll likely be talking about until the internet is a relic.
Best Business Deal: SURF to iTunes, or Chief Keef to FilmOn
Both of these deals did a lot to not only change the circumstances of the artists who made the moves, but also to the larger music world. SURF being offered as the first truly free release on iTunes was a sort of benchmark setup that allowed the project to be disseminated in a way not previously seen with paid albums. It also greyed the areas of what is possible and how music can be released. While it didn't change the industry overnight, we should see the ripples from it for awhile. For his part, Keef made a positive out of his getting dropped from Interscope by linking up with Greek Billionaire Alki David and spending most of the year trying to get his hologram game up. For a guy who probably wasn't going to coexist with the label world, this is the best move possible, even if he is currently suspended.
Best Festival Set: Chance at Pitchfork
While several local artists found their way to festival stages across the country, no one did it better than Chance The Rapper, who was able to somehow take thing up a notch from his headlining set at last year's Lollapalooza. For those in the crowd at Union Park that night it was the perfect segue for the city's biggest star as he seemed to begin to close the chapter on a part of his career he has referred to as the first trilogy (10 Day, Acid Rap, next album). Packed and star-studded from top to bottom, Chano wowed his hometown with one of the most memorable performances of the year by far.
Jay Electronica Award: NoName Gypsy: Telephone
NoName! We're still waiting! For the third year in a row the Detox/Jay Electronica award for most sought-after project goes to none other than NoName Gypsy, who did offer up a single or two and was featured on SURF and other projects, but alas we still have yet to see or hear Telephone. Word is that she has been working closely with some of the city's brightest minds, including Donnie Trumpet, so whenever it does drop, expect it to be filled with heat.
Best Album We Waited 3 Years For: Jeremih: Late Nights
While he could have gotten the previous nod a couple weeks ago, Jeremih did not disappoint with his latest project. While I personally would have been fine with dude continuing to kill it on the single game, the album was well overdue and continued to position him as one of the most exciting voices in music today. I'm not going to get too much further into this one as I'm still letting the whole thing sink in, but I can definitely say it was worth the wait.
Best Project That Seems Like It Dropped in 2014: Leather Corduroys: SEASONS
Joey Purp and KAMI put out one of the year's best projects on the first of the year in 2015 when they released SEASONS on New Year's Day. A collection of hits that span the musical gamut, Leather Corduroys both pay homage to the influences that got them to this point and touch on the various sounds they're capable of making. Upon release the project got panned from not picking one direction to go in, but honestly to me that is what makes it endearing as a whole.
Best New Name: Adamn Killa
Say it before you question it. Yup, my favorite rap name of 2015. There's something just so subtle about it, an entire meaning changed by the placement of one letter and dude has some creative bars to match. Sporting some of the best ad-libs in Chicago, I'll definitely be listening to Adamn throughout 2016.
Best Use of a Stand Up Bass: Eryn Allen Kane: “Bass Song”
Eryn Allen Kane absolutely killed 2015. This was her year as she systematically rolled out Aviary Pt. 1 in between hanging out with Prince, making "Baltimore" or kicking it with Dreamville. The tiny lady with the oversized vocals also made her proper acting debut by picking up a role in Chiraq, but what she really should be recognized for is that amazing bass line (courtesy of the multitalented Kane herself!) in the appropriately titled, "Bass Song." It's great. It's really great. If you're not listening to Eryn already, get ya ass on it.
Best Beef: Mick Jenkins vs. Vic Spencer
For whatever reason, 2015 seemed to be the year of the beef and it wasn't lost on Chicago as micro mirrored macro in the sense of rapper feuds. This one was particularly fun to follow as it saw several tracks being made on both sides, with Twitter fingers being exchanged in between. I'm not going to call it either way because my mentions on Twitter couldn't handle the heat, but one thing that is for sure is that when kept in the right understanding, beefs can be fun too.
[by Jake Krez, who did his best on this list. You can follow him on Twitter.]