The midwest never gets that much love in Hip Hop. The genre for the largest part has been bi-coastal with the South fighting for respect for a decade before finally getting the respect it deserves. The midwest, while never being disrespected, has never been seen as a musical hub for the genre. But as the internet continues to destroy regional sounds by creating a global culture (for better or worse), the Windy City is home to one the most important local music scenes of the last decade. Chicago’s Drill scene took Hip Hop by storm over the last two years, inspiring countless mimics and generating even more think pieces. Drill’s reinvention of Atlanta Trap music created the perfect canvas to express Chicago’s turbulent gang violence situation. It’s swirling menace rather than plodding anger, smoldering resentment over righteous fury. Early stars like Chief Keef and Lil Durk rode drill’s hypnotic mumblings to the radio and scared the country with their dead eyed apathy. Yet as impressive and important Drill music is, another Chicago group has latched on to the newfound focus on their city and risen to prominence. Channeling the city’s musical past over its violent present, Save Money has been the breakthrough rap group of the year.
The first star of the group is Chance The Rapper, who’s Acid Rap tape is still in the running for the best album of the year. Acid Rap is about as Chi Town as it gets. It is stuffed to the brim with Chicago slang and highlighted with gospel and soul flourishes as Chance openly guns for Kanye West’s spot as the Windy City’s favorite son. Now Chance is making moves, collaborating with James Blake and Lil Wayne, and opening for superstars like Eminem and Kendrick Lamar. But while Chance is getting the most attention, Save Money is far from a one man show. Acid Rap is certainly a tour de force for the young rapper, but it’s also a showcase for the crew’s sound. Nate Fox and Peter Cottontale, the crews producers, do an outstanding job of mixing in live instrumentation with traditional Hip Hop beats. The beats bounce all over the place to match Chance’s spastic flow, and the horn stabs mimic his own yelps. It’s not genre bending so much as it’s genre expanding. Chance and Save Money are operating in a post-Kendrick world, pushing the musical structures of how a Hip Hop song is made. Save Money has a plethora of talented musicians revamping old genres for the new generation.
The project that probably best sums up Save Money’s ethos is jazz/rock/rap fusion band Kids These Days. Their solitary album Traphouse Rock came out last year to little acclaim. It’s an interesting, fun album, one that aims for exploration rather than greatness. The girth of sounds, the abrupt tonal changes, all sound like a bunch of kids experimenting out of the box. Now broken up, traces of the band’s trailblazing attitude are sprinkled throughout the group, either through former members or their inspiration. The trumpet player from the group, Nico Segal, turned into a solo artist named Donnie Trumpet and his Donnie Trumpet EP is as good a piece of jazz rap you can find in the 21st century. The production focuses just as much on his trumpet as it does on guest rappers and vocalists. Sometimes the crew doesn’t even dabble in rap. Soul singer Lili K, who can be heard cavorting around on Acid Rap, recently released an EP of old jazz standards. This is the strength of Save Money. Where other crews talk about how progressive or different they are, this one actually is established in other genres.
Next up for Save Money is Vic Mensa, the hyper lyrical Kids These Days rapper/singer who had a blistering verse on Chance’s “Cocoa Butter Kisses.” His debut mixtape Innanetape dropped last month. Point out the obvious early, he’s not Chance The Rapper. He doesn’t have the effortless charm, the funny voice, or the jaw dropping bars. In fact, the best part of the tape might be when Chance shows up on “Tweakin” with a white owl wrapped as tight as an egg roll. But Innanetape doesn’t try to sound like Acid Rap. Handled by the same team of producers, Innanetape eschews the buoyancy that powered Chance for a more rhythmic urgency. Drums slap hard here, which makes sense considering that Vic drums himself. It’s a statement that Vic is his own persona and isn’t content to stand in Chance’s shadow. Vic’s a talented rapper but often gets caught up in his own lyricism, jamming his lines with so many syllables that it feels disjointed and crammed. But when the mood gets a bit somber, like on “Time Is Money” or “Holy Holy,” Vic tightens his elastic flow until it cracks like a whip and leads to some great work. Elsewhere, he runs wild and turns rap songs into alt-rock songs a la Kids These Days. This tape is restless, with Vic never settling into a groove. Moments are fleeting, good and bad, and capture a certain type of youthful essence just like Chance did with Acid Rap. And when Vic hits something right, it’s downright brilliant. “Hollywood LA,” an ode to fame and the city where the streets are paved with gold, is the best song on the tape and has the greatest rapper aspiration I’ve heard yet: “I was 16 with a mixtape, now I’m 19 with a mixtape trying to be 21 with a million dollars.” Innanetape maybe be uneven, but it is a profoundly interesting record. It establishes both Vic and the rest of the Save Money crew as rising stars. Vic may be the Klay Thompson to Chance’s Steph Curry, but the combination should take them straight to the finals. Save moolah baby.