Lil Durk has always fallen in between “things.” He was always the most pop-inclined of the 2012 Chicago hip-hop boom, transitioning to a broader stage with more grace than his 300 cohorts in Lil Reese, Fredo Santana, or even the enigmatic Chief Keef, despite suffering considerable loss and adversity since landing his Def Jam deal. Durk’s major label debut Remember My Name was all but memorable, a cloying crossover effort only buoyed by inclusion of mixtape banger “Dis Ain’t What U Want” and an electrifying intro in “500 Homicides,” and last year also saw the rapper lose both his manager OTF Chino and his cousin and long-time collaborator OTF NuNu to gun violence within Chicago’s city limits. It would appear that these blows only prompted Durk to redouble his resolve, if not to become a pop star, then to become successful at doing him. Any fan of Durk’s first three mixtapes, first Life Ain’t No Joke and then the street-classic successive pair of Signed To The Streets, knows that pop appeal and street loyalty are not mutually exclusive within the artist’s repertoire — Lil Durk 2x, Durk’s second Def Jam full-length, is a confident, measured play to the rapper’s strengths tempered by a subtle shift away from the machined brutalism of “drill” aesthetics, accomplishing a perspective that levels distance from the violence and loss that characterized Durk’s early output without leaving it behind in favor of vapid, radio-ready subject material.
Retroactively, one can make the case that Durk’s output in the past few years has gone a long way to cement the viability of Chicago’s new wave to shake common perceptions around the still-ongoing crisis of Chicago’s Southside beyond the fetishism of violence and rolling hi-hats. Rap audiences often carry a tacit expectation for emcees to fall into one category or the other — still languishing in the cycles of crime and violence, or sublimated into a Christ-like advocate role through reform and rebirth. Non-album, non-mixtape loosie (in my opinion, these one-offs are where Durk’s vision comes through most clearly) “If I Could,” released earlier this spring, is chilling to the listener for how our perspective widens at the same rate as Durk’s: “I used to break into cribs/ Now I got a safe in the crib/ Chiraq crime rate build/ So it ain’t safe at the crib.” “If I Could” deploys a haunting verisimilitude with respect to Durk’s emotional growth, as he transitions from teen banger to block star to pop star, not preaching any particular solution to systemic poverty and violence so much as subtly exposing the Catch 22s so obvious yet impossible to articulate for a person living it. Durk, maybe unconsciously, resists this categorization that exists largely for the benefit of white suburban audiences, bringing listeners in his songs along pathways of growth wherein the taboo parts of his character are never purged or sublimated, but remain an integral part of what informs his unique perspective.
So while there is nothing quite as potent or poignant as “If I Could” on Lil Durk 2x, the same emotional ambivalence translates well onto the record’s sparkling, bouncy production palette, his somber level of distance from the trauma characterizing his formative and past few years infusing the record’s laid-back vibe with a palpable “calm after the storm” aura. There are Zaytoven-produced nods to New Atlantan bounce on the title track “Lil Durk 2x” and the Young Thug-featuring “So What”; there are the obligatory but still fresh Durk ‘n DeJ love songs on “My Beyonce” and “Good Good”; and there are the disaffected, swag-rap one-offs in the Yo Gotti-featuring “Money Walk” and the 300 Days 300 Nights-recycled, “Trap Niggas”-checking “Make It Back.” It’s thrilling to hear Future take on a characteristically minor Durkian melody over the dark, syrup-soaked “Hated On Me,” replete with gurgling Southside production: “Po’ up the lean/ They hated on me.” Save for plodding intro “Check” and the DJ L-produced “Glock Up,” the record is mostly bereft of the unrelenting dread that typified Durk’s early mixtape output. Longtime 300 mainstay Young Chop stops by to produce “Super Powers,” the record’s most cathartic number, which sees Durk reflecting on his journey in a decidedly ambivalent mode: “Xans in my water/ Can’t feel myself/ I wish I had powers just to heal myself/ Remember them nights I’d kill myself/ And now I got thoughts just to be the best/ The labels ain’t believe me, had to prove myself/ D Thang you know, nigga you was there/ People left who said they wouldn’t/ For the niggas I lost I’d take a bullet.” The pain is always below the surface and doesn’t just leave in light of public successes, and sometimes the only consolation is an undying trust in self. Tightening of one’s circle seems to be the subject of modern pop more so than love or pastoral, nostalgic notions of spiritual salvation.
So while Lil Durk 2x is a redemptive record, it is not so in any hackneyed neoliberal, rags-to-riches or moral high-grounding sense; rather it is redemptive for Durk himself, for Chicago, and for his longtime fans to see him finally succeed in expressing his uncompromised self on a major label stage, bringing the infectious, life-breathing mixtape vibe to the otherwise sterile environment of rap full-lengths. Records like this are what will eventually outmode the contradiction of “too street for the industry,” eschewing both categories in the unique accomplishment of a profit-driven truth-telling venture. More like this.