In the dynamic, ever-evolving landscape of Chicago’s music scene, 2023 stood as another testament to the city’s enduring talent. Each year reinforces why Chicago is hailed as such a formidable cultural hub — showcasing a rich legacy of both established superstars and emerging creatives making their mark in the city.
Over the past decade, we’ve been committed to spotlighting 50 projects that have defined Chicago’s soundscape year after year. Serving as sonic snapshots, our annual year-end list encapsulates the diverse sounds and voices flowing throughout our city.
A thought: Consider these articles as time capsules that preserve the passion and dedication that each artist puts forth into their music. Pouring their heart and soul into their creations, it’s crucial to recognize and appreciate each artist’s body of work for what it truly is. Our ranking is based on our subjective perceptions and opinions because frankly, opinions are just that: Subjective.
Here’s hoping you stumble upon your next musical obsession within this list of hidden gems — and longtime Chicago icons alike.
50) devin. • POTE BABY
Conceptual albums are fairly rare in today’s day and age, and – on top of that – wholly compelling ones are even fewer and farther between. However, Chicago’s young newcomer, devin., has delivered a magnum opus via his debut studio album POTE BABY, an offering defined by its tangible emotional potency, vivid storytelling, and passionate delivery. Dev candidly captures his inner battle of defining what home is to him while also grappling with loss through his passionately pronounced introspective lyrics that are abundantly present throughout the album’s ten tracks. These aspects build upon one other to construct one of the most substantive, inspired, and well-executed debut bodies of work I’ve stumbled upon in recent memory.
Overflowing with rhyme-strung anecdotes that – at times – read like profound revelations, we’re presented with focused and honest self-facing narration that lies atop an eclectically curated selection of sample-heavy production that was puzzled together by Columbia College’s own The Prophitt. Additionally, the instrumentals’ carefully programmed arrangements add another layer of soul to the project’s already moving disposition. Beyond that, the album has a dynamic yet cohesive feel preserved by its interlude-woven transitions and three spoken-word poems sprinkled throughout the project that securely fasten one song to another and guide the listener through Dev’s anthology of heartfelt storytelling.
While on the surface, Dev narrates the journey of his move from Northport, Alabama to Chicago, revealing the tribulations that come along with that. Along the way, it becomes abundantly clear that it’s far deeper than that as we’re met with Dev coming to grips with the person he’s become, presenting a detailed image of what he sees in the mirror without prejudice, offering a coming-of-age album that grows in depth and scope with each listen. — Jack Kissane
49) 500 & DVNTBEATS • Divine Intervention
One of my favorite trends in rap right now is the rising recognition and respect for producers. A byproduct of that, as of late, has been the prevalence of one-producer-steered albums, a lane that DVNTBEATS has been in the driver’s seat of this past year with the prolific release of 4 full-length albums, including the stellar release of Divine Intervention that features rising Chicago emcee – repping a not so SEO friendly name – 500. DVNT consistently builds these soothing atmospheres of sound sculpted from soul-filled samples, framing the bravado-fueled bars backed by 500’s, addictingly nonchalant delivery. Something that immediately stands out about 500’s artistry is his effortless ability to craft these ear-worm hooks that offer relatable moments of reflection that run parallel to the looping production.
Divine Intervention offers 500 the perfect platform to build his first studio album as he finds his footing, sculpts an original sound, and maps out his sonic direction. Nothing in the city sounds like this, and DVNTBEATS, by way of Pastelle Records, is paving a new lane for Chicago with his accumulating collection releases. It’s moments like on “Freegang Intervention” where the album finds its peak with an assist from Jersey-based producer Subjxct 5 that lobs a crooning vocal sample to 500 and Stoner Pimpson, who trade charisma-filled 16s that made the track one of my favorite finds in a minute. — Jack Kissane
48) Willyynova • GODISLOVE
Willyynova is a Chicago-based artist who has been pushing the envelope with his commitment to authenticity and an unmatched approach to consistency throughout his artistic output. He quite simply has done the impossible, marrying quantity and quality, time and time again throughout his releases. GODISLOVE is his fifth project within a two-year period, an impressive feat within itself, let alone having each release of his being filled to the brim with substance and quality.
Upon the first listen, I was blown away. This project carries real weight to it, a testament to the substance that lies within his introspective pen that’s masterfully weaved between soul-filled sample chops. Every ingredient that goes into his music feels authentic, and it bleeds through with each listen. The self-proclaimed “SampleGod” delivers every time, mutilating samples until their original work is unrecognizable, making others’ art entirely his own, then he proceeds to body it. Nova has this unique ability to harness loops in a hypnotic fashion that paints his music with soulful soundscapes that complement his vocal tone and cadence so well. Nova’s autobiographical lyrics are confidently articulated through measured bars and tasteful double entendres. Although the album is packed with 16 tracks, it still holds a concise runtime of 35 minutes that seems to fly by with each listen. — Jack Kissane
47) Soft and Dumb • Heaven
Soft and Dumb is an essential listen for every person who reads this list. With the rise and consistent presence of the indie scene, there seems to be a lot of crowdedness in that lane, but from the moment I stumbled on this Illinois duo, it was evident that they have what it takes to cut through both the Chicago indie scene in it’s entirety. Their latest EP, “Heaven” is an amazing introduction for anyone who wants to dip their toes in a relaxing and mesmerizing vibe driving by carefully crafted melodies and complimentary harmonies. I didn’t skip one song on the “Heaven” EP and I don’t think anyone should. There are a lot of artists who I have my eye out for, but I’m genuinely excited to see what 2024 shapes up to be for Soft and Dumb. Really good stuff by this duo and an amazing addition to this year’s list. — Sam Morrison
46) Ivy Hollivana • angelaudio
I’ve been hearing Ivy Hollivana’s name in the airways for some time now, but it wasn’t until just recently that I fully got put on to her music after peeping her latest project that dropped this year. There definitely can be moments where listening to the same music can mess up your ear, which is why I think it’s extremely important to diversify the palette every so often. If you’re someone who wants to do the same, then make sure you dive into Ivy as her sound might be the most unique and experimental on this entire list; which is saying a lot. Her 2023 project, “angelaudio” is a really cool piece of work as it meshes and merges a myriad of different sounds that you’re probably not used to hearing on a daily basis. On top of that, Ivy is highly musical, so when listening, it’s going to feel like you’re experiencing so many genres at once. There’s a lot of beauty in “angelaudio” and I know listeners will find it from the moment they turn this project on. I’m hoping to see Ivy’s name on lists like this in the future and I truly have enjoyed getting to acquaint myself with her artistry. — Sam Morrison
45) Adrian Garza • Any Means Necessary
It’s important to do some deep diving to see who’s hands the Chicago music scene will be left in as time progresses, so artist discovery is something we pride ourselves on here at LL. One of these up and coming artists who we’ve stumbled on is a kid named Adrian Garza. The Chicago local released a really cool and comprehensive 12-song project this year called, “Any Means Necessary” that is definitely worth the listen in it’s entirety. Potential is a hard thing to judge music based off of, but when it comes to Adrian, that’s not an issue, because the young spitter is already good now. The production on “Any Means Necessary” does a great job of propelling him and allowing him to speak his mind over each beat. “Sneak Peak” is the winner on here, but each track boasts its own identity that deserves your attention. Adrian has some promise and it’s cool to see an up and comer on this prestigious list. — Sam Morrison
44) Hoofy Baby • BEFORE I DO THIS
Hoofy Baby has used his seasoned years of experience in the game and deep phonebook of connections to actualize, and executive produce BEFORE I DO THIS, a moving collaborative project three years in the making. The budding album features some of our city’s most prominent artists, including the likes of Mick Jenkins, Qari, and theMIND to name a few. This project is special as it bridges the gap between phenomenal artists across the city, who otherwise wouldn’t have built these beautiful sounds together, and the talent is so unequivocally abundant from beginning to end.
I so vividly remember randomly stumbling across “Don’t Rush” this summer thanks to my Spotify algorithm – which I hold a constantly flipping love-hate relationship with – and recall immediately being blown away by Senite’s otherworldly verse that effortlessly glides above the shimmering guitar lead, which eventually gives way to theMIND’s signature passionate delivery of his inspired hook and verse. This instantly became a track that ran circles around my mind, and upon further research, I was blindsided to see that this track was a piece to a greater puzzle that features some of Chicago’s greatest talents back-to-back-to-back. Not only did Hoofy Baby compile an impressive list of names, but he also built a cohesive project with a designated purpose focussing its lens on compiling earnest perspectives exploring love, hopelessness, and perseverance, and the final product offers a series of hits fit for your rotation. — Jack Kissane
43) Towkio • COMMUNITY SERVICE 3!!!
“I woke up feeling like 50, I’mma get rich or die tryin,” the opening lines of COMMUNITY SERVICE 3!!! blast triumphantly, with Towkio smack-dab in the chaos of his latest mixtape’s soundscape. Known for quirky bars and his enlightened sense of humor, the Savemoney emcee displays his outwardly versatile skill set all over the 16-track project, featuring fellow Chicago voices in KAMI and Savemoney compatriot Joey Purp. Bombastic, 808-clad bangers like “Pie,” “Movie Star,” “Bryson Tiller” and “Of Course” meet oft-song, alt vibes like “Ties,” “Ibiza” and “Xanax” – ultimately proving to be the best handful of cuts on the record. Towkio’s ability to teeter between brash bars and melting, sung hooks are the epitome of his artistry (reference his work with Chance The Rapper on “Juke Jam” or his 2015 opus .WAV THEORY).
There’s something for everybody on CS3 – hence the community he’s cultivated throughout his decade-long career. Towkio continues to be a mainstay for the very reason Savemoney is a fixture in Chicago’s rap scene to this day; Adaptability. Always pushing the envelope, regardless of who’s listening, count on Towkio to give you both sides of his sound on CS3 – the soft hush-side singer and braggadocios baller. — Jon Barlas
42) Gold Haze • YOUR PAIN IS MINE
Unconcerned with the optics of delivering a sugar-coated, filtered, and built-for-the-masses project, multi-hyphenate producer/artist Gold Haze has built an incomparably honest album with YOUR PAIN IS MINE that bridges the fault line of collaboration that has notably plagued our city for so long. Haze has not only assembled a dream team of our city’s most exciting artists, but he also created a space where they felt comfortable and inspired to give some of their most authentic and inspired verses in recent memory, which Haze meticulously pieced together, forming a beautiful mosaic that shows what our community can build together.
Haze found his voice with this project, and I say that both literally and figuratively. After running from all the pain, pressure, and anxiety life can bring for so long, Haze came to an epiphany with this record when questioning himself, “who am I without the pain I’ve been through?” and from that, built an entire culture around it, forming the foundation for the record. Although it’s a collaborative album featuring countless voices and ideas, the project’s purpose always remains, and each verse is forged in unrelenting resilience. Feeling is such a prevalent theme in this project, and it’s Haze’s undeniably soulful production that has been the guide to the project’s compelling and cohesive sound from beginning to end.
The future of our city’s fingerprints are all over this album, from femdot. to Ausar to Senite — I mean, I could go on forever, but I genuinely don’t know if my computer has enough storage to fit every talented name involved in this project. I mean what I’m about to say so sincerely, this is one of the best-executed producer-led albums I’ve come across, period, and I can’t wait to see where Gold Haze’s next step leads us. — Jack Kissane
41) Godly The Ruler • the world is big, get over it
Intensity, angst, and finding clarity in chaos are themes abundantly present in Godly the Ruler’s head-turning record, the world is big, get over it that has been pinning my headphones’ gain control on the ropes since its August release. Upon pressing play, you’re immediately slapped across the face with electrifying production brought to us by scorching talents like CONNIE, brightviolet, and the brotherly duo of Brevin Kim. Still, there’s so much more to latch onto with Godly’s artistry beyond just their ear for production. An aspect that emerges and shines, particularly on this record, is Godly’s personality, which reaches far beyond angst-delivered vocals, revealing an all-consuming presentation of calculated introspection.
In a full-circle manner, I was first put onto Godly via last year’s year-end review featuring their EP, dog days (peace to Elliot), where I was immediately fascinated with Godly’s unique aesthetic and high-octane, larger-than-life sound and – candidly – their music immediately became one of my favorite finds of the past year. Since then, Godly has punched through any ceilings that may have been hovering overhead previously, with huge steps in their writing and delivery. Godly’s earnest experiences bleed through even the loudest synth leads, setting up explosive moments of cathartic release on both sides of the mic, resulting in some of the most electrifying crowd atmospheres in today’s music scene. — Jack Kissane
40) Victor Internet • MOMENTUM
Victor Internet has been an unstoppable – almost inevitable – force in Chicago’s music community, with his dynamic sound that has evolved far beyond any bedroom pop labels that were thrown upon him during his rise to prominence since breaking onto the scene with the viral track “Tinder Song” back in 2017. Victor’s new album, MOMENTUM is a reinvention of his sound where emotions break through the mix, voicing an overwhelming yearning for belonging, embrace, and normalcy delivered through Victor’s larger-than-life vocal performance and beautiful curation of instrumentation.
This album builds off of the unstoppable momentum of 2021’s kneckbreaking release of BLUE 200 which ran a monopoly on my Spotify Wrapped with its soulful sound that synthesized emotions and feelings in ways I didn’t think possible. That is what we get on his year’s release, but to an even higher degree, offering an explosion of Victor’s passionately pronounced creativity in his best executed body of work yet! — Jack Kissane
39) JYN • Bittersweet
JYN is an artist whose name I began seeing more and more in 2023 after hearing about him a few times last year, and for good reason too. His Bittersweet project was one of my most listened-to Chicago projects of the last couple of months, he’s undeniably smooth and understands what it takes to create ear-pleasing songs. I don’t have too many words here, but I strongly believe that JYN will continue to develop as an artist and I am excited to see where he is at five years from now. — Elliot Montanez
38) heartgaze • CASI ANGELES <3
Sonically, CASI ANGELES <3 is one of the most exciting, boundary-pushing bodies of work of the past year, accumulating a diverse collection of ear-candy production, exploding moments of euphoric harmonies, and serenading vocals that build an alt, post-hyperpop, DNB infused maximalist sound, while all being pronounced in Spanish – excluding the interludes. This unique cocktail holds real weight to it, weighed down to earth by its influences, which present a diverse body of work trekking through genres and scenes, mirroring Heartgaze’s unique Argentina to Chile to Chicago come-up, embodying the life imitates art philosophy, or rather, art imitates life in this case.
The album blew me away at first listen because of the adrenaline-inducing production that consumes it, aiding Heartgaze to craft a boundary-less sound, but more than that, it’s their focus and prevailing theme of building a community for those who have none within the project that has resonated the most with me and audiences alike. The album features prominent artists, including the likes of Victor Internet, Elijah Who, and Carliane Tamara, who aid in the expansive storytelling and world-building showcased in the project. If you’re into glitchy sounds, charismatic deliveries, or just music that’s totally and utterly in a lane of its own, Heartgaze’s debut album is for you. — Jack Kissane
37) iToldLexi • Unconditionally, Lexi
When I look back on my time here at Lyrical Lemonade, I realize more and more that one of my favorite parts about what we do is watching artists grow and develop. I first met iToldLexi way back in 2015, we were a part of a studio session that took place in an apartment off of Michigan Avenue, where about eight of us sat there and worked on music for some hours. Looking back, that memory is special to me because we were legitimately kids who were interested in creating music and being creative overall – and everyone from that session has gone on to do fantastic things in life.
I remember listening to Lexi’s music around that time and thinking just how talented she was, I believed she possessed the talent to make a career out of her artistry, and her project Unconditionally, Lexi is only continuing to solidify that thought nearly eight years later. It’s been a minute since we received some new music from Lexi before this release, we would get the occasional single, but it always left me craving more music from her! I was extremely glad when I saw that she released this project a couple of months back, and it’s been in my rotation ever since. I could sit here and write about this project for the next hour, but I will save us both the time, BUT I highly suggest that you check out the record “LSD” to begin, especially if you’re from the city! — Elliot Montanez
36) Jay Wood • NOWHERE, FAST
Striving to slow life down at every turn, singer, rapper, songwriter and producer Jay Wood took listeners on a sonic thrill ride with NOWHERE, FAST last month. While the project’s title insinuates a dead-end, it’s clear that the 25-year-old talent is headed straight towards stardom. Filled with layered and woozy instrumentation, the soulful 8-track EP serves as a testament to the Chicago native’s underdog story – introducing himself fully on his de facto debut. Wood detailed that this record “feels like my statement piece.”
On immersive, narrative highlights such as “LANDLINE PT. 2” and “BEST FRIEND” with rising city phenom Senite, Wood makes his presence known through teary-eyed escapades of reflection and strife, as well as tales of prosperity and determination on deeper cuts like “ALL THAT” with fellow Chicagoan Blvck Svm and “BLUE SKIES.” “I just want to make an impact,” Wood explained. “I want people to feel something. Some songs are inspirational, some songs make you want to dance, some might make you wanna cry. But as long as the music is moving people, I know I’m doing something right. I want to be the soundtrack to my supporters’ lives.” — Jon Barlas
35) Kayo • Until His Burial
“Disconnected from reality,” Kayo blacked out in the best way on his second official project Until His Burial – symbolizing the care and control he’s put into his music thus far. The Southside native sounds as if he’s on top of the world, shattering expectations on his 10-track escapade released this past month. On top of gorgeous orchestral arrangements, airy vocal samples and punchy drum patterns, it’s a lyrical showcase to be reckoned with; Kayo skates over these smooth tones effortlessly. While the record feels extravagant and cheery, it’s rooted in hunger, as Kayo tears off lines that pay the rent and some. Highlights like “Lovepunch” with Chicago-based songstress Senite, “Check On You,” “Brother.” and “Last Resort” – which mimics the energy of an Action Bronson classic – each emulate the soulful, homegrown sound the city is known for. Following his January 2023 album, It Was Fun While It Lasted, Until His Burial sees Kayo come full circle on his most polished record to date – “determined to the point of a delusion” to make it. — Jon Barlas
34) Tri Nohbi • With Love, Tri
Most artists have their own shuffled radio stations on Spotify and Apple Music, and some like Drake and Frank Ocean man their own airwaves (Sound 42, Blonded), but Tri Nohbi takes this notion to new heights. The Chicago-based singer-rapper 107.7 KSOL station is the heartbeat of his latest album With Love, Tri – a sonic time warp that channels the sounds and soul of Smokey Robinson, Luther Vandross, Mike Jack and more melded with a West Coast twist.
It’s hard to classify this record as “hip-hop” because it’s packed with smooth and silky R&B melodies and twangy drum swing, as Nohbi melts listeners away with a vintage swagger that feeds his heartthrob status. It’s bachelor music, with tracks like “Same Language,” “Go Crazy” and “AI vs. MJ” featuring the incomparable Chris Patrick – who finds his name littered all throughout this list. It’s a heavyweight bout laced with expensive, extravagant melodies and punctual lyrics from both Patrck and Nohbi. Affirming his budding star status, to make something amazing, it needs to be made With Love… Tri goes above and beyond. — Jon Barlas
33) Ohana Bam • You Wasn’t There
Ohana Bam is one of the most captivating and highly regarded names in the contemporary Chicago scene, making his music and art such a gem for those who are tapped into him. His art has been incomparably prolific as he continues to find ways to develop his output over the years, and he’s still yet to disappoint. Bam has secured over 30 features on the blog since 2016, a testament to his long-standing and ever-evolving artistry that has especially blossomed this year with the captivating release of his latest album, You Wasn’t There, which triumphantly and meticulously tales his journey from childhood to adulthood, building a cohesive and soulful body of work accompanied by two legendary verses from close collaborators Cozz and femdot.
This project is a dynamic display of Bam playing with a wide array of sounds, textures, and emotions, building an eclectic yet hard-hitting soundscape that frames his most personal body of work yet. Bam explores the bittersweet feeling he’s endured moving from Chicago to Hollywood, leaving the underground for the mainstream, an inner battle that weighs heavy on him throughout the project. This album is a deeply personal body of work that carries a prevailing theme of resilience as Bam weaves intricate narratives that bleed with authenticity, detailing his first-person account of coming-of-age in the industry. — Jack Kissane
32) adan diaz — luchador (EP)
Chicago has long been a nonstop assembly line producing an endless array of talent, but none sound, look like, or represent the things Adan Diaz does. The 19-year-old Mexican-American artist has consistently been dropping some of the most palatable and candidly honest bedroom pop since his blazing introduction onto the scene with his debut, legroom EP which put the city – let alone world – on notice of his immense talent and brewing starpower. Since then, Adan has not only been able to manage, but also channel the pressure and expectations of a follow-up to his debut into the inspired creation of another phenomenal project with the release of his sophomore effort, luchador EP.
I was first put onto Adan inadvertently via my friend Naima who was shooting bts for Adan back in the day, where I came across a string of photos of an artist who looked my age, rocking Lincoln Hall in a Dickies GhostBuster jumpsuit. It didn’t take a deep dive into his discography to see how talented, likable, and unequivocally relatable the young artist really is. On luchador EP, we’re met with five tracks that explore Adan navigating the growing pains of coming-of-age while also unraveling intense emotions involved with undefined and resolved relationships. This project quickly became a collection of comfort songs for me throughout the year, and just offers such an easy listen. — Jack Kissane
31) Matt Muse — So Far, So Decent
Matt Muse has been a prominent figure in Chicago’s music scene for some time now and he certainly isn’t a stranger to the LL pages as we’ve supported a bunch of his offerings and even sat down with him for a Lemonade Stand Interview, that you can watch at your leisure. After a relatively quiet 2022, Matt eased his way back into releasing music with a pair of singles that ultimately culminated into a beautifully crafted EP called, “So Far, So Decent”. In a world where artists are told to be releasing music/content consistently, it really is a breath of fresh air when you come across musicians who are taking time to put out their art for whatever reason that might be. From the moment you press play on this EP, you’ll be able to hear the thoughtfulness and intention that went in to creating the 5 song project. Some standouts on here for me are “Show Me Love” featuring OG Stevo and “Leave Here” featuring Boathouse, but take time to listen through and determine your favorites. Matt Muse is primed to have a great 2024 and finishing the year on this list is a great way to steamroll into next year’s momentum! — Sam Morrison
30) Kris Kites — Kites Ice Mixtape
For some time now, Kristopher Kites has been an extremely respected artist and creative in the Chicago scene + the extended music industry in general and like many individuals on this list, he’s no secret to the Lyrical Lemonade brand. Back in 2020, he made his LL debut with a Lemonade Stand interview that you can watch here; and today, he makes it back on to the platform for his 2023 “Kites Ice Mixtape”. Kristhopher Kites is truly a creative in every sense of the word; and the best kind at that. This 12 song showing is a unique breath of fresh air that I could see being on my rotation well into next year. There are many elements in here to love, from Kites’ energy all the way to the musicality of the project. I’m a huge fan of this one and I’m stoked that it made the cut of this year’s list. — Sam Morrison
29) CP — Motion Muzik
Whenever I have known a person or a musical artist for some years, I always look at the growth of the individual both sonically and as a human, and there isn’t another artist on this list that I have had a better up-close look at their growth than CP. Every so often, I will go back to the beginning of CP’s musical catalog, then compare it to his latest releases, and it’s a night & day difference.
CP’s 2023 offering Motion Muzik is easily his best project yet, both in his streaming and the impact that it left on his fanbase. Some of CP’s best flows, lyrics, punchlines and beats are all featured on this tape, and not to mention the cover is super hard. The two features from BabyTron and BLP Kosher are the cherry on top of this excellent project, if you aren’t familiar with CP just yet, now is the perfect time to get in tune. — Elliot Montanez
28) D2X — Hotel 1105
Announcing his sophomore album in the middle of a Chicago Fire game at Soldier Field, D2X’s Hotel 1105 was poised for greatness at its onset. The soulful Chicago emcee took his brooding, jazzy brand of punchy bars to a new level on his second full-length effort – which sees D2X evolve in perhaps the most grandiose way. Whether it’s revolving speakeasy-set joints like “Suite Life” or sample-laced efforts like “From Hotel 1105 With Love,” “The Light” and its lead single “Faith,” D2X’s booming presence on the mic is as captivating as his candor.
“Waves & Moonlights” is a personal favorite, where bouncy piano progressions and energetic live drums meet D2X’s vivid picture-paint flows. “Baptized in this water, gotta go harder / No broken promises, I gotta make it for my daughter / No dead beat father, I always move smarter,” he raps, displaying his intrinsic knack for narrative throughout the track’s summertime vibe – expertly portrayed on the album’s cover art. However, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows – storybook tales of plight, marginalization and violence within the city on “I Am Here” that make this record both a must-listen and sure-fire mainstay. If you hadn’t checked in to Hotel 1105 this year, its concierge [D2X] will surely find space to plan your stay. And if you did, there’s no reason to check out; D2X cooked something special here. — Jon Barlas
27) Nico Segal — Tell The Ghost Welcome Home
Nico Segal has been on the radar of many for some time now, but it wasn’t until I peeped The Social Experiment’s album “Surf” back in 2015 when I fully became aware of his pure genius. The Chicago Trumpeter and Producer has had his hand in a myriad of musical projects including founding the The Social Experiment itself. His reputation precedes him and it’s an honor to be able to include his latest project on this year’s list of top 50 Chicago Projects. “Tell The Ghost Welcome Home” is a 12 song instrumental dominant offering with the exception of a few tracks that feature notable names like NNAMDI, Jamila Woods, aja monet and more. To say that this one is an experience is truly an understatement. To appreciate Nico Legal, you have to appreciate great music; which is exactly what you’re getting on this album. Cleanse your palette with “Tell The Ghost Welcome Home” and tap in with Nico from here on out. — Sam Morrison
26) Groupthink — before the afters
I can’t lie, every single song on this project is a hit. Groupthink is ahead of his time and I appreciate his music + existence.
That is all, that is the write-up. — Elliot Montanez
25) BJ The Chicago Kid — Gravy
Dripped in spirit and laced with the comfort of the holidays, BJ The Chicago Kid’s Gravy is sure to leave you satisfied. Released in November, the iconic Chicago vocalist does it again despite decades worth of timeless melodies. While most latch on to BJ’s “Church” with Chance The Rapper off his 2016 effort, In My Mind, his resume – before and after – truly speaks for itself. Working with artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, JID, Rick Ross, Big KRIT, Buddy, Offset and many more, BJ The Chicago Kid is the pride and joy of Chicago, making music that is the true heartbeat of the city – yesterday, today and tomorrow. In other words, BJ is one of the most defining voices the city has been blessed with, and Gravy is yet another impressive diary entry that feeds BJ fans with another helping of soulful, feel-good tunes.
Recruiting Freddie Gibbs, Coco Jones, Chlöe, Robert Glasper on the 15-track record, groovy cuts like “Spend The Night,” “Get Loose” and “Honey” are the sunshine peeking through the clouds; Sweet, upbeat and an inkling for a better day ahead. “Smoke Break” with Robert Glasper feels as if you stumbled into a starkly lit, jazz speakeasy at 2 a.m., while “Never Change” featuring Phillip Bailey sounds as if Lenny Kravitz’s “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over” was injected with more lovey-dovey anecdotes instead of the “tears cried” and “pain inside” Kravitz croons over. I say all this to underscore how nostalgic, infectious and insatiably indelible Gravy is; It pours life into your soul that remains everlasting. — Jon Barlas
24) Ric Wilson — CLUSTERFUNK
Ric Wilson’s talented artistry has long encapsulated everything special about Chicago’s history of innovating sound, redefining culture, and playing a pivotal role in social action. All of the above is embodied in his bold and groovy new collaborative album, CLUSTERFUNK, which is built alongside industry greats Chromeo & A-Trak. This project holds a powerful juxtaposition with its mind-blowing and genre-contorting presentation of the richest of sounds that runs parallel to its serious and urgent confrontation of systems of oppression that plague everyday existence.
This project is a gem, suited head to toe in some of the craziest bass lines, shimmering guitar leads, and funk-infused synths that offer this one-of-a-kind sense of nostalgia that directly transport me back to times when my mother would be playing her greatest mixes. This project captures Ric’s voicings at their best and most confident, and as a result, the soul exhibited in the music is simply contagious, seeping through the speakers with a warm embrace! Not only is this a necessary listen because of its message, but its commitment to its unique and velvety sound alone is nothing like I’ve ever heard and just serves such an undeniable sound fit for the masses. — Jack Kissane
23) KAMI — It’s Ok, Loverrr
If “Pick Up The Phone Bitch” is any indication of where KAMI has been — or what he’s avoiding — do not disturb his process. Within voicemail interludes like “Wya???” and “Kene” (which introduces his latest’s album’s narrative), it’s clear that the Chicago artist experiences a metamorphosis on It’s OK Loverrr — a genreless 12-track mosaic of his foray into the unknown. While fully tapping into alt-sounds spread throughout his discography (hear Just Like The Movies), KAMI seems to have broken free of the comfort he once held — spreading his wings and soaring for the better. Whether it was previous efforts with Chance The Rapper, Joey Purp, Valee and other city icons that enticed you, KAMI has certainly crafted a new mold for himself on It’s OK Loverrr.
The record elicits a sensory flush of emotions that slowly seep in, as dancey, electro vibes waft between sauntering vocals on “Outside!” and the Knox Fortune-assisted (naturally) “Calling You.” Both proving to be emphatically catchy and illustrative of KAMI’s breadth of talent beyond rap, other highlights like “Willy Chavarria,” “Pressure” and its title track “It’s OK Loverrr” are unrelenting in personality — letting KAMI’s left-of-center ear shine fully. It sounds as if these songs were made to be heard coursing through the festival grounds of Coachella or inside H&M for a rainy day retail therapy session. Other cuts like “Outside,” “Princess Cuts” and “Boujee” force you to not forget KAMI’s affinity for bars that make you move (be sure to peep the interesting UK-island fusion on “Boujee”) and sizzle with groovy lines and an essence too irresistible. You’ll love what Chicago’s “Loverrr Boy” cooked up this year. — Jon Barlas
22) Calboy — UNCHAINED
Over the years Calboy has done a great job of cultivating a loyal fan base due to his consistent releases and undeniable energy. The Chicago artist is no stranger to our page and has received a handful of write ups, so we’re glad to have him featured on this year end list. If you haven’t had a chance to peep yet, make sure you tine in to one of the more underrated projects of the year in my opinion; his latest album called, “UNCHAINED”. After the intro, Calboy starts this 12 song project with a show-stopping freestyle that sets the tone for the remaining 10 songs on the offering. From top to bottom, “UNCHAINED” hits on all cylinders. Production is tight and Calboy is speaking his mind on every track in a way that’ll make you sit up fully out of your chair. There aren’t many features on this one so the OG Calboy fans will appreciate hearing him speak his peace on each track. Calboy is an exciting Chicago talent that deserves the attention he’s been getting this year. — Sam Morrison
21) SONNY — AGNB
All Gas No Brakes: The universal motto for unrelenting drive and determination. However, this isn’t just a hollow motif for SONNY – it summarizes who he is at his core. Employing cadences consistent with many of Chicago’s bona fide trendsetters, it’s clear that the “KILL BILL” emcee is destined to become one of the city’s next stars. His February EP, A.G.N.B., not only features a darker and eerie pocket of his sound, but highlights his hunger to succeed. The starkly-lit video for its lead single “RISKY” (directed by fellow Chicagoan LONEWOLF) illustrates the emphasis on the moody yet voracious tone SONNY employs throughout, capturing SONNY in his native Chicago showcasing his pure will and intention to make it.
“A n*** got ambition / You can’t make no f***n’ money being timid,” he raps while running on the gravel tracks of a CTA station with the cityscape glistening in the background. This sentiment echoes all throughout the EP, as SONNY shines by flexing his own flow — floating over the menacing, fast-paced production found on EP highlights like “TWISTED METAL,” “BELIEVE” and “NEXT OF KIN” featuring the ever-malleable KAMI. Knowing that taking risks is imperative to achieve what you desire, it’s clear SONNY can’t be stopped – personifying All Gas No Brakes in every way. — Jon Barlas
20) Jean Deaux — HEAVY
Jean Deaux has been an unstoppable force in music since bursting onto the scene and, along the way, she has been planting her flag in nearly every one of our year-end lists with her prolific streak of phenomenal boundary-pushing sonic output that evolves from one release to another. This time around, the multi-hyphenate artist releases her fifth – and most creatively ambitious – studio album, HEAVY, which captures a world of bliss built on the back of euphoric swells of harmony, braggadocio-strung bars, and expansively produced instrumentals that stretch to their limits to support Jean’s larger than life vocal presence.
Much like the album’s namesake, this project carries a real tangible weight to it not only because of its bass-heavy production that provides symbiosis to Jean’s contrastingly ethereal vocal performances but also because of the grounded perspective her pen attacks this project with. On the project’s opening track, “JD’s REVENGE” Jean strings together inspired verses where she comes to grips with coping with pain over delicately swung production. The versatility Jean exhibits on this album is an undeniable statement that Jean can measure up with the industry greats in any sonic arena she pleases. On this album, we’re met with dynamic tracks where Jean will seamlessly 180 from brilliantly built storytelling in 16s to her signature brain-melting hooks, and each piece of the puzzle is delivered with such care and precision.
Jean simply does it all, but more than that, she does it better than anyone else in her lane. HEAVY is a body of work that captures Jean Deaux on top of her game and is easily one of the most exciting R&B-meets-rap projects of the year. — Jack Kissane
19) Cdot Honcho — HONCHO Not Honcho
In terms of projects, it’s been a quiet past few years for Cdot Honcho, but that drought ended this year with the release of his new tape, HONCHO Not Honcho. The 7 track project is a short one, but you’ll find that it’s packed with immense amounts of replay value from top to bottom. With no songs surpassing 3 minutes, this is an offering that you’ll be able to have on repeat for a while without even noticing. Cdot has always been an important Chicago figure to me and showings like that reaffirm my belief in that statement. After a slow 2021 and 2022, it’s good to see Honcho picking up where he left off with songs like, “Jet Li” and “Fa Fa Fa”. Don’t sleep on HONCHO Not Honcho. — Sam Morrison
18) Femdot — Free Samples, Vol. 1
Landing here at #18 on our annual year-end Chicago projects list is femdot, who released two phenomenal tapes this year, but here we will be highlighting Free Samples, Vol. 1! If you are familiar with fem, then you know that he is a top-tier lyricist who can create a multi-layered conceptual project at the drop of a dime.
At times, I feel like fem gets unfairly boxed into the “conscious rapper” or overly hip-hop category, and although he excels at these things, fem has proved that he can really do it all. For example, let’s just take a look at this project here.
“Bobby Portis” is a hard-hitting, bass-heavy record where fem not only flexes his pure rapping ability but talks his shit seamlessly in a short and sweet minute & a half-track. While “2003” is a soulful instrumental that fem slid over and created one of those records that you can play on a loop for hours on end. Lastly, I will point to “NCAA Rules” – which is without a doubt the greatest storytelling record that I have listened to all year.
Basically what I am getting at is there’s something for everyone on this project – don’t believe me, listen for yourself! — Elliot Montanez
17) Warhol SS — 3200, VOL 2
As another significant milestone that highlights his artistic growth and resilience, Lyrical Lemonade veteran and underground OG Warhol.SS never fails to impress. His latest mixtape, 3200 Vol 2, isn’t just another record; it’s an embodiment of artistic evolution. As the follow up to 2017’s 3200, the blazing 16-track LP sees Warhol recruit Babyface Ray, Rich the Kid and more – who all body the 808-heavy beats served with tried-and-true Chicago energy. Standout cuts like “REAL N***A FIRST,” “SECOND NATURE,” “TROOPS PT. 2” and “HELLSTAR” are just another reason why Warhol.SS has built his brand embodying the “rap Andy Warhol” – able to tee up floating, atmospheric cuts akin to LUCKI’s discography or scathing, street anthems made for the mosh. Whether you got hip to the Chi-Town spitter through his prolific SoundCloud-era run with UnoTheActivist or albums in Where’s Warhol (2017), Chest Pains (2018) and Where’s Warhol 2, Warhol continues to wave the street-ridden flag through the lore that defines the city’s culture at its core. — Jon Barlas
16) Valee & Harry Fraud — Virtuoso
Valee’s been labeled “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper” for years now. The Chicago wordsmith has made a name for himself threw off-kilter flows, inimitable flair and woozy, hard-hitting beats that elevated him to the upper echelon of underground rap royalty. And yet, nationwide praise has yet to deter him from consistently dropping heat year after year – sharing three full-length albums in 2023 alone: VALEEDATION, CAR TOONS, Virtuoso. The latter is certainly the most potent and polished of the three, as he and Harry Fraud craft a masterpiece fit for their Virtuoso personalities.
If it’s not the all-star list of features that draw you in (i.e. Action Bronson, Saba, MAVI, 03 Greedo, RXKNephew and more), it’s Valee’s ability to keep you clutched within his dreamy, drawled bars, backed by Harry Fraud’s versatile array of beats – both blistering and magical. 808-heavy bangers find their way on “Washington Wizard,” “Uppity” and “Watermelon Automobile” (which features powerful verses from both SABA and Mavi) as woozy, sample-clad efforts like “Sea Bass” and “Vibrant” with Bronson give this project an edge all its own. The prolific rapper leaves no stone unturned on Virtuoso; If you don’t listen closely, its brilliance will go right over your head. — Jon Barlas
15) Booka600 — SOMEBODY SAVE ME
Booka600 has had a really cool journey in my opinion; starting off in the drill/underground lane and now rising to the prominence that he’s experiencing is always heartwarming to see as a true music lover and fan of artist development. With a loyal fan base that has risen with him, Booka continues to turn heads and attract new ears with everything he puts out. 2023 was a solid year for him as he released a project that is not easily overlooked when stacked up against other Chicago artists. The offering, called, “SOMEBODY SAVE ME” is a 9 song collection of some of Books best work in my opinion. Over the years, I’ve watched his sound evolve and his style elevate to the point where he truly is getting better as time goes on. With no features besides NLE Choppa on “MY CALLING”, this project is an important one for Booka600 fans, but the Chicago scene in general as it feels like a step in the right direction for the future of artistry in this area. “MAIN ROLE”, “CAN’T DO RIGHT” and “GUNFIRE” are some of my favorites here, but go through each one and let us know what you think! — Sam Morrison
14) Jamila Woods — Water Made Us
Jamila Woods is one of Chicago’s most promising acts right now, which is why it’s only right that she slides in on this year’s list. If you’ve followed Jamila, then you’d know that her evolution and rise has been nothing short of spectacular and inspiring. I got hip to the songstress back in 2017 and ever since hearing her intoxicating, soulful voice, it was evident that I was going to be a fan for a while. With 2 projects already under her belt, Jamila makes her entry on the list with her 3rd that was released this past year. The album, called, “Water Made Us” is a relaxing and slow descent into the mind of Jamila that consists of clever wordplay, and masterful melodies infused with spoken word. It’s impossible to put Jamila in to a box as each song on this project boasts different vibes while still maintaining the through line that makes her music effective. The 17-track project has minimal features, but those who do make appearances do an amazing job of complimenting the foundation that Jamila has laid. “Water Made Us” is a blessing to listen to and I hope you all feel the same way when turning it on. — Sam Morrison
13) Ausar — I NOW KNOW.
Fighting fears with ferocity is what Ausar sets out to do on I Now Know. — his stunningly refined debut album that boasts features from some of music’s most underrated pens: Dende, Chris Patrick and Deante’ Hitchcock among others. However, it’s the Chicago native who outshines any of the aforementioned stars — proving that his flows are golden (much like the album’s cover art). In other words, Ausar is the star of the show.
I’m not a fan of comparisons, especially when it comes to art, but Ausar has all the makings of being the J. Cole of this generation — going to head-to-head with other lyrical savants in Chris Patrick (“Trophies”) and “Deante’ Hitchcock (“List”). Outlandish as it may read, it’s tracks like “Training Wheels” that remind of 2014 Forest Hills Drive Cole; the presence, the pen, the hunger, the honesty, it’s all natural for Ausar. “I ain’t missed a bump in the road,” he smoothly tears off on “Missed a Stop,” “let me appreciate the lows for what they are.” Between luscious and layered vocals is Ausar’s ability to saunter in between each beat’s perfectly-crafted instrumentation; It’s so soothing it hurts. Unlike other records that dropped this year, Ausar’s first official effort beams with character and uses his life’s narrative as a guide for listeners to latch on to. A debut album is a tall feat in itself, but I Now Knowis a sentient work of art that goes beyond breathtaking. — Jon Barlas
12) Dreamer Isioma — Princess Forever
Dreamer Isioma has been a constant fixture occupying my listening history since the jump all the way back in 2019 when I stumbled across their dreamy R&B ballad “Valentina,” which opened my – at the time – narrow taste to a whole new world of sound. Since then, they have trekked one of the most successful and prolific rises to stardom, and this year’s release of Princess Forever is a beautiful actualization of Dreamer’s longing for love and intimacy articulated with a sound that toes the line between dream pop and gorgeous R&B textures.
Dreamer’s music occupies a world of its own, both figuratively and literally. This album is based in its own intergalactic world, hinting at Dreamer’s yearning for escapism, a sentiment further explored in their sincerely candid storytelling, which has continued to evolve exponentially from one release to another. While the location and textures of the project may be otherworldly, Dreamer’s emotion-channeling songwriting is so deeply rooted in reality, offering us words to back indescribable feelings that I wouldn’t even begin to know how to articulate. If you’re looking to get lost in an expansive album, tap in with Dreamer’s latest offering Princess Forever. — Jack Kissane
11) Tobi Lou — Perish Blue
I love albums that are treated as living, breathing entities – constantly added upon, changed or remixed into something new. Tobi Lou’s Perish Blue is the pinnacle of his artistic prowess in 2023, as the 8-track EP morphed and evolved over the course of Lou’s “Perish Blue” tour this past Fall with grouptherapy.. Reigning as the soundtrack to his time on the road, iridescent, alt-rap bangers filled with chilling melodies and unabashed character elevate Tobi and producer FARADA’s unbreakable connection. An extension of their other 8-track effort Decent’ in June (which features name brand Chicago voices in Polo G, Chief Keef and SABA rapping over tracks largely out of their element), Tobi’s superpower lies within his ear for experimentation.
Soft spoken hooks on “Cobra” featuring Young Thug offer a look into the tender care Tobi takes into account when fine-tuning his sound, as “Come See Me Live” is as triumphant as the affirmations he speaks into existence – it’s a hit for all the right reasons. While 2022’s Non-Perishable was the gateway towards his music for most, it’s clear Tobi Lou possesses something special – and his full potential has yet to be unlocked. Privy to a wager? Bet on Tobi Lou being in everyone’s rotation once his next LP comes around. We’re happy he chose the mic over minor league ball. After all, no one else is giving us this brand of Frank Ocean-esque, new guard Chicago trapsoul like Tobi Lou is. — Jon Barlas
10) Vic Mensa — VICTOR
Who else would be able to pull off adding Omari Hardwick to the intro track of their project? None other than Vic Mensa obviously! During his tenure, The Chicago legend has never disappointed and we find him in familiar fashion on his 2023 album called, “Victor”. The impressive showing boasts notable features like Jay Electronica, G-Eazy, Chance The Rapper, Maeta, Thundercat, Common, Rapsody, Ant Clemons, Ty Dolla $ign and more, but at the same time doesn’t feel crowded in the slightest; but instead gives Vic Mensa his rightful shine on each and every moment. If you’ve been a fan of Vic Mensa for as long as we have, then you know that his style and music has aged extremely well to the point where we all should do a deep study of his artistic evolution. From top to bottom, “Victor” is a triumph and I couldn’t see this being left off of this list by any means. — Sam Morrison
9) Joey Purp — Heavy Heart, Vol. 1
I feel as if we all really need to take a step back and look at the strong catalog of music that Joey Purp has provided for us over the last decade because this man has provided us with consistently incredible music for quite some time now. Whether you look at Quarterthing, iiiDrops, or even his work with Leather Corduroys – he has been a staple in Chicago’s music scene and hasn’t let us down yet.
His 2023 project Heavy Heart, Vol. 1 was easily one of the best projects to come out of the city yet, and I believe that this tape has some of Joey’s best moments as an artist yet. I wouldn’t quite go as far as to say it’s his best project, because the aforementioned albums are all classics in their own right, but there are a handful of joints on this tape that are in Joey’s Top 20 best songs ever.
“In The Kitchen Freestyle” is some of Joey’s best music to date, this song was my top song played on Spotify in 2023, and I found myself gravitating back to it over and over again. There really aren’t many people in the city that can f*ck with Joey when it comes to his pure rapping ability, and this record showed his skillset on full display, over the classic “blowing up fast” beat by Lil Wayne. Aside from the one track, the intro on this project is GOLD, and Joey also threw in some up-tempo bangers to compliment the lyricism. — Elliot Montanez
8) OTF — Nightmare in the Trenches
OTF offering “Nightmare In The Trenches” has to have one of the most memorable album arts this year and although that doesn’t afford anyone a spot on this list, I feel like it should….On a serious note though, the 11-song project from the well-known rap collective that dropped this year was just too good in every way. Songs like, “Eyes Red”, “I’m The Type” and “Smirk Carter” are clear standouts that separate this project from most, but at the end of the day, every song on here deserves an adequate listen. If you’re from Chicago, then you have to be tapped in with OTF, but if you aren’t yet, then this project is a great place to start. “Nightmare In The Trenches” is a well-deserved placement on this year’s list as I believe it will continue to get better with time. — Sam Morrison
7) DCG BROTHERS — US NEVER THEM
Chicago’s finest, DCG Brothers have been moving through the Chicago music scene extremely well for the past few years now and it seems as if the two of them are showing no signs of stopping anytime soon. If I can use one word to describe Shun + Bsavv, it’s consistent…The two spitters have spent the last couple of years stringing together a paper trail of songs that have helped them solidify their reputation as one of Chicago’s most exciting Duo’s out right now. Off the heels of their 2022 showing, “Jungle Life”, the DCG brothers make their entry on the top 50 list for the release of their latest project called, “Us, Never Them”. I’ve had extensive time to sit with this one and I have to say that it’s worth the listen in every way. One of the standout tracks, “On the Ground” feat. 2Rare does a great job of reminding listeners why these brothers stand out in front of a lot of the music out right now, while showcasing their growth as well. Any time I turn on DCG, it always sounds like they’re having the most fun, which makes listening to them that much better. “Us, Never Them” is a tape that cannot be denied, so make sure you tap in as soon as possible and see why it made the cut. — Sam Morrison
6) G Herbo — Strictly 4 My Fans 2
In 2016, one of the best years for music in the last decade, G Herbo released, “Strictly 4 My Fans” and nearly 7 years later, he follows up with the 2023 release of “Strictly 4 My Fans 2”; The top 50 Chicago Projects list would not be complete with our LL favorite, but the quality of this album, bypasses any bias that we could possibly place on it. This 12-song album wastes absolutely no time in getting going with “Watch Me Ball Pt. 2” then continues to get better with tracks like “Outside” feat. GloRilla and Mello Buckzz. G Herbo has been and will always be a staple in the Chicago music scene and I don’t think anyone could ever disagree with that statement. At this point in his career, it feels like there are no signs of him slowing down and “Strictly 4 My Fans 2” feels like a love letter to all G Herbo fans as he reassures his community that he’s got more than enough gas in the tank. This project is a favorite, so make sure you tap in to each song before the year ends. — Sam Morrison
5) Mick Jenkins — The Patience
Mick Jenkins is an artist who truly needs no introduction. The Chi-Town favorite has been around for some time now, but it seems like time after time, he continues to remind us why he’s here to stay and not going anywhere. With a list as prestigious as the top 50 Chicago Projects of 2023, it only makes sense that Mick Jenkins favorably makes the cut. His latest project called, “The Patience” is an 11-song offering that boasts some of the best music that you’ll hear on the list. I’ll always be a fan of lengthy albums, but with only 11 tracks, this entire piece still feels full with so much left over to chew on. The Windy City has benefited from Mick Jenkins music for well over a decade and it’s our honor to be able to show some love to an artist who has done so much to push the local scene forward. Make sure you tap in with “The Patience” before the year ends! — Sam Morrison
4) King Von — Grandson
Not many words need to be said about this one; RIP King Von…Grandson is the third studio album and his second project release posthumous after “What It Means to Be King” from 2022. This one has been in good hands as it was released by Only The Family Entertainment/Empire. With 17 songs, this essential 2023 listen will bridge the gap between OG King Von fans and any new listeners who want to pay homage to the Chicago legend. G Herbo, Polo G and Lil Durk himself, all made appearances on here (in addition to others), which truly makes “Grandson” feel like a family affair with the sole purpose of honoring Von’s legacy. Like I said, I could say a bunch of words about the importance of this project, but I want everyone to listen as soon as they can. This year’s list would not be the same without King Von, so we’re extremely happy that we get to include yet another project of his! — Sam Morrison
3) Noname — Sundial
Since the inception of her career, Noname has been an unmistakably prominent figure in Chicago’s music scene, an inarguable fact fueled by the enduring cultural imprint that her purpose-driven music has left on her listeners and well the state of the culture, for that matter. Fittingly, this year’s release of her phenomenal sophomore studio album, Sundial, plays host to the rapper’s profoundly sharp and reflective confrontation of said culture, casting a necessary body of work that pulls no punches and doesn’t spare any names in the process.
The roughly 30-minute LP is a potent body of work that stands tall as a worthy conclusion to the five-year hiatus that has spanned the gap between the release of her last – and highly lauded – album Room 25 and Sundial. Noname’s music in general, but particularly on Sundial, presents a powerful, thought-provoking dichotomy via its beautiful presentation of lush instrumentation, mind-melting rhyme schemes, and soothing harmonies that frame her criticism and meticulous breakdown of the institutions and individuals perpetuating the ugliest aspects of society. Although the project’s subject matter is serious, Noname carefully weighs and cuts her musical product with ample amounts of her infectious personality via an endless array of quotables that are presumably delivered with a smirk.
This album offers Noname at her best, flexing her masterful flows that weave between and through beautifully decorated neo-soul production via her signature composed delivery that organizes complex subject matter and syllable gymnastics with unreplicable precision to stick the landing with a purposeful message each and every time. Furthermore, I’d be remiss not to mention the incredible features from the likes of Common and billy woods, to name a few whose verses explode with character, framing alternative perspectives that add additional layers to the genius of the album. Sundial offers one of the most inspired and well-executed bodies of work in Chicago and beyond, making it an easy inclusion high up on our list this year. — Jack Kissane
2) LUCKI — SMD
LUCKI’s made quite a living off rapping about three topics: Sex, money and drugs. Fitting as it may be, considering that’s the title of his latest studio album, s*x m*ney dr*gs, there’s still so much to digest from the former underground king’s ascension to mainstream acclaim in recent years. The crazy part is, we’ve known he was destined to achieve this from the jump. Whether it’s career-elevating efforts like FLAWLESS LIKE ME, WAKE UP LUCKI and the Cole Bennett-directed “COINCIDENCE” or cult classics in Freewave 2 and Alternative Trap, it’s no secret the Chicago icon has always been a step ahead — keeping his finger on the culture’s pulse with each passing project. The only difference from then to now? More people have caught on to his signature style of atmospheric, psych-trap, as s*x m*ney dr*gs not only thrives by way of LUCKI’s focused yet woozy performances, but LUCKI’s half-awake ferocity that keeps listeners wanting more. Shedding his skin as an underground savant, it was anything but luck that propelled LUCKI to fame. Spin “2021 Vibes,” “Mubu” and “Wholeworldslatt” with Veeze for another woozy dose of LUCKI’s signature sauce. SMD elicits a coma you never want to wake up from. — Jon Barlas
1) Lil Durk — Almost Healed
Lil Durk’s Almost Healed was another defining moment in an illustrious career full of them. Candidly, it might be the best hip-hop project of the year despite what critics say otherwise. Obviously this is an opinionated outlook, but I’m sure a majority of people who have kept us with us and the Lyrical brand for quite some time will agree with me.
It’s impossible to deny Lil Durk’s stratospheric rise over the past handful of years, and I think what we’re seeing is an artist who is cementing his legacy in a way that’s more undeniable than most. From the heartwarmingly viral “All My Life” featuring J. Cole to the unexpected collaboration with Morgan Wallen (“Stand By Me”), Lil Durk has consistently showcased why he’s still one of the most exciting artists hailing from Chicago — and the intrust as a whole. 21 songs may feel like forever on most LPs, but not when each one possesses a unique and exciting identity, especially on the crosstown link-up with Juice WRLD (“Cross The Globe”) and the Alicia Keys-assisted open-heart confessional “Therapy Session.” Throughout the record, Durk recognizes the pain he’s caused in his life, not only unto others, but himself. It’s a full circle moment for the legacy drill emcee, who uses his eighth studio album as reconciliation for better days ahead — changing for the better.
For LL fans, It’s been an exciting year for Lil Durk. Hopping on “Guitar In My Room” with Kid Cudi for ALL IS YELLOW was a big moment, however, Almost Healed was the statement piece longtime Durkio fans have waited for. — Sam Morrison / Jon Barlas