This year was good to Chicago musicians. Led by superstar Chance the Rapper, the city’s eclectic music scene gained national attention. Vocalists like Jamila Woods and rappers like Noname released albums or mixtapes that bucked trap and EDM trends in the mainstream music scene, proving their keen ears and deft lyricism could connect with vast audiences.
And local musicians were afraid to make all facets of their city—from the violent to the hopeful to the beautiful—shine throughout their releases. Chicago was as much a part of their musical identities as their personal identities. Here, we collect eight of the most Chicago songs from this year’s best Chicago artists.
Jamila Woods, “LSD”
This slow jam from poet and singer-songwriter Jamila Woods is an ode to the beauty, strength, and resiliency of Chicago and Lake Michigan. “I won't let you criticize / My city like my skin, it's so pretty / If you don't like it, just leave it alone,” Woods sings in the first verse. A defiant stand in the face of Chicago's unyieldingly bad reputation, Woods’ identity is intrinsically tied to her home in this love letter to the lakeshore.
Chance the Rapper, “No Problem”
Compared with other tracks on Coloring Book, “No Problem” is far from a locally kept secret. The song has gained national attention, thanks in part to verses by Atlanta rappers Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz. But no track this year united Chicago audiences as profoundly as “No Problem.” Whether played for thousands at a summer festival or in the comfort of a backyard barbecue, “No Problem” came to define the jubilant and sometimes frenetic energy of the city in 2016. As far as Chicago goes, it was unequivocally the song of the summer.
Saba, "Westside Bound 3”
At a time when Chicago’s music scene largely snubs the West Side, Saba is a breath of fresh air. In "Westside Bound 3," the Austin emcee raps eagerly about his neighborhood ("I’m from the part of the city that they don’t be talking about / Austin my grandmama house"). Dead-center on the rapper’s Bucket List Project mixtape, the track anchors a release championing the West Side a vital part of Chicago, both creatively and culturally.
Whitney, “Light Upon the Lake”
In a June interview with Line of Best Fit, Whitney's Julien Ehrlich described this track as “a punctuation mark at the end of the transition” from his former band, Smith Westerns (during which he and bandmate Max Kakacek weathered an eviction). But for listeners unacquainted with Whitney's back story, the song encapsulates the quiet desolation of Chicago winters (a time when many of its songs were written) and the fleetingness of its summers. More than any other track this year, "Light Upon the lake" captures the cycle of change that feels so specific to life in the city.
Vic Mensa, “16 Shots”
This Hyde Park native underwent a lyrical transformation in 2015, which culminated in this year's “16 Shots,” an abrasive and powerful track about the shooting death of Laquan MacDonald. Tackling both street violence and police brutality, the protest song was a much-needed shot in the arm from one of the city’s brightest young stars. “Somebody tell these mothafuckas keep they hands off me / I ain't a mothafuckin' slave, keep your chains off me,” Mensa raps in the synth-drenched third verse, declaring the song as not “conscious rap” but deeply personal music, born out of shock and anger.
Noname, “Casket Pretty”
Noname crept into the spotlight after a handful of guest appearances with the likes of Mick Jenkins and Chance the Rapper, but on the rapper's debut Telefone, she came into her own. On album standout “Casket Pretty,” she reflects on heavy subject material (violence, police brutality) with light, almost effervescent instrumentation: “Niggas is casket pretty / Ain't no one safe in this happy city." As she told Fader in September, "I tend to find melancholy in instrumentals that people think are innately happy."
Joey Purp, “Cornerstore”
iiiDrops, Joey Purp’s breakout mixtape, is a beautifully bombastic collection of rich lyrics coupled with gorgeous, lush instrumentation. These elements merge on “Cornerstore,” Purp’s ode to growing up in Chicago. A tandem with Saba, its verses paint a better picture of Chicago's often dichotomous daily life than nearly any other song this year: “In the studio jamming, listening to Thelo Piece / And no religion shit, Chiraq look like the Middle East.”
TheMind, “Come Home”
By far the shortest track on this list (it clocks in a two minutes and thirteen seconds), “Come Home” pinpoints the disconnect between time spent away from Chicago and the routine of daily life in the city. As TheMind asks “What the streets been like?” he explores what it means to leave the place you’ve always known to make a name for yourself—or survive. “Nowadays the streets I've grown / Say I left 'em on the straight / But I had to get away to make a way / Hoping that these tracks bring the dream along,” he sings. For any creative or Chicagoan pulled by the glamor of the coasts, this sentiment feels especially true.