Prior to 2010, rappers like Lupe Fiasco & Common were the frontrunners of Chicago’s socially conscious rap scene, but the rise of Save Money & drill turned control of the windy city over to a new generation of artists. On his debut EP, Catharsis, Hyde Park native Chris Earl modernizes Chicago’s conscious sound, rapping with an ambitious sense of leadership that reflects upon a deeper love for his city.
Catharsis runs across six songs and finds its consistencies amid thought-provoking verses that connect back to Earl’s hometown pride. On the second track, “Equity,” Chris raps with the energy and conviction of a midwest Jay Rock. The beat was made by Ismael Jam, who backs the rapper with a detuned drum kit that further cements the comparison to Top Dawg Entertainment. Every word he rhymes carries a deeper meaning, with the verses rotating around, “Hear no evil can’t speak it either/Kill my heroes while I spit this ether/Gotta make these zeroes, I’m my brother’s keeper, yeah.” Chris Earl is teaching the same values that the late Nipsey Hussle built a legacy around, primarily emphasizing the importance of financial freedom.
On the beatsinmybackpack produced, “Yield,” the Hyde Park native is at his best with punchline-heavy bars in lines like “I took a takeoff from the offset, now I’m huncho paid/Like three amigos, but it’s me, I’m on my own today.” Even when Earl flexes his skills, he always re-focuses his own triumphs to educate others. This song centers on remaining realistic throughout any facade of success but is still delivered in a way that is meant to inspire rather than boast. Unlike the majority of other rappers, Chris doesn’t speak with even the slightest amount of condescension.
Earl’s loose autobiographical chronology becomes concrete through the EP closer, “All 4 U.” Beyond him rapping about different aspects of his personal life, he also gives a self-aware nod to his Nipsey influence with, “The marathon continues, shouts to Nip/tell ‘em run laps.” Like the surrounding tracks, he continues to assume the role of a teacher, comparing the misunderstood south side neighborhood Englewood to Black Panther’s Wakanda. The last song may begin with his birth, but even though its name, “All 4 U,” he removes the spotlight from himself and reinforces the theme of improving his community.
Over the past two years, conscious rap has begun to edge its way back into Chicago’s city limits, primarily through the rise of west-sider Philmore Greene. Philmore also preaches themes that are rooted in his own experiences, but his classic ‘90s sound is aimed at a slightly older crowd than Catharsis. Chris Earl delivers an equivalently uplifting message to Greene’s, but from the otherwise absent perspective of a south-sider. He’s a phenomenal rapper, and taps into producers who deliver bright melodies with heavy ‘808s and modern drum kits. While both of these rappers differ in delivery and style, each pen brilliant verses about the highs and lows of the complex city, and tie every observation back to their love for Chicago.