Jonah Bromwich called the X-Clan revival first.
It takes a while for Kembe X to hit his stride both on a song by song basis and over the entirety of his first mixtape, Self Rule. The affable seventeen year old, who belongs to a loose Chicago collective known as The Village, frequently needs some time to shake the cobwebs off, but once he does, he’s unquestionably worth listening to.
Rapping over VERY smooth boom-bap beats that harken back to the early nineties, Kembe occasionally oversteps the bars’ orthodoxy: “when I be high, I be observin’ the fuck out of shit” is a somewhat charming but also really stupid lyric and when he calls Lil Wayne “a fucking faggot” on opening track “X,” the obscenity is so out of character that he immediately asks us to pardon his French. Then too, there are his politicisms which come off as artificial. Despite his name, and the opening track which juxtaposes Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” with speeches about black power, Kembe is best as a lifestyle rapper, something that he shows off more ably later down the line.
“Don’t Quit” seems like a bit of an eye-roller at first; it’s a song about desperately wanting to quit smoking weed. But this is the first song where Kembe is in the pocket the entire time, speeding up his tempo and making the beat work for him. He’s similarly comfortable on “The Wager (In Rod We Lust),” a two minute meditation on a bright future, thoughts which gaze skyward but are expressed with a grounded humility.
Make no mistake, Illmatic is the primary touchstone here, and that’s never clearer than it is on one of the best songs, “Visions.” The hook, which speaks of “visions of the world being mine” is strongly reminiscent of the casual ambition of an adolescent Nas, another young guy who was willing to claim the world (although Nas claimed it for the listeners). Though Kembe doesn’t get particularly close to the hyperbolically precocious poetics that Nasty revealed on his debut, he does showcase a smoothness which, along with great beats, makes Self Rule a pleasant listen with plenty of intrigue for the future thrown in.
Over the weekend Kembe released a new mixtape, Can I Get a Dollar?, with his counterpart Alex Wiley, a guy who’s less steady but might be more exciting. Alex Wiley doubletime raps in the classic style of his city, though he cites Wale’s 100 Miles and Running as one of his favorite tapes (also, one of my all-time favorites).
Wiley first showed up on Self Rule where his verses vibed surprisingly well off of the more laid-back Kembe and it’s a good look for the two to continue to collaborate. Wiley’s got a snap to his voice, enunciates more clearly than most fast-rappers, and has an endearing habit of cutting off quickly at the end of his words, an effect which helps the lyrics stay in your mind. His chorus on new song “Extremely Well” is insanely catchy, as it riffs on Allen Iverson’s famous disdain for practice with an outsize personality.
Wiley generally has a better showing than Kembe on the new tape—the former’s better suited to braggadocio than the latter, and that’s all Dollar is. Wiley makes good use of the surplus of wax time, mixing a little bit of Cleveland in with his Chicago and exaggerating the bite in his voice (someone’s been listening to “Brand New Guy”).
Neither of these guys have done enough to merit serious hype and they seem a little bit too happy with the accolades they’ve managed to scrape (which, since they came after a single mixtape, are somewhat impressive). Regardless, it’s never that good a look to fill 50% of your tape with raps about how good you are at rapping—it suggests that you’re running a little low on subject matter or that you just don’t feel like working. But if Wiley keeps his quality up and Kembe gets back to the voice he found on Self Rule, the Windy City should rejoice. These prospects, given a years of seasoning, could add two more new standard-bearers to Chicago’s expanding arsenal.