Austin Brown has that Chi town sound.
After a rollercoaster few years in their careers, Lil Durk and Lil Reese reconnected to drop a collaborative EP, Supa Vultures. While smaller than either of their mixtapes or full-length projects at only six songs, the return of one of drill’s original power duos doubles as a perfect look back on how big a difference a prolonged break can make.
I came to old drill tracks, whether from Keef, Reese, Durk, or any of the other great artists in the scene, for something that I’d never quite gotten from hip-hop before: artists who bridged the gap between the explicit instability of Kanye and Lil Wayne with the music-first mentality of the trap underground. In Shea Serrano’s The Rap Year Book, Ben Westhoff, writing about Waka Flocka Flame’s “Hard In Da Paint,” describes Lex Luger’s production as “resembl[ing] a horror movie score, but the effect is that you are the movie’s protagonist, and the guy with the knife isn’t going to win, you are.”
Drill expanded on that fundamental premise and went for more discomfiting narratives while cranking up the anxiety, but the core premise was the same—if gangsta rap was about “reporting,” trap and especially drill at the turn of the decade was a VR experience.
Over the years, though, the spotlight has turned from Chicago’s street rap scene in search of fresh blood, leaving its most talented to find their way. Durk has managed well, carving out a space beyond the Chicago street scene with his more melodic flow and, eventually, his lean toward Atlanta’s now-dominant topical mélange of hedonic introspection (along with his recent move to the city), but his success still seems frustratingly marginal. Reese, on the other hand, has encountered interruptions and roadblocks both musical and personal: his sound has arguably failed to evolve with the times, and ongoing problems with the law have interrupted the flow of his career time and time again.
Here, then, Durk and Reese stake their claim to continued relevance not by making any radical career pivots or moves toward pop—there’s no “My Beyonce” here—but by splitting the difference between Durk’s emotional and melodic growth over the past few years and Reese’s still-potent jackhammer flow. It bolsters both of them, especially when producer Chopsquad sits behind the decks and lends them instrumentals that split the difference between aggression and something approximating fear.
“Distance” and “Unstoppable,” the two standout hits of the album, exude a simmering energy that allows Durk to return to a more rootsy confrontational style even as Reese shows more emotional range than might be expected—on “Unstoppable” in particular, Reese’s verse suddenly dips into mournfulness as he spits, “I put drugs in my system for the n*ggas I lost/I took a loss/that’s what it cost.”
It’s apparent, though, that here Durk gets more out of his symbiosis with Reese than vice versa. Back in 2012, Reese took center stage on most of his collabs with Durk. But time (and the industry) has served kinder to Durk and his musical deftness than Reese’s punky braggadocio, and it’s Durk that dominates most of Supa Vultures. “Alotta Lotta,” the most Reese-dominant track, is couched in a brooding production filled with negative space that feels mismatched to Reese’s straightforward flow and menace, only coming alive on Durk’s verse as he ditches the auto-tune and shows off a flow with a markedly lighter touch. Elsewhere, “Fuck Dat Shit” showcases a melodically unstable Durk whose momentum feels undercut by Reese on the chorus, whose insistent “fuck dis shit” chorus feels just…small.
The last track, “Nobody Knows,” points towards the future for, at least, Durk (Reese is notably absent). One of the biggest fallacies of drill’s hype period was its constant pigeonholing as being “nihilistic”—cribbing wholesale the “no future” aesthetic preset of punk and applying it to a genre that resembled punk attitudinally but not ideologically. When Durk says “I got a story I got a movie but nobody know,” the ridiculous insufficiency of that shtick is impossible to believe. Here, Durk sounds wounded, confused even as he celebrates his own success.
It’s a privilege to be as openly vulnerable as Durk is on this track: it’s not likely he would’ve taken the same tact in 2012, or even 2014, when his bars skewed more teeth-clenching than mournful. He knows it, too: “My kids goin’ to college/I sold dope at Giuseppe’s,” he plainly states near the end of the song, caught between the celebration of his personal success and the ever-present fear of leaving behind the people who surrounded and supported him.
Where a street rapper who’s seen success was once expected to shamelessly celebrate their wealth, Durk spends “Nobody Knows” agonizing more over authenticity than aspirations—that is, no matter how much he transcends his circumstances, he still cares, he still remembers, he still grinds. That includes, of course, caring about and supporting Reese, who has Durk’s full support here and who, at his best on this EP, makes it clear that he’s not down for the count by a long shot.
Here, though, Reese is a phantom presence, most potent as a character in the tapestry of Durk’s fucked up vignettes. On Supa Vultures, Durk continues to thicken his surprisingly resilient persona and reconnect with his roots. What remains to be seen is how Reese can take the spark he shows on this project and use it to answer for himself the contemporary dilemma of drill: How do you make people care about your story when what first drew them to you was your sound?