Sam Kelly ain’t signed no deal, he’s still winning.
Cdot Honcho knows only one way to rap: foot on the gas, volume cranked to 11, shouting to the heavens. With artists like Noname, G Herbo, and Queen Key all releasing region-defining projects in 2018, Chicago’s sound has annexed every inch of the stylistic map. And with his latest project, the electric H4, Cdot Honcho firmly slices off a little piece for himself.
If you’ve heard Honcho before, chances are that you’ve noticed his ad-lib. It’s hard to miss once you hear it, but on the LED screen it’s nothing special. Lots of rappers, after all, like to announce themselves before a grand entrance. “Quavo!” “twentyonetwentyonetwentyone,” “La Flame,” etc, etc… “Honcho! Honcho! Honcho,” shouted in a high-pitched rasp, shouldn’t be any different. Except that it kind of is. It packs a punch that’s usually hard to accomplish with just one word, and it’s mainly because the ad-lib leaves no room for doubt as to what to expect from the song you’re about to hear.
The South Side rapper came up in the mid-2010s as part of drill’s second wave, but with each new release he seems to stray a little farther into a territory of his own. His debut project Honcho The EP, released in 2015, mainly shows a 19-year-old rapper adopting the hallmarks of a familiar genre in order to find his footing. Three years later, he’s trimmed off the fat, honing a sound that relies almost solely on the fury with which he expresses himself.
On H4, Honcho is so eager to launch that he eschews his tag completely on the first track, “Still Hatin.’” NoahInHisBag’s pulsating beat doesn’t get four whole bars to settle in before Honcho takes off with a freneticism that builds as the song goes on, pausing only to gasp for air between verses.
If you’re searching for music to help gather your breath, H4 is not the place to look. Honcho’s raps leave you feeling either disoriented or juiced, his flow so unrelenting that guest verses from Chief Keef and Lil Durk feel like welcome opportunities to regather your composure. Some songs like “Honcho Style 4” and “Blue Money,” offer little more than some hi-hats and a trunk-rattling bass by way of a beat, but Honcho raps with such pace and aggression that any empty space disappears. On songs like “Sadity,” with its piercing, hypnotic synths, the confluence of all those factors leaves the listener in a state of perpetual blurry Mr. Krabs meme.
For all of his energy, though, Cdot Honcho isn’t exactly turning the rap game on its head lyrically. Most of the songs on H4 are filled with brag raps that are not particularly cohesive or original, and so by the end of the mixtape the recurrent lines about cars and girls feel somewhat banal. His lyrics, though often gritty, lack the depth that characterizes the best Chicago drill music. Herb and Bibby (23 and 24 years old, respectively) are barely older than Honcho (22 years old), but frequently offer a shrewd perspective that Honcho doesn’t seem to aim for. And hey, that’s his prerogative. There can still be value in music that recognizes the allure of chaos.
Attempts to characterize Chicago rappers by genre are tired, but I can’t help but wonder where Cdot Honcho stands in the evolution of drill music. It’s clearly informed by drill, as evidenced by the fact that two of its godfathers, Chief Keef and Lil Durk, are the only rappers to get features on H4. But more than that, it seems to me drill’s most logical manifestation in 2018. In the same way that drill rappers this side of Keef never quite seemed to reach household name status, Honcho seems to hold in little regard the potential for pop crossover success. Contemporary trap music is increasingly trending towards artists who can blur the lines between singing and rapping, and in response Honcho has only dug his heels more firmly into the earth.
There’s not the slightest semblance of melody in his raps, only turbulent flows that exist on a tonal spectrum somewhere between “mildly agitated” and “wholeheartedly screaming.” I don’t think he strays more than one or two steps from tonic on any song on H4. And though Honcho’s music may have roots in drill, his one-liner lyrics and frenzied beats suggest it may not exist without Soundcloud rap either. I mean, Young Chop wouldn’t be caught dead producing music so muddled and sparse, and it’s in this area that Honcho shines the brightest.
Regardless of what may or may not influence his work, Cdot Honcho is carving out a lane of his own; he raps with an explosiveness that makes up for any technical shortcomings and immediately sets him apart from his contemporaries. My only regret, corny as it may be, is that his latest mixtape is called H4 instead of C4. The former is the logical choice; he has, after all, already released H2 and H3. But the latter? It just feels so much more apt.