“Milelong Mixtapes”: Ep. #4

“Mile-Long Mixtapes”: Ep. #4

Happy Birthday CHIKA’s “Industry Games” & Also… the Pandemic? 

by Kellie M. Beck


The Friday after the University shut down classes for the remainder of the Winter 2020 semester, recently acclaimed rapper CHIKA released her debut album. My roommate and I listen to this album relentlessly– no one skips CHIKA in my house. 


Her Industry Games EP is a pure, ultra-concentrated dose of her finest work yet. “Intro”, the minute-long prologue to the piece, introduces soaring piano and string sections, and tells listeners “I hope this music makes you think,” only after a tight and dense verse with near-Grecian level drama. But the sentimentality is quickly tossed aside for the EP’s titular track to take center stage. 


CHIKA reveals to her audience over the course of the EP her struggle with her recent flux of fame. In “Industry Games”, CHIKA identifies herself as the literal “antithesis” of the rap industry, claiming that other top rappers aren’t invested in their work the way she is.The song segways neatly into “Songs About You”, a four-minute legacy track– arguably her finest song on the EP. “Songs About You” turns to criticizing haters, and both says and shows that CHIKA is hitting her prime, and on the way to becoming a household name. Even though CHIKA does her fair share of bragging about her (rather evident) skills, an underlying current of dissatisfaction runs through her lyrics– it begs the question, “if I’m already miles ahead of everyone else, what’s next?”


Over an angelic chorus of her backup singers singing “talk”, CHIKA rips the Band-Aid off in her track, “Balencies”. What’s the point of all this success, if the money and fame don’t bring me anything other than more problems? A church organ drops at the end of the second verse, the overwhelming pressure of the audio weighing down on the listener, only for it to drop into the sugary sweet intro of “Designer”. What’s the point of all this success, if she has to enjoy it alone? “On My Own” attempts to address the balance between love, and a relationship, with her fame with soft, velvety vocals, and her repeated promise: “I’m on my way.”


It’s CHIKA’s finale track, “Crown”, that contextualizes the album for me. CHIKA opens her story up to her audience, and asks them to connect with her story and her strife– “chasing the impossible takes some courage”, she tells listeners. Gospel vocals and rich layers of harmonizing vocals sing in pure joy– CHIKA chooses to celebrate strife as something that defines us. To survive, is to thrive. 


The pandemic is almost a year old. But on the horizon, is a promise of its end, while the sun begins to shine and the earth begins to thaw in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Listening to CHIKA’s Industry Games, I think we might owe ourselves a celebration of epic proportions someday soon. 

Unlocked: Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats

Denzel Curry is a versatile musical artist with a distinct style that breaks genre boundaries, and Kenny Beats is one of the biggest up-and-coming music producers in the industry, working with a wide variety of artists such as Vince Staples, JID, and Ed Sheeran. Although an unlikely pair, the duo recently released a short music project titled UNLOCKED, only 8 tracks long with a run-time of under 20 minutes. However, it makes the most of every minute: it’s gritty and experimental, combining the aggressive and powerful style of Denzel and the innovative and off-kilter production of Kenny into a thrill ride of an album.

UNLOCKED by Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats

There is no unifying concept to the album (although there’s a great accompanying music video about the two having to recovered the leaked track files in an animated, cartoon-style universe), but the album cover gives a great idea of the overall aesthetic. The art is brutal and objectively cool, with an over-the-top presentation and self-aware attitude that lends itself perfectly to the music. My favorite tracks are Take_it_Back_v2, Lay_Up.m4a, and DIET_; each one is a great representation of what makes the duo so great, featuring clever wordplay and dynamic production. I’m always left speechless when I pay special attention to either Denzel or Kenny; when I focus on Denzel, I’m blown away by his energy and clever lyricism, and when I listen to Kenny’s production, I always find new depths to the instrumentation and sampling. It’s honestly incredible how well the two styles complement each other, and I think a lot of the credit goes to Kenny. He seems to perfectly understand the aesthetic Denzel is working to achieve and makes it a reality.

Although the project is short and lacks a unifying concept, I think it works as an amazing example of the experimental power of this musical duo. Each song packs its own unique punch, and even after listening to the album at least 30 times, I’m still constantly surprised by its style and production. Considering this was only a small project, and that Denzel is known for releasing few full albums, I’m really hoping that he takes this style and runs with it, and maybe even works with Kenny Beats again for his next project.

2020 Grammy Performances

First off, I don’t watch the Grammys or follow the awards; I have no idea what the categories are, how the winners are determined, or how Billie Eilish can win 5 Grammys, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year (what’s the difference again?). But I did catch the aftermath this year, namely the musical performances which tend to be an iconic part of the awards show. Personally, I was most interested in the performances by Tyler, the Creator, Bilie Eilish, and Lil Nas X, of which Tyler is the most senior, having been rapping and pushing the limits of the genre for the last decade, while both Billie and Lil Nas are recent stars on the hip hop/pop scene. All performances were interesting in their own way and extremely telling of the current music industry, and for that reason I want to look at how successful each performance was and what defined them.

My favorite performance by far was Tyler, the Creator performing a medley of songs off of his most recent album Igor, which you may remember me writing about last fall. It ended up winning Best Rap Album of the Year, which is somewhat controversial, considering how experimental and genre-breaking Igor truly is. Many critics of the Grammys (including Tyler himself) point out the historical connotations of the Best Rap Album award, which has been one of the only awards consistently won by African American musicians, and feel that the forcing of Igor into this category further displays the role of the rap award as a participation trophy for African American artists.

Regardless of the politics around the award, nobody can argue that Igor didn’t deserve the Grammy; it truly is one of a kind, a fusion of multiple genres and saturated with personality and aesthetic. Tyler brought these exact qualities to his explosive performance, featuring a beautifully sung intro, then wild and intense effects followed up by an insane, almost heavy metal raging and dancing, leading to another beautifully sung reprieve, and finally a crescendo of visceral craziness and adrenaline, leading to a fitting climax. I definitely recommend watching it yourself; words can’t do it justice. Even if you don’t usually appreciate that style of music, I think the performance is objectively fantastic. I found that my heart was racing when I was watching, and I caught myself smiling at the end, that’s how much I was drawn into the over-the-top qualities of the performance. Not only was it more entertaining than any other performance, it actually put the music on display, perfectly conveying the themes and emotions that go along with the album.

The next performance I watched was Billie Eilish performing an acoustic song off of her most recent album with her brother on the piano. It was certainly well done and haunting, but its impact was almost insignificant compared to Tyler’s. I should acknowledge my bias towards Tyler first however; I simply appreciate his style and musical development more than Billie’s. I was a fan of hers when she first started, but I quickly felt like all of her music sounded the same (which is a pretty generic critique, I know). Perhaps her style is just meant to be subtle, and I missed the point of her performance, but regardless I felt like it left a lot to be desired, which is surprising considering how many Grammys she won.

Last but not least was Lil Nas X performing a medley of Rodeo and Old Town Road, both viral hits last year. They’re great songs and all, certainly very catchy, but it’s hard for me to see him as anything more than just a meme. I don’t mean that with disrespect; I definitely think there is a place in pop culture for viral music and his endearing personality, but I think he objectively lacks the artistic skill of more serious or developed musicians. He might grow into a more serious artist one day too, who knows, but for now I think his music is just meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator of today’s pop culture, which I think was put on full display during his performance. Studded with other celebrities and musicians, his performance felt like an odd fever dream with some familiar faces, but no unifying style. It was practically a musical advertisement for the music industry, not an example of outstanding creative performance. It makes sense that Lil Nas would rely on the reputations and popularity of other musicians, considering he has just started making a name for himself, but it certainly doesn’t help him to stand out or create his own musical legacy.

Hopefully this didn’t turn into a rant (it can be hard to tell sometimes), and I think my biases are pretty obvious, but regardless I think that comparing these iconic performances can reveal a lot about what makes award show performances so important, and what makes a performance stand out or blend in. In my opinion, Tyler’s performance is the gold standard of memorable, experimental, mold-breaking, and artistic. It might not be fully appreciated by general audiences, or appeal to the popular culture spheres of today, but I think it will be remembered as iconic in the history of award performances. The other performances will likely be forgotten by the next Grammys, but hopefully those artists will have another chance to prove themselves with more experience and perspective under their belts.

Juice WRLD and the Rise of Emo Rap

On March 8th, rap artist Juice WRLD (who gained popularity from his single Lucid Dreams) dropped his latest album, called Death Race for Love. The album cover is what caught my eye; it’s in the style of an old PlayStation 2 video game, which made me feel a major sense of nostalgia for the older days. I gave it a listen, and I was surprised to find that it started off strong, with catchy hooks and simple instrumentation. And then I realized there were 22 songs on it. Who in their right mind thought it was a good idea to make an album with 22 songs? Not to mention some of the songs are incredibly short, and the average is about 3 minutes, which is nothing to boast about. Needless to say, I got bored around the halfway mark; I couldn’t distinguish one song from another and I couldn’t even tell you the names of them. It got me thinking though; what is the appeal of an album like this? How is it supposed to be listened to? And that brings me to the recent trend of emo rap.

The pioneers of this movement were XXXTentacion and Lil Peep, who have both passed away within the last two years. They were known for simple, melodramatic music, but more importantly for their personalities and presentations. They both gained a large musical following, and their deaths were incredibly tragic. However, rappers like Juice WRLD have carried on what they started. Namely, music that combines the simplicity and lyricism of rap with the themes and ideas of emo culture. Emo culture is a topic in itself entirely, so I won’t try to engage that too much, but basically these rappers appeal to the sadder side of people.

Taking this into consideration, it’s easier to see why Death Race for Love is so long and uninteresting musically: the emphasis is on developing a gloomy, mournful, and emotion heavy atmosphere. It’s something you put on in the background when you’re feeling a little down, or on a rainy day when you’re stuck indoors. It’s consistent and without surprises, which makes it perfect for background music. To me, this is a shame; no music should just be reduced to background music. Music is art and should be appreciated as the center of attention. However, viewing the album in this way helps me better understand its appeal, and actually enjoy it. I can’t say there’s anything inherently wrong with Death Race for Love, or really any other emo rap album that has this appeal. They have a purpose and they achieve it well, even if it’s a bit self-deprecating. In the long run, I don’t think these albums will be classics, they’re just too forgettable. But I do think they’re part of a unique movement, and I’m sure it will only get more interesting in the future.

(Image Credits: Google Images)

Idris is Coming! Idris is Coming!

Tomorrow is a very exciting day for me.  Really, for all of Ann Arbor.  For myself, I get to see my good friend Idris Goodwin for the first time in nearly three months. He will be coming from Iowa City, where he’s pursuing an MFA in playwriting, to read from his New York Times acclaimed book These Are The Breaks.  He has been featured on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, has produced some rap albums, and his latest play, How We Got On, about three suburban kids who find their identities and forge friendships through hip-hop in 1988 was produced by the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.  That is where we met, and I think we both had one of the best summers of our lives.  For the benefit of the rest of Ann Arbor, tomorrow night he’ll be joined at the Tea Haus with friend and fellow author Kevin Coval.  I don’t know much about Mr. Coval, but if he’s a friend of Idris’s, I’m sure he’s worth checking out.  His website says he is an educator, poet, the co-founder of Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Teen Poetry Festival, and a regular contributor to Chicago Public Radio (you caught me, I’m an NPR nerd).  I’m sure this will be a great night at a small venue in one of my favorite parts of Ann Arbor.

It still kind of amazes me that I am lucky enough to call Idris a friend.  I had one of the best internships available to theatre students this past summer.  I was privileged enough to work in the literary office of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.  The O’Neill presents four conferences during the summer: the National Playwrights Conference, National Music Theater Conference, National Puppetry Conference, and National Cabaret and Performance Conference.  I realized it was a big deal as it was happening, but it wasn’t until I got back to school that I realized just how big.  Just as a quick idea of the caliber of plays and musicals presented at the O’Neill, here are some notable alumni: Fences by August Wilson, Uncommon Women and Others by Wendy Wasserstein, Fuddy Meers by David Lindsay-Abaire, In the Heights by Lin Manuel-Miranda, Avenue Q by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and [title of show] by Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen.

I was a literary intern, a position that I will cover when I do my overview of dramaturgy, but most importantly for our purposes today, I was assigned as the literary representative to How We Got On, as well as Quiara Alegría Hudes’s The Happiest Song Plays Last.  The team I worked with on How We Got On absolutely changed my life.  I know that sounds like such a beginning career 21-year-old thing to say, but it is 100% true.  The respect that I received throughout the process meant the world to me and has given me the confidence necessary to work in a field as tough as theatre.  Am I still terrified to graduate in May?  Absolutely.  But do I feel worlds more prepared than many of the other people trying to pursue the same career I am?  You bet.

Idris is a playwright.  At the O’Neill, playwrights are demi-gods.  At some theatres, they worship the actors.  At others, the directors.  At the O’Neill, the text is what is sacred.  Idris could have very well written off this teeny non-hip-hop girl from the middle of nowhere, but instead he embraced the idea of a lit rep immediately.  We bonded over our Michiganian heritage—Faygo and Better Made chips, “I don’t have an accent,” and Bell’s brewery.  Rather than being his assistant, we worked as a team.  The same can be said of the wonderful director and brilliant dramaturg.  I’m still not sure what I did to deserve such a creatively satisfying work environment.  One of the first days at the O’Neill, the interns were told that everyone there wanted to help them become the next generation of theatre professionals.  I smiled but on the inside I sort of rolled my eyes.  It seemed cliché and just a nice thing to say.  I never expected the love, friendship, and respect that I left with in August.  My experience altered me not only as a dramaturg but also as a playwright and reader.  On top of what I learned about myself as an artistic individual and the field more broadly, due to the nature of the play I also got to learn about fun things like hip-hop and rap in the 80s, WWF, and watertowers.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned that summer was from Idris.  I learned how to rap.  But he still does it better.  Come see him do his thing tomorrow night at the Tea Haus.  I know I will.