If there's one thing that's been the marker of Joseph Chilliams' promising career so far, it's his impeccable comedic timing. On his debut project 2017's Henry Church, its title a humorously rough translation of Enrique Iglesias' name, the 28-year-old Chicago rapper's goofball charisma shines as much as his thrillingly eccentric flow. He'll rap something as laugh out loud funny as "open up that incognito tab on Google Chrome / add in my Christian Mingle profile and my Black People Meet" on the MfnMelo-assisted rave up "Buck" but his delivery is so on point, he transcends any "joke rapper" designations that might be thrown at him. Just watch his new video for Henry Church single "Fergie," which Noisey is premiering at the top of the page.
It's this carefree personality that's carved his own lane in the already-overcrowded Chicago hip-hop community. Compared to his little brother Saba's soulful and serious 2016 full-length Bucket List Project or Noname's breakthrough meditations on self-love and death Telefone, Henry Church is playful and loaded with wonderfully observant pop culture references, not to mention killer features from Jamila Woods, Saba, Noname, and more. But with songs as clever as "FN-2187," a reference to the stormtrooper identification number of John Boyega's Star Wars character, Chilliams, who grew up in the crime-plagued West Side neighborhood Austin, supplants the Hayden Christensen jokes with an earned reflection on the friends and family he’s lost—like his best friend Walter Long Jr., aka Pivot Gang rapper DinnerWithJohn, who was stabbed to death this February and guests on Henry Church closer “Charlie Murphy.” Where Chance the Rapper deals in the childlike nostalgia of Chicago summers and the catharsis going to church with family, Chilliams sheds light on his own struggles through universal cultural touchstones like Fergie or Nirvana.
"That's just how I talk. I feel like if I was trying to just tell a joke to someone it'd probably suck but if we were to sit down and have a conversation, we'd get to it eventually or find some shared experience we can laugh about," says Chilliams from a Wicker Park hotel bar. When I meet him, he's sitting at a table reading Laurence Nees' 550-page tome The Holocaust: A New History, a book he decided to pick up to learn more after touring Europe for the first time. As he checks his phone, his lock screen shows a photo of Thom Yorke. "'Videotape' off In Rainbows was definitely the first time I ever cried while listening to music but OK Computer is still my favorite," he offers as our conversation turns to the iconic U.K. band.
Chilliams self-produced most of Henry Church with assists coming from local artists Saba, Sen Morimoto, daedaePivot, and more. "Even with my brother, our projects aren't even kind of similar. Saba really likes neo-soul, like his production is so smooth and chill. I didn't like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony nearly as much as him. I was more into Eminem and MF Doom," says Chilliams. Henry Church trades the warm keyboards and gospel-tinged arrangements of his Chicago peers for atmospheric and understated beats that are somewhere between cloud rap and trap. Take "Fergie," the best representation of Chilliams' dynamism as a songwriter. Over a woozy and brooding instrumental, Chilliams' spitfire delivery stretches out to unpredictable places rhyming "Cheech & Chong" with "Nia Long."
"It started off as a riff on the ASAP Ferg line "Short nigga but my dick tall" with me saying "Skinny nigga but my dick thick" but then the whole "Ferg" thing transformed into "Fergie." It just ended up being about her," Chiliams explains. While a different rapper would play off lines like "I'm Fergalicious / My body stay vicious like sugar cane" for a laugh, his love for the Black Eyed Peas vocalist is refreshingly unironic. He says, "I love her and feel like she doesn't get the credit that she deserves." It's an infectious track and one of the best windows into Chilliams' vibrant and ebullient world.
To bring the Henry Church highlight to life, Chilliams and 119Productions co-directed a video for "Fergie" that's an amusing and earnest tribute to Napoleon Dynamite. In the clip, Chilliams brings his own twist the dance scene where the iconic '00s indie film character dances awkwardly to Jamiroquai. He explains, "First and foremost people take things way too seriously. There are a lot of things that take serious of course but I feel like there's a lot of room to grow because people shut themselves off. I'm trying to make things more inclusive in hip-hop. Just be yourself."
Catch Joseph Chilliams performing in Chicago January 11 at Lincoln Hall and check out Henry Church in full above.
Josh Terry is a writer in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.