Photo courtesy of Lil Durk / Def Jam
It’s odd to realize that this guy, the reserved 22-year-old in all white checking his phone, is who you know he is, who you’ve heard he is, who the various versions of the media have told you he is.
Lil Durk doesn’t particularly command a room when he walks in. But, somewhat improbably, he has emerged as the only true, conventional major label rap star from the genre’s 2012 Chicago renaissance. His deep brown eyes suggest an endearing innocence. But Durk is a central, divisive character in the debates surrounding violence in his home city. He is an artist whose music over the last few years has been at the cutting edge of innovation; it has largely been processed as quick and disposable. And now he would like you, as the title of his recently released album asks, to remember his name.
“Think of this genre of music,” Durk told me recently, sitting across from me and outlining how, specifically, he would like to be remembered: “Think of me.”
Three years ago, Chicago rap burst onto a national stage, fueled by YouTube videos that accumulated millions of views and brought people around the country into some of the most dangerous neighborhoods on the city’s South Side. With no industry backing, artists like Chief Keef, King Louie, and Lil Durk became stars overnight, popularizing a subgenre they called drill music. A flurry of attention followed, and major labels rushed to snatch up any new talent they could find, even as the music became a lightning rod for discussions about gun violence in a year in which Chicago saw the most homicides of any city in the country.
Although the Chicago hip-hop scene has made tenuous, continuous progress in the years since—a roster of budding national stars that includes Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, Tink, Mick Jenkins, Lil Herb, Lil Bibby, Sicko Mobb, and many more has made it among the most fertile scenes in the country—it has also shifted. Chief Keef and King Louie may have collaborated on multiple occasions with Kanye West, but they also both lost their record deals. This month, Durk’s Remember My Name was released by Def Jam, becoming the first proper album released on a major label by a member of that Chicago class since Keef’s 2012 debut Finally Rich. That, in itself, is an accomplishment.
“A lot of people [are] like ‘he’s going to fuck up like they’ve been doing,'” Durk, whose full name is Durk Banks, commented to me. “There’s definitely a lot of responsibility to keep the good energy going.”
Remember My Name, like many debut albums from artists who already have an extensive catalog of free mixtapes, doesn't ever quite reach the highest highs of Durk's previous material, but it does showcase his strengths and make clear his appeal. Since the beginning, and particularly since his landmark 2012 tape Still a Hitta—perhaps still the most cohesive drill project ever made—Durk has carved out a niche making melodic, sing-song rap heavy on vocal manipulation with tools like Auto-Tune and Melodyne. He is not the most traditionally skilled rapper in terms of lyrical delivery—although he has, by his own admission, improved dramatically on that front—but his hooks are disarmingly catchy, and his words have an emotional core that leads to devastating insights tossed off almost as asides.
Lines like “you don't know how hunger feels” and “I told my mama I can't take it” offer a better picture of the psychological toll of growing up surrounded by poverty than any list of statistics or news report ever could. Though the effect’s sound might carry a connotation of shallowness for many listeners, Durk uses the sterility of Auto-Tune and the keening tones it creates to heighten emotion. Nowhere is this more effective than the line on his best and most successful single to date, 2013's “Dis Ain't What You Want,” where he howls “they say I terrify my city.” Although Durk's music is often most enjoyable when it has the tone of an upbeat pulp fiction crime drama, and although his message to the press (myself included) recently has been focused on promoting positivity and aiming for success, his music ultimately resonates because of these feelings. At a show in New York the night his album came out, Durk's stage banter touched on growing up washing school clothes in a bucket and going to school “just to get something to eat.” At one point he shouted, “If y'all ever lost a motherfucker make some noise,” and the crowd responded loudly.
“Everybody’s ready for a change,” Durk told me at one point during our interview, noting that it felt like Chicago's gun violence is slowing down (statistically the homicide rate is up as compared to the last two years, although it is lower than it was in 2012). “They’re tired of going to funerals and tired of being broke. Tired of not going to work. Wanting to get to school but can’t because something violent’s going on.” At another point he commented, “I don’t think anybody feels safe in Chicago. Bullets ain’t got no name on them.”
In the last few years, the sound of hip-hop has caught up with Lil Durk, and artists who take the melodic sing-song a step further, like Fetty Wap and Rich Homie Quan, have become chart-conquering radio successes. But Durk remains one of the genre's foremost Auto-Tune experimentalists and one of the most compelling arguments for the effect's artistic importance. He has taken a tool originally used to remove imperfections from the music of the richest stars in music and appropriated it as a way of highlighting imperfections as he discusses the poorest parts of the country. As a relatively isolated figure in the industry machinery offering the message he’s offering, he’s become an essential spokesman for his part of Chicago. In some cases, he's explicit: There's a line on his new album that goes “the president's still black, I hope he change shit.”
But even when it's not explicit in its message, which is often, Lil Durk's music is inherently political in a genre that is less and less so. Durk is an increasingly rare figure in a hip-hop mainstream that has become less tied to the streets and more polished: the tough guy whose very presence in the industry is an act of rebellion and empowerment, a la Boosie or a young Jay Z. Durk's narrative both in his music and outside of it forces us to confront demons like violence, poverty, and mass incarceration that polite society would rather ignore—or only address in art if they come with a feel-good redemption story.
Durk's career started in earnest after he served a prison sentence, and right as his music began taking off he went back briefly for a probation violation (“I was wild,” he said of that first sentence, “and then when I had my son, that’s what really made me like yeah, I got to get on my shit.”). There are other demons in the songs, too. One song on Remember My Name, “Lord Don't Make Me Do It,” goes “sometimes I get the urge to kill a bitch (kill that hoe) / and I ain't even violent.” Durk defended it to me by saying that there's “no person that don’t have the urge to hurt somebody” and noting that he flips the script around in the hook and decides not to do it, which is a reasonable point. To deny that we never have evil impulses, to ask our art to avoid them, is to fail to even begin to meaningfully tackle them.
Even though he rarely speaks at length, Durk's entire narrative is one of candor, which is part of why he is such a tempting scapegoat. There are clear reasons that, in addition to his lyrics about guns and shootings, Durk so quickly became a symbol for violence to many people: An 18-year-old aspiring rapper named Lil Jojo was mysteriously shot and killed in 2012 shortly after releasing a diss track about Durk's crew and taunting Durk's associate Lil Reese; Durk's close friend and sometimes musical collaborator Rondo Numba Nine was sent to prison after allegedly shooting and killing a driver at point blank range in 2014.
“Anything I do for bad they’re definitely going to judge me,” Durk noted when he spoke to me. “Like ‘oh, you’re going to listen to this?’ So I’m just keeping afloat and staying good so I can carry the city how it’s supposed to be carried instead of kind of negative.” Durk has recently been pushing a more positive message, and he's gotten involved with a nonprofit called Stop the Violence. While on tour and in Chicago he's visited schools to talk with students about being leaders and avoiding violence.
It’s become an increasingly personal issue. In 2013, his friend Leonard Anderson, who rapped as L'A Capone, was shot and killed after leaving a studio. Last summer, Durk's cousin McArthur Swindle, or OTF Nuski, was shot and killed, and this past spring his manager Uchenna Agina, who went by the name Chino, was also shot and killed—ironically while on his way home from an anti-violence event with Bulls player Joakim Noah for the latter's Noah's Arc Foundation.
“It fucked me up,” Durk said of Chino's death. “It still fucks me up today. But I know what he wanted because he was around me every day. He wouldn’t want me to stop because if I stop I give everybody what they want. And we don’t got no time for no mistakes.”
Durk's success so far is a story of the democratizing effects of technology, from the way he was able to find an audience as just an anonymous kid on YouTube to the way he has been able to hone a polished, idiosyncratic sound using tools that were once only available in the highest-end studios and now are accessible, at least in basic form, to practically anyone making music. Durk's audience and reach has obviously grown since he got Def Jam behind him, but the avenues through which he connects with fans are open to anyone: He has a million followers on Instagram and close to as many on Twitter, and all his music prior to this album is available for free on mixtape download sites like DatPiff, where his last two tapes have each accrued a quarter of a million downloads (in contrast, Remember My Name sold around 30,000 copies in its first week). Realistically, an album is probably one of the least effective ways for him to reach his fans. But it's an important tool as he pivots toward the new vision of success that he’s become obsessively focused on, one that includes award shows, TV appearances, and regular touring rather than quick show money.
“I’ve seen the bigger picture,” he told me. He recently put aside a standing beef with Chief Keef, and the two recorded a number of songs together (including the excellent “Decline,” perhaps the best track Durk has put out all year). After losing out on Chicago show bookings and struggling to get opportunities to appear on local radio, he's now accomplishing both.
“Beefing affects it because ain’t no club gonna want to have you in their club,” he explained. “People ain’t gonna want you at their radio stations, none of that. And you’ve got to promote. You want to be everywhere. Definitely radio because everybody listens.”
Durk is in an interesting place: As someone who owes his rise in part to the accelerated sharing of the internet and whose rabid fanbase is most easily connected to on social media, he is a star for a new generation. Yet he’s increasingly aware of the way the shape of his career must change from one founded on those early viral successes and completely tied to an environment where, as one song suggests, “you can die over a retweet.” He represents a city that doesn't have a role model quite like him with the kind of access he's been granted. He’s been part of engineering a sonic shift in the genre of hip-hop, but he also reinforces its traditional ideal of giving a voice to those whose voices are frequently marginalized.
Near the end of our conversation, he told me that the celebrity he’s been most starstruck to meet is Allen Iverson, which makes sense. Like Iverson, Durk is a figure whose arrival is charged with rebellion, whose way of playing the game feels like it's by a slightly different set of rules. He is insanely talented. He may never win a championship—he's probably too idiosyncratic to ever have the broad appeal of someone like Drake—but he'll for damn sure change the game. So when Durk asks that you remember his name, consider him in that light and take him seriously. He’s not an easy or obvious star, and that’s what makes him such a good one.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.