Lil Durk is doing just about everything right. Highly publicized beef with firmly established veterans? Check. The love and admiration of his city? Check. Street cred that cannot be unraveled by a checkered history on the opposite end of the law? Check. The latter, in reference to the vicious Chicago gang war that now has the city dubbed as “Chi-raq,” is the fuel to Durk’s fire. Durk devotees feel the passion in his delivery, which always seems to be turned to the max.
But for all of his potential, Signed To The Streets 2 is somewhat of a letdown, especially as a followup to a tape that deservedly flung Durk into the limelight. Here, the high moments are very high, and the low moments are extremely low. Speaking of the more stellar instances, “Ready For Em” is textbook Durk. It’s unlikely that the Englewood native will ever astonish anyone with his wordplay, but his lyrics-be-damned approach is forgivable in some cases due to his acute beat selection. Cardo has the midas touch when it comes hatching ultra-smooth melodies, but with no Wiz or Spitta in site, he successfully flexes his range on the gut-punch of a romp with “Ready For Em.” No rapper worthy of a mic spot should fumble a beat laced by Cardo, and Durk turns up rather infectiously. His booming, fast-paced delivery is Drill at its finest, and one cannot help but hear this song without conjuring up mental images of “Chi-raq” housing projects surrounded by hundreds of jumping bodies and bopping dread-heads in black tees.
In comparison to his immediate counterparts Lil Reese and Chief Keef, Durk is a slight step ahead in terms of lyricism. But like we witnessed with his contemporary on Chief Keef’s Finally Rich, his obstacle is putting the entire package together. “War With Us” has the firepower to incite even the most peaceful man to mean-mug innocent bystanders at the drugstore, but a lethargic, Auto-tuned hook (“Don’t war with us / They don’t want no war with us / Them bullets gone bang, bitch them bullets gone bang”) retreats this aura into boring serenity. When he strays away from his tried and Drill-tested approach, he overdoses on Auto-tune, sometimes to toxic proportions, such as “Picture Perfect” and “Live It Up,” his clumsy foray into Kid Ink and Future stylings. In a rare circumstance, he perfects the formula on “Feds Listenin’,” due in large part however to an infectious Young Chop beat propelled by a boisterous drum snare.
When Durk is not upholstered by the supporting arc of a hard-hitting Drill-esque beat, the holes in his delivery are more glaring. Those who view intricate, overly wordy rhymes in binary opposition to style are sometimes ignorant (among other things of course) of just how much attention to pacing is required to perfect a basic bar in Hip Hop. Longtime collaborator Young Chop is usually able to nicely smooth out the weaknesses in Durk’s game, but on “We Made It” Durk attempts a veteran move with his sometimes-I-rhyme-slow-sometimes-I-rhyme-quick approach, but the end result is a wayward feel with no sense of direction. His verses are always entertaining on the sheer velocity of his emissions, but they struggle to put any sort of lasting imprint when it is all said and done.
The merits of Signed To The Streets 2 are augmented when Durk expounds on his personal life; one marked by overwhelming tragedy and senseless violence. While rappers are ousted every day for faking the real, Durk verbally paints the picture a true to life “Chi-raq” soldier on the frontlines, and there is palpable authenticity to his trigger-talk. Cuts like “Don’t Take It Personal” illuminate light on the tumultuous life the 21-year-old has experienced, such as the savage murder of his cousin and fellow OTF member Nunu just this past May. In these humanizing instances Durk becomes more of a compelling figure instead of merely the expert ignitor of our #turndownforwhat moments. A title like “Hell In My City” promises to take things a step further, but instead Durk slips back into Auto-tune induced tough-talk about the gritty territory he inhabits. Additional detail about the specifics of the war raging in his hometown would make this project a more rewarding listen, but consequentially the music is slotted into another-rapper-rapping-about-the-hood territory.
But in the backdrop of history, Chicagoans are masters of invention. Speaking strictly in terms of music, no one is asking Durk to probe the dark sectors of wild conspiracy theories like Lupe or flip obscure 99 cents record rack bins into ingenious moments of sampling prowess like Kanye, but a little variation in his arsenal couldn’t hurt. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where a prancing romp like “Gas and Mud” is enjoyed in a state of mind devoid of inebriation, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as this is Durk’s intended effect. But other cuts strike out on all levels, like “Party,” where Durk attempts to mix hard-hitting Drill sensibilities with club lightheartedness, but the fusion is sloppy at best. Chop strikes again, but his efforts are in vain with an uninspired chorus sounding like Stephen Hawking’s broken voice machine stuck on repeat. Durk and Johnny May Cash excel with a melodic groove on “I Go,” one of the tape’s highpoints.
The 2014 XXL “Freshman Class” member has admitted that rapping is a new sport to him, and it will take some time before he tunes up the flaws in his approach. Already signed to French Montana’s Coke Boys label and receiving the blessings of gifted musicians like Cardo, all bets on his debut album being a vast improvement from this tape are well-founded. We can only hope that in due time Durk will carve out his own niche, and the ghastly attempts to copy the trends of established Top-40 radio trailblazers will settle down or dissipate altogether.