album review

Lil Durk Is Trying to Build Something New

Durk’s 7220 ponders the emotional fallout of a year of big achievements and crushing lows. Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Lil Durk has seen some shit. At 29, the Chicago native and recent Atlanta transplant is a veteran with over a decade of history in the game, a father of six, and founder of the Only the Family rap collective and label. Since writing a string of Chicago drill classics on 2012’s memorable I’m Still a Hitta mixtape, Durk has followed an unusual path, a truth reflected in the succession of major-label partnerships brokered and broken across seven studio albums and in TMZ stories about his legal troubles. It’s been an arduous journey, a series of breakthroughs and setbacks that imbue the music with dark urgency counterbalanced by an equally jarring sense of humor. Durk is the kind of guy who shows up to a Breakfast Club interview wearing a black chest harness and fields questions about whether it’s a bulletproof vest. There’s a pain in this music that cannot be faked, the fallout from incomparable losses that have trailed Durk throughout his career. In 2014, his cousin OTF Nunu was fatally shot; in 2015, the same fate befell his manager, OTF Chino. OTF star King Von was murdered days after his debut, Welcome to O’Block, dropped in 2020. Last June, Durk’s older brother DThang was killed outside a club in Illinois. That July, armed robbers broke into Durk’s home, drawing fire from the rapper and his girlfriend. In December, OTF affiliate ARoy was shot to death in broad daylight. Durk processes pain and misfortune in the vocal booth in songs like “Oh My God” from 2013’s Signed to the Streets mixtape, or his 2014 version of Dej Loaf’s “Try Me”: “I seen my cousin bleeding, I damn near lost it / That’s why I gotta ride through all the opp shit.” The sweetness of the voice is tainted by the stresses of surviving in communities where financial hardship drives crime and violence.

Durk is trying to build something different, though. He brought Von along for that Breakfast Club interview, and you got the sense that it was a training exercise for the younger performer, that Durk sees OTF as a tool to help smart, poetic guys find financial stability. But it’s a difficult trek, as Durk’s own career has borne out. You see it in the work that went into streamlining his sound for terrestrial radio at the beginning of his major-label saga. Durk’s 2015 Def Jam debut, Remember My Name, fooled around with the formula, upsetting the artist’s winning balance of tough lines and catchy hooks on songs like “Why Me” and “Don’t Judge Me” by leaning too far into schmaltz and drippy melodic lines, and featuring Logic on the incredibly awkward “Tryna, Tryna.” The error was corrected in the coarser sound and smarter outside collaborators from 2016’s more confident follow-up, Lil Durk 2x. Each new project touted sharper bars and a sweeter melodic attack, the function of an artist listening to his audience as much as they listen to him. If the albums felt too polished, a mixtape like 2016’s gruff, feature-heavy They Forgot would redirect his course. While Durk refined his craft, the mainstream rap Zeitgeist inched closer to his sound as audiences fell in love with the same kinds of melodic confessionals he increasingly excelled at. Durk’s art improved, but sales lagged behind. Hit records eluded new rappers in the early 2010s. In the sweet spot after the early 21st century mixtape boom but before Billboard began incorporating streaming data in its chart tabulations, it was possible to have a large following and beloved songs without seeing meaningful mainstream chart traction, to be a star in the eyes of hundreds of thousands of listeners but an untested property in the eyes of a label. Artists like Durk and Chief Keef entered a machine that didn’t know what to do with them, and both Chicago rappers left their first deals dissatisfied with the experience.

Countless careers in rap have floundered after an unsuccessful first commercial push, but Durk kept evolving, such that when Drake came calling for a hook for 2020’s “Laugh Now Cry Later,” we got an immaculate performance showcasing Durk’s comfort in gliding around vocal runs and his balance of street smarts and disorienting jokes. (Durk was a perfect foil for Drake, a tank who could talk tough while the Toronto rapper hung back playing the disaffected despot. There are a lot of rappers who fit in that role but not so many who’d think to say “Bring Drake to the hood, surround Drake around dracs,” a lyric both deeply earnest and deeply funny, which is Durk’s brand in a nutshell.) The Drake bump is only as useful as you make it, though, and Durk hit the ground running, tearing through solo releases and features alike, flexing on Pooh Sheisty’s triple-platinum smash “Back in Blood” and showcasing great chemistry with Atlanta rapper Lil Baby on Meek Mill’s “Sharing Locations” and DJ Khaled’s “Every Chance I Get.” Practice bred consistency. 2020’s The Voice and 2021’s Lil Baby team up The Voice of the Heroes netted gold certifications without fishing for radio hits the way Remember My Name’s “Like Me” did, though both albums ran a few songs too long.

Last summer, Lil Durk had an album debut at the top of the Billboard 200 for the first time, then mourned the death of his brother and fought for his life inside his own Atlanta-area home, all the while navigating a war of words with Louisiana rap heavyweight Youngboy Never Broke Again — a tiff believed to be connected to the death of King Von, since Von and Youngboy affiliate Quando Rondo fought in Atlanta the night the OTF rapper was killed. Durk’s new album, 7220, ponders the emotional fallout of a year of big achievements and crushing lows. The title is a street address, the number outside Durk’s grandmother’s home, the one memorialized in songs like 2018’s “Granny Crib.” Album opener “Started From” walks us through tribulation in the artist’s early family life: “Water bill was high as hell, I went next door to fill the jug / Laundromat was packed, I had to grab the soap and fill a tub / Three bedrooms, it was eight people who lived with us.” A couplet in the middle of the two-minute verse speaks to the overarching themes of 7220, where love and anger jostle for attention in Durk’s thoughts: “The funeral home, they know me personally ’cause I gave ’em payments / The police department, they know you personally ’cause you gave ’em statements.” Grief, pride, and spite run together as Durk addresses his enemies while mourning the dead. The laughs sit uncomfortably close to the tears. There’s no time to decompress. Life moves too quickly. 7220 is one of the better ones. Durk isn’t bogged down by dodgy song selection or offbeat collaborations. Songs blow by in a flash delivering curt, pointed imagery. 7220 is able to devastate in just a verse or two.

Working again with frequent collaborators DJ Bandz and Touch of Trent, Durk lands on a sound that suits his instrument, a collection of moody piano and guitar productions that lend themselves to lilting melodies like the ones in “What Happened to Virgil?” where the death of Virgil Abloh comes up like a forecast for an advancing storm. Shit’s not great, but Durk is trying to maintain, singing his way through the heaviness of a terrible year and court dates tied to a 2019 attempted murder Atlanta police allege to have been carried out by Durk and Von. “No Interviews” recalls going to court on Percocet and romancing a “lady guard” on the way out. “Shootout @ My Crib” touches on last summer’s stresses in lines that are equally worrisome and humorous: “I ain’t gon’ cap, you gon’ smell percs and lean when I fart.” The two-part “Grow Up / Keep It on Speaker” runs a similar play: “Police pulled me over ’cause I’m dark skin / She lied about her job, but she bartend.” Undercutting upsetting personal news with moments of levity keeps 7220 from feeling like a bummer, and Durk comes across as resilient in the face of adversity. He’s unafraid to talk about feelings — suicidal ideations and fears of jail time come up in “Federal Nightmares” and “Smoking and Thinking.” Durk admits that, for all the tough talk, he needs a support system, but he doesn’t love to dwell on things. The story here is that grief is inescapable, a thief stealing our peace of mind in the dark of night, ruining restful moments with questions about how life might’ve turned out differently, how an unavoidably difficult situation might’ve been handled better. 7220’s “Headtaps” typifies this brand of reflection: “I’m in the cell thinkin’ ’bout my kids like, ‘I could be with them watchin’ Peppa Pig.’” You can’t let your opps think you’re soft, but aggression has consequences. Turning up the temperature on haters puts your family in danger.

7220 makes the experience of being very rich with very famous enemies seem almost understandable, at times relatable. Durk lays out what’s at stake when he revisits childhood poverty and family trauma. You believe that he wants a quiet life for himself as much as you understand the thrill of getting back at people who’ve crossed him, the smirk in the risible Youngboy diss “AHHH HA.” Inner-city violence is a cycle none of us started, one that would require superhuman forgiveness and comprehensive government assistance to really curtail. That isn’t happening. Cash flows into law enforcement, where crime that has already happened is chased, while communities struggle to address disparities in schooling between wealthy and lower-income students, and gaps persist in the unemployment rates between Black and white Americans. Education budget cuts in cities nationwide stymie children’s career options while the lack of jobs keeps them hungry.

Government policy fertilizes gang violence just as much as pride, brashness, and jealousy do. This is the takeaway you were supposed to get from that first wave of Chicago drill rappers, the reality at the root of mixtapes like I’m Still a Hitta and Keef’s Back from the Dead from 2012. The message went unheeded as these young stars were treated like monsters and barred from playing shows. “They say I terrify my city,” Durk famously lamented in “Dis Ain’t What U Want” in 2013. A more eloquent rapper and a more capable vocalist now, Durk uses 7220 to show how persistent and deep-rooted these problems are. Fame doesn’t offer peace, just more ground to have to defend; wealth and visibility open doors but create haters. Rap is a music of the street, so shit that happens in the street happens in rap. The cycle continues as long as we pretend the violence starts and ends with the music. Demonizing artists allows local political leadership to maintain the appearance of being tough on crime, a goofy endeavor not just because it never curbs much crime but also because pinching a local star’s pockets often trickles down into the same communities the gesture was meant to defend. This isn’t to absolve rappers of any blame for their actions. Tough talk leads to tragedy; negativity begets negativity. But if we’re not doing everything in our power to prevent kids from having to experience the trauma haunting Durk throughout the course of 7220, then what are we doing?

Lil Durk Is Trying to Build Something New