Time is always of the essence in our current culture of rush-rush, get paid as quickly as you can, and forget about the consequences that you might be faced with in the end. Some people have to reap the whirlwind while others, they simply stay on their grind.
One person not reaping the whirlwind is Mykele Deville, the 29-year old rapper from Chicago who released his new album Maintain (No Trend Records). This isn’t his first go-around either, as the album is his fourth full-length release. Now while Chicago has had a steady influx of rappers receiving national attention, I’m hard pressed to find any with the true lyrical dexterity Deville brings to the game.
While the cleverly shared single in “Free Soul” dropped early on before the album’s release, it showcased Deville’s ability to transcend the current crop of trap rap in lieu of something much more enticing. The song’s anthemic, groove heavy vibe filled with finger snaps, saxophone, and sweet backing vocals are accentuated by his quick-tongued delivery as he holds on tight to reality without losing his soul. All the while though, he’s reppin’ his hometown throughout the track. Deville is doing things his own way, unwilling to play games. But he’s not satisfied with putting his words against party anthem jams, not by a long shot.
“Whispers” opens Maintain with a timbre soaked in darkness and fear where Deville tackles difficult cultural struggles and oppressive behavior of others. His lyrics “Hold my tongue it’s natural to practice/In a world full of anti-blackness/Limited access and murderous tactics/The fact is I might be killed before I track this/Subject to the whims of whiteness/Wanna touch the sky but I’m told I’m flightless/How much time do I get to fight this/Peaking through the blinds is it safe to write this/Safe is ambiguous/I’m living in a space that’s continuous/17 shots and I didn’t flinch…” address a lot in just a few words, as he barely takes a breath in between. His own fears are acknowledged as well as the need let go of the restraints that weigh him down. He’s direct without projecting an unsolicited amount of anger. Musically, he takes a different approach with “Type Love (feat. Daryn Alexus),” a love song that reaches further than one-on-one, but extending its reach inside, to everything, and everyone around him. All that over a sweetly strung track utilized for his backdrop.
Moving along the same vibe, musically, is “Kalief.” His words are profound, edging back and forth, storied around urban youth, black culture, and a legal system that continually fails. He uses Kalief Browder as a clear example of this. Most know his story; incarcerated for years in Rikers Island….just waiting. Deville balances things out with easy flowed tracks, carefree lyricism with stark reality. With Maintain he remains in a space most of us find ourselves in: confused, angry, melancholic. The album deals with issues that affect us all and Deville handles each one of them poignantly, with class and style.
There were moments when I wondered what was it that initially drew me towards Thelma, the pseudonym used by singer/songwriter Natasha Jacobs who is based in Brooklyn and only goes by one name (i.e. Madonna, Beyonce). My introduction to Thelma comes with her second album, The Only Thing, and I have yet to search out her debut. Intrigued by what I’ve read on her life and how she’s dealt with motor skills issues and cancer that affected her vocal ability, it’s refreshing to see and hear things like that aren’t getting in her way.
The Only Thing opens with “Strange Love,” a single shared early on with an accompanying video but it was her voice catching my attention as it circled the same air space one could find Tiny Tim swirling around in. But it was different here considering her feminine touch is quite the opposite of anything closely resembling Tiny Tim! The point is stressed for a reason. Here, it’s enchanting with keyboard and bass accompaniment when the track begins and Thelma’s voice morphs different ways as she utilizes the shaky vibrato perfectly. But alas, I feel I was off and the Tim reference, while cheap, wasn’t necessary. Thelma’s songwriting is more akin to Devendra Banhart at times, albeit with more musical panache.
The one thing that sets Thelma apart though is the unrelenting characteristics to challenge listeners beyond quiet and charming and allows her music to hit the throttle and distortion pedals for some enchanting chamber pop with strings volleying alongside loud guitars on “Warm Guts.” It’s easy to fall in love with her at this very moment but pry further in and the oddness of “No Dancing Allowed” isn’t strange at all but beautifully orchestrated around free-flowing keys, electronics and blissful percussion. Does it get any better? Quite possibly. She’s playfully coy with “Take Me To Orlando” and sings her beautiful heart-breaking love longs with “Stephen,” wrapped around horns and guitars.
Can you really do any better than The Only Thing? At this moment, no. Thelma is by far one of the most challenging and creative songwriting chanteuse I’ve heard in quite some time. Favorite artists of the year…her name can only be added to the very top of the list.