Rising Chicago Musicians
By Noah Franklin
You may not have listened to much jazz-rap other than Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly, but you can step into a whole world of its eclectic brilliance with Sen Morimoto. Morimoto was born in Kyoto, Japan, before moving to Massachusetts to study the jazz saxophone. After moving again to Chicago in 2014, Morimoto has become more serious about honing in on his sound. He handles all of his music himself — along with the saxophone, he plays keyboard and bass — which makes his variegated artistic output all the more astounding.
The instrumentals often feature molten tumbles and layered harmonies reminiscent of Thundercat. On top of them, he incorporates some disorienting freeform skitters and saxophone stabs. Some of his songs sound like soft, bedroom pop. But he is as much a rapper as he is a singer—you cannot pin him down into a particular genre or style. As for the lyrics, his recent releases flex dexterous bars that can compete with the best of them. His lines pair keen introspection with gentle details, such as this moment in “People Watching:” “She told me that the pleasure and the secrets you make is dealing with depression in a meaningful way/She came to the show and I practically beamed. She was dancing, laughing at me.” His charisma and shy brilliance is immediately recognizable in on camera in his music video.
His debut album Cannonball!, due May 4th, is the product of two years of work and will be his most structured statement yet. And if the beautiful singles he’s already released are any indication, this album may truly live up to its name and generate waves across the Chicago music scene.
Michele Annise is a harpist by trade. She was classically trained from a young age. After probing into other artistic fields such as photography and sculpture, Annise found herself missing her harp, which she calls a “nameless beautiful lady.” So, she picked it back up and poked around the Chicago scene, attended some open mic nights, and quickly found that artists were excited by her unique sound and were eager to collaborate.
She’s been hustling ever since, handling much of her own production. She plugs her harp straight into the digital music software Ableton, and with the nearly infinite plug-ins and effects the internet has to offer, her harp plucking can quickly morph into anything. She’s been picking up speed with collaborations ranging from MfnMelo, a member of Saba’s PIVOT Gang, to Netherfriends, an uber-prolific, one man band.
Annise is always up for the challenge. “I've played with folk people, experimental, hip-hop, and more ethereal stuff," she told the Chicago Tribune. "As a challenge, I ask myself, how can I change what I do to fit this?"
It’s true; Annise has (happily) rocketed far from classical music. 2017’s #Thatharpist project is a glitchy beat tape featuring some smooth verses from MfnMelo. Later in the year, she released a rewarding EP, Goodbye Autumn, that’s smokier and trippier than her hip-hop stylings. And other recent singles are sparer, calmer ballads—mostly her voice and her harp. It’s impossible to tell where she’ll go or who she’ll link up with next. But whatever the answer, she’s gaining momentum in her own lane, with nobody in front of her.
Though he was born in Nigeria and later spent time couch-surfing in LA, Tobi Lou considers himself a Chicagoan. He’s spent most of his life here, and it’s where—inspired by Kanye—he began to make music. Before that, he played in an independent, professional baseball league. After an injury, his mother told him to go back to school or get the hell out, so he left to throw everything he had into playing the music game in LA. Now, he finds himself in between the two cities. “I feel like I came out here to figure out how to do what I want to do with music, so I can make my way back to Chicago,” he told Pigeons & Planes.
He is riding the wave of a sort of melodic rap (we could say R&B trap) that’s in vogue right now, but with a singular color and style. His songs are not boring, sedated washes, nor are they arrhythmic crooning with hi-hats pasted overtop. Lou has a grip on both rhythm and melody. His songs shuffle and jounce along as Lou sing-raps little vocal runs of earworm caliber melody. There is plenty of emotion and strained individualism, and yet it all gets cartoonized. Even police brutality in the song “Solange” is rendered as “The ones in the blue, they made it go boom.”
The cartoon element is really the most instantly captivating component of Lou’s brand. Lou has a cartoon persona that stars in videos and album art (think: Gorillaz or Major Lazer). In one of his new videos for “Troop,” with Smino, Lou teamed up with music video director and cinematographer Glassface, who has previously collaborated with Lil Yachty. Together, they imagine a classic That 70’s Show smoke sesh with some real friends, some animated friends, his own cartoon self, and the Kanye bear. He’s always watched cartoons, and thinks the world would do well to embrace their anything-could-happen ethos. Lou has released two solid EPs this year, tobi lou and the Moon and tobi lou and the Loop. And, inspired by BROCKHAMPTON’s steady stream of content this past summer, there are more wild music videos on their way very soon.