Lil Durk’s ‘7220’ is haunted by tragedy

The Chicago rapper’s latest album follows the deaths of a number of loved ones, resulting in a dark, uncomfortable listen.

SAN BERNARDINO, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 10: Rapper Lil Durk performs onstage during Day 1 of Rolling L...
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Culture

On Tuesday night, Lil Durk performed a medley of two songs on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Wearing couture leather pants, a $500 varsity jacket, and enough jewelry to make you imagine an insurance agent standing nervously offstage, the Chicago native traded verses with Future on a just-released album cut, then transitioned into a single that is less a traditional radio play than a threat aimed at the men he believes had his close friend murdered. The crowd is polite, but a little sedate — one gets the sense, from the studio audience’s reaction, that they recognize Durk as someone who belongs there, even if the songs don’t quite fit the space.

Durk finds himself in a strange professional situation, one with little precedent. A decade ago, when he was still a teenager, he emerged from Englewood as one of the rappers who would codify the sound of drill music. Many of his contemporaries suffered the same fate as stylistic innovators and regional stars before them: They’d go on to be ignored by the major-label apparatus, their work stripped for parts and diluted for mass consumption. Instead, Durk signed with Def Jam — a label that immediately did the watering-down for him, Frankensteining a 2015 debut album that minimized his strengths and anonymized one of the most exciting rappers to debut so far that decade.

But Durk regrouped, using the mixtape circuit as an outlet while refining his retail material. Perhaps most importantly, he benefited from the changes to Billboard rules that finally took into account streaming data that had previously been ignored. Where he’d earned rapid notoriety at home, Durk’s national fanbase was built deliberately, over more than half a decade. By 2019, he’d cleared two monumental hurdles — moving from Chicago hero to marketable star, and making the majors work for him after they’d nearly stamped out his sound — and become one of the biggest rappers in the country. His album from that summer, Love Songs 4 the Streets 2, peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200; Just Cause Y’all Waited 2 and The Voice, both from 2020, each reached No. 2; and The Voice of the Heroes, last year’s full-length collaboration with the Atlanta rapper Lil Baby, topped that same chart.

This week, Durk is projected to have his first solo No. 1; it was announced Wednesday that he sold out the United Center in Chicago for an upcoming show. And he’s done this all without a true solo hit. Durk did not make the Hot 100 as a headliner until 2020 and has never been higher than No. 14, which he reached this year only with “Broadway Girls,” a Faustian bit of chart manipulation with the country singer Morgan Wallen. (He did get a significant boost from “Laugh Now Cry Later,” the Drake single that in many ways hinges on Durk’s brief cameo.) All of which is to say that there is nothing propping up Durk or simulating real popularity; he has a rabid fan base and apparently no trouble feeding them in six- to nine-month intervals.

Despite this commercial success, Durk has been followed by an unbelievable string of tragedies. In the past eight years, at least five close associates of his, including his manager, his cousin, and his older brother, have been murdered. The most famous of these instances, the assassination of fellow Chicago rapper King Von in Atlanta in 2020, is the subject of “AHH HA,” the second song he played on Fallon, and of intense speculation and dangerous accusations thrown around on the internet. In 2019, he spent time in jail after being charged with attempted murder stemming from an Atlanta shooting (he was later granted bail); last summer, he and his fiance exchanged gunfire with armed robbers who broke into his Georgia home.

Durk’s new album, 7220, finds its form at odds with its subject: a constantly moving, occasionally urgent record about stasis, where Durk’s superficially charmed life has become one unending funeral procession. Its production — cheap and maudlin, somber pianos accented now and then by preening electric guitars — varies its rhythm but not its tone, one where every triumph is couched in tragedy and the tragedies themselves flatten with time and repetition. It is one of the bleakest rap records I’ve ever heard, in ways Durk’s songwriting grapples with and in ways it merely implies. It is a deeply uncomfortable listen whether you aim to empathize with its author or hold him at a distance.

7220 — the title refers to his grandmother’s street address — opens with a song, “Started From,” that seems to presage the sort of widescreen, linearly autobiographical album that so many rappers default to when trying to give their catalogs an air of prestige. As an intro to such an album or in a vacuum, “Started From” is shockingly effective: details of Durk’s upbringing on Chicago’s South side, like the jugs of borrowed water he hauled from a neighbor’s home to his, gird the song in poverty’s physical weight, while the funeral home proprietors and local cops he comes to know on a first-name basis drag him prematurely into adulthood. But this is mostly misdirection. Almost all of 7220 takes place in the present; when the ghosts of murdered friends wander in, they do as intrusive thoughts or active investigations.

Even when this uniformity of scope underlines a thematic point — that death is inescapable, that Durk’s old life haunts his new one, is his new one — that homogeneity makes the album play to diminishing returns by its second half, when it loses significant momentum. (7220 plays longer than its 45 minutes.) What buoys the songs is the specificity in Durk’s writing and his fluid, dextrous vocals. Durk has long been one of the most compelling users of Auto-Tune in rap’s mainstream or on its avant-garde, sounding at times like he’s warbling through a classic talkbox and at others like he is just one, two degrees removed from everyday speech. Here his vocals are as naked as ever, which makes the payoff of “Federal Nightmares” — a song near 7220’s end that is at once its most pleading missive and purest pop, where Durk’s voice is once against drowned in distortion — all the more notable.

Aside from the ever-present death and despair, two specters hang over 7220: drugs and the feds. Whether pills and lean are cast as self-medication, pure recreation, or cause of death, they populate nearly every scene Durk imagines. Throughout the album, he catalogs the effects these substances have on himself and others, but no lyric about them is as jarring as the one on “Barbarian.” Durk sings, “The trenches say I'm so barbarian/Them drugs got me out of character,” in a way that is tantalizingly ambiguous: Are his darkest moments the result of this substance use, or are those substances numbing an anger that lies underneath? The government, by contrast, is rendered more two-dimensionally, as a looming web of informants and dummy Instagram accounts ready to collect raw data and spin it into charges and convictions. Durk implores his friends, over and over, to keep their business off the net; at one point he makes deleting one’s iCloud account sound like the new scratching a serial number off a dirty pistol.

The slightly hypnotic sameness draws extra attention to the moments that puncture it. One is “AHH HA,” and another is “Pissed Off,” the album’s penultimate song. Both are about the fallout of Von’s murder, and both sound like natural extensions of early-2010s drill production. On each track, Durk is sincerely menacing, and sincerely — as the second title suggests — furious, with everyone from his clear enemies to his fairweather friends. It is impossible to reconcile these songs, aesthetically or thematically, with the ones that surround them. They make perfect sense on a human level: a man lashing out at those who have caused him such incredible pain. But amid verses about the sorrow that death brings, they struggle to create any new energy, any visceral thrill. It is, perhaps, an instance of an artist understanding his usual emotional state so clearly that the interruptions to it can only seem alien.