The first thing you hear in The Chi, Showtime’s new series, is Chance the Rapper’s triumphant “All We Got.” The song, which opens his 2016 mixtape Coloring Book, features a majestic horn line, courtesy of Nico Segal (formerly known as Donnie Trumpet), and an angelic outro from the Chicago Children’s Choir (and Kanye West). It’s regal and categorically optimistic, the kind of song that would pop out of thin air after someone discovers that they’ve just won the lottery—or, as in Chance’s case, when they’ve earned a spot in rap’s upper echelon and just become a father.
It’s a fitting backdrop for the show’s lighthearted opening sequence, as 16-year-old Coogie (Jahking Guillory) bikes around 79th Street in Chicago’s South Side. Dressed in neon-bright colors, Coogie passes kids doing flips on a mattress and pretends to outrun a motorcycle, his wildly curly hair flying behind him. Then the skyline emerges (not the actual view from 79th, as some Twitter users were quick to point out) and the stage is set. A perfect portrait of charisma and youthful innocence, Coogie charms the neighborhood corner-store owner into giving him a discount on jerky and a pop. The jerky, it turns out, is for a neglected dog that he takes care of. Almost immediately, though, the idyllic scene becomes entangled with another—one that’s more in line with Chance’s haunting “Paranoia.” Coogie happens upon a dead body on the sidewalk and, having to think quickly (or perhaps not thinking at all), steals the sneakers and necklace off the corpse before riding away. His escape plan fails after the cops accost him, cuff him, and slam him on the hood of their car before detaining him.
Within its initial five minutes, The Chi sets up the premise that it hopes to unpack throughout the series: to highlight the complexity of black lives in a city where mythologized narratives stretch a lot further and faster than the truth. In doing so, it hooks viewers early by presenting a kid who is immediately likable but not above capitalizing on a quick come-up—a decision that first proves to be unfortunate and then, in the same episode, fatal. Coogie’s brief story line plays out in moral shades of gray; being a decent but flawed person isn’t enough to save him from his unforgiving world. The show’s first two deaths force viewers to consider which loss of life stirs them the most: that of the nameless dead man (he’s eventually identified as Jason) or Coogie’s, the one who had a story and a family to identify with. Lena Waithe, the show’s creator and writer and a Chicago native, set out to illustrate her hometown in a way that would add context to the conversations that are too often reduced to loaded statistics and stereotypes. Waithe says her goal was to reveal the “humanity behind the headlines.” The show has already been renewed for a second season, and its fifth episode will air this Sunday.
As of late, Chicago has been the subject of twin narratives in the realms of politics and pop culture, neither of which really accounts for how people actually live—and The Chi seems to be reacting to both. Public officials tend to invoke the city’s name as a metaphor for everything that’s gone wrong with the country. In a 2016 tweet, President Trump, who has a well-documented history of employing this rhetoric, declared: “Crime is out of control, and rapidly getting worse. Look what is going on in Chicago and our inner cities. Not good!” (It should be noted that, averaged across that year and the previous four, Chicago didn’t rank in the top 10 among US cities for murders per capita.) Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has reported from the city in recent years, argued that “‘Chicago’ has become code for ‘black people,’” and particularly a signifier for the violence presumed unique to them. At the same time, hip-hop has offered a more complicated picture, straight from the mouths of those who live it, but their messages are muddied by the medium.
The Windy City has long been one of the major capitals of hip-hop. Common, who stars in and is an executive producer of The Chi, has been one of the city’s most visible representatives in hip-hop since the 1990s. He’s a native of the South Side, and images of the culture he knew fill his songs. “To be able to tell a story that is very specific to Chicago and the universal struggle of black life is important to me. I’ve spent my whole career trying to be that in music,” Common said recently. Kanye West continued the tradition in the ’00s, injecting his music with the city’s sound, language, and energy. In between, there were artists like Da Brat, Twista, and Lupe Fiasco—all of whom were also proud to put on for their beloved Chi.
Still, among all that pride, glimpses of the bleak issues that afflict the city were peppered in. On West’s iconic 2004 single “Jesus Walks,” he darkly proclaims to “walk through the valley of the Chi where death is.” It was a motif that he would repeat over the years, as when he rapped “I’m from the 312 / Where cops don’t come through and dreams don’t come true” nearly a decade later on “New God Flow.” Complicating things more, rap music often revels in hyperbole, and truth and fiction often exist side by side. Nevertheless, there may be no other pop-music genre where this creative liberty can be so misconstrued—where every line can be taken as confessional truth, and thus as evidence of America’s worst fears about black communities. Chicago’s latest rap renaissance threw that scrutiny into overdrive with the advent of drill music, a subgenre of rap that took off around 2012.
Drill introduced something more sinister into the mix. It sounds like a gritty and rough-edged version of Southern trap music and is characterized by an aggressively raw and reckless approach to violence. Chief Keef emerged as drill’s most notable rapper, and his music remains the strongest proof of its enduring influence in both hip-hop and the current mythology of Chicago. To the uninitiated, it can seem that these kids thrive on gunplay, that the menacing threats in the lyrics are proof of their callousness instead of their desire for survival. It didn’t help that drill’s rise to prominence coincided with a spike in murders (at least 500 in 2012) at a time when there was already increased interest in the city due to then-President Obama’s roots there.
Although many treated drill as a style strictly geared toward the nihilistic glorification of violence, a closer listen often suggests otherwise. On one 2016 loosie, rapper G Herbo pleads for peace of mind: “Lord take me away to another place / I’m from a place where it ain’t safe to put my gun away / This street shit ain’t the same no more, they took the fun away.” Likewise, Chief Keef has always named his family and children—particularly his daughter Kay Kay—as his primary motivation. He refers to this fact often on his 2012 debut, Finally Rich. (“That’s why I got rich / So I could take care of my mama / Take care of my daughter / And take care of my brothers,” Keef raps on the title track.) Still, a false binary was developed to describe Chicago’s hip-hop scene: Chance the Rapper released his breakout mixtape Acid Rap in 2013, and despite his also being from the South Side, people found it all too easy to symbolically pit the two rappers and their respective styles against each other. Keef became the villain to Chance’s good guy, and drill became the inferior inverse of the city’s “woke” and poetic and soulful sound. At best, this is an incomplete picture; at worst, it’s a way to uphold power structures that thrive on a black-and-white mode of thinking. No matter how different the two men seem, life in the inner city is a tangled web of interconnected lives, of good and bad elements existing in the same space and bodies at the same time.
The Chi accepts this binary as its burden. The show asks viewers to interrogate these facile lines of thinking. For example, Emmett (Jacob Latimore), a character whose story line thus far has been largely peripheral (Coogie sold the stolen sneakers to him), is a case study in how tempting a fast-money lifestyle can be for boys who straddle the line between childhood and adulthood. There’s immaturity in the way he sneaks around with his girlfriend Keisha, and guilelessness when he shrinks in his mother’s presence or finds solace in her lap. But during other moments of the show, he has to be a man—get money and raise his children.
In one scene in the second episode, Emmett is teetering on the edge of his breaking point, unable to find a babysitter so that he can go to work. An older man lends him $100 to help out, but the sitter doesn’t have room (“I got a house full of kids from men just like you,” she tells him) and can only offer him a spot on a two-month-long waiting list. Frustrated and seeing his infant son as a sudden liability, Emmett nearly abandons the baby in a park before he snaps back to reality. The sequence highlights the insidious and cyclical nature of poverty: It takes money to make money—and even with the cash, there’s the lack of social resources that people have to overcome. It won’t be the last time that Emmett wrestles with a bad decision—in the third episode, he almost gets himself into the drug game for some fast money—but whatever his fate, it’ll be hard to condemn him after watching him earnestly try to find his way.
There are similar dilemmas surrounding every character on The Chi. Coogie robs a dead man, but he doesn’t deserve to die for it. Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) kills Coogie, but he does so out of a desperate (and selfish) love for his grieving ex and her deceased son. Coogie’s brother Brandon (Jason Mitchell) contemplates killing Ronnie in the name of justice. None of this is truly redemptive, but these characters and their intertwining stories elicit an empathy that isn’t offered to those whose names sprawl out across the headlines or who make music about this life in detached tones.
One of the show’s youngest characters, Kevin (Alex Hibbert), isn’t even a teenager, but he’s already witnessed a murder and had to keep a grown man’s secret in order to keep his life. His innocence isn’t completely lost: There are moments of gaiety as he crushes on a girl at school, or when he and his friends riff on each other or let loose and dance at a friend’s party. But his fear begins to wear on him. Kevin sounds cold when he urges Brandon to “handle your business, nigga” and retaliate against Coogie’s killer. Under pressure from Ronnie, Kevin sets up a run-in between the two. As Ronnie and Brandon scuffle, Kevin ends up shooting Ronnie himself. His panicked tears show that he’s retained some of his humanity, but he now has to live with something else in his heart. Self-preservation at whatever cost is a lesson that Kevin has learned far too early, and an invisible wound that can poison even the strongest of minds. He’s not the demon in the dark—just a kid trying to stay alive.
Chicago, from the Great Migration into modern times, has been a city romanticized—for better and for worse. Throughout the ’90s and ’00s, it was the setting for iconic films like Love Jones, Soul Food, and Barbershop, all of which portrayed Chicago as a place where black people and their families could live well and find love. In 2015, after the city had gained a reputation for violence and was even being compared (unfavorably) with the war zones in Iraq, Spike Lee updated Lysistrata with his film Chi-Raq and was roundly criticized. But Waithe intends for The Chi to bridge the divide between pop culture and the media, on the one hand, and the city’s residents, on the other, who have been absurdly distorted and fetishized in recent years. On this score, the show largely succeeds.
Four episodes in, The Chi still hasn’t examined the city’s politics and has merely hinted at the notoriously corrupt Chicago Police Department. But even without those elements, there’s a humanizing effect in seeing these people for everything they are. The show reveals the intricacies not only of crime but of life in general—how victimhood extends beyond the morgue, and how heroes are made every day in the smallest of acts. There is joy and laughter and a willingness to improve within all of its characters, so when the grim reaper comes calling in The Chi, it always feels unjust.