The Lowdown: “We can treat our lives like a symphony/ A little empathy instead of infantry,” Chicago’s Mykele Deville raps on his 2017 mixtape Peace, Fam. It’s a mantra that has encouraged Deville through many stages of his life, whether as a DIY scene curator focused on dismantling “harmful social constructs,” as a stage actor and mentor examining “the miscarriage of justice,” or as a poet affirming the truth that “Black love is real.” This running thread of promoting empathy and self-love through art, combined with a deep love for the DIY community, has led Deville to a budding rap career pollinated by the deep wealth of creativity and wisdom surrounding him. Three years into this pursuit, his fourth project, Maintain, is the rewarding fruit borne from years of humble hard work and community support.
The Good: Deville raps with poetic precision, tending carefully to each rhyme and allusion as he urges his listener to “Maintain” a sense of self, despite the “lies whispered by the serpent,” whether it’s the devil himself or the prejudice of a world that unjustly imprisons and traumatizes the innocent (see “Kalief”). Despite delving into the heavy topics of injustice, suicide, racism, and violence, the focus on Maintain is radiating light. Drawing on Chicago’s rich history of jazz-rap influences, Deville intersperses his bars with expressive scatting and wandering saxophones on “Free Soul” as he preaches, “Freedom is what we make of it/ Deface the myth that we were never five fifths.” Later tracks “Type Love” and “You’re Enough” shimmer with loving affirmation and hope, a hope that shines brighter when the surrounding darkness is acknowledged, not swept aside.
The Bad: Deville does well to ground his otherwise joyful and lighthearted message in the harsh realities of our current culture. To ignore them would rob his joyful tone of its depth and gravitas. However, brevity is not Deville’s friend on Maintain. At seven tracks and 24 minutes, the bridges between sorrow and exultation are sometimes jolting and don’t allow for the breathing room these intense and opposite emotions require. Of course, the brevity of the album probably has less to do with a specific marketing ploy and artistic choice, like Kanye’s brief records of 2018, and more to do with the low-budget nature of DIY culture.
The Verdict: However, as Drake discussed in his recent Grammy speech, the high-dollar marketing and commercial appeal of mainstream hip-hop is not nearly as important as its community-building roots. With Maintain, as with the rest of his artistic endeavors, Deville has sought community enrichment over fame and true self-expression over crowd-pleasing. His thoughtful music serves the exact purpose it was created for, and that refreshing notion is exactly what we need right now.
Essential Tracks: “Type Love”, “Free Soul”, and “Kalief”