There’s a particular moment that happens during any Joseph Chilliams set. Bass throbbing across the venue, he locks eyes with an unsuspecting audience member and raises his finger in their direction before he begins to seductively swivel his hips from side to side. The initial reaction from the crowd is always tense and awkward, but as the moves become more irreverent so do their charm and eventually, those in attendance are united by cheers and laughter.
Reflective of his on-stage work is Chilliams’ recently released debut project, Henry Church. Wrapped around hilariously bizarre references, dense production and a direct stance against hypermasculinity, the 13-track project can be difficult to fully unpack in one sitting. Nonetheless, once invested in the brilliance behind his ability to seamlessly weave together different ideas with humor, self-awareness and proud nonconformity, Henry Church becomes an endearingly unique body of work.
“Mr. Socko” finds Chilliams boasting about flirting at the Kwik-E-Mart, leaving hickeys in unpredictable places and categorizing himself as a unicorn without forgetting to call out Hollywood’s whitewashing, while “Kale” defiantely takes on the trappings of the music industry alongside Noname and Supa Bwe.
Joseph is gifted in making you laugh without undermining his bigger, more serious statements. We don’t often get hip-hop records that call out misogyny and even fewer that are as straightforward about doing so as “Shake My Ass,” featuring Jamila Woods. Switching roles between the two voices to narrate the thoughts and interactions of a sexist man and a woman, the song sonically deconstructs the farce that is machismo and deals upfront with the dangerous sexualization of women. On its first listen, the imagery of a tall and skinny Chilliams’ shaking his ass like a rattlesnake is humorous, but soon after the true context of the song is revealed, the listener is left to confront his own perception of gender norms. You wouldn’t want to play this at a party, but you definitely would want every man in attendance to hear it beforehand.
In addition to Woods, Noname, and Supa, a handful of other Chicagoans contributed to Henry Church, properly capturing and celebrating the diversity within his close-knit community. MFn Melo appears in the loosely Crime Mob-inspired “Buck,” Kevo B and Saba do their best to one-up their respective verses in “Werewolf” and poet Raych Jackson interpolates Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” in “How Not To Be Like Memphis Bleek.”
Still, from the overarching themes to productions choices, the record is undeniably Chilliams’. “FN-2187” serves both as the full-length’s centerpiece and a pensive tribute to loved ones that have passed away. Over Sen Morimoto’s sparse instrumental and a warm piano composition, witty one-liners and hopeful Star Wars allegories are contrasted by the melancholic tone in the westside native’s voice, ending with a eulogy and homage for his cousin and fellow Pivot Gang member, John Walt, who was fatally stabbed in February of this year.
The last cut on the album is a phone-recorded freestyle with Walt. But while “FN-2187” somberly deals with his loss, “Charlie Murphy” exclusively exudes happiness, serving as a more fitting representation of Walt’s legacy and spirit. Exhibiting the Prince of Pivot’s masterful ability to craft an infectious hook, the impromptus session’s lightheartedness brings together the two family members for a touching moment of joy and laughter.
Henry Church is an appropriate juxtaposition of a wide-ranging scope of interests, ideas and jokes that come together to form a collage that accurately depicts the world Joseph Chilliams inhabits while offering an inviting entrance for listeners old and new to join him, regardless of their disposition. Chilliams is not here to adhere to society’s standards nor industry expectations, instead in Henry Church he pursues freedom and solace.