“Morning time, I get on my knees, I pray to Allah/Forgive me for the shit that I did,” harmonizes Lil Durk on “Pelle Coat,” a track from his new album, Almost Healed. The 30-year-old Chicago rapper has steadily gathered momentum ever since he signed with Def Jam in 2013. He’s arguably the most commercially viable proponent of drill music, and that success allows him to float above the noise that roils heated discussions about the homegrown subgenre, even as he navigates the kind of industry bullshit — a long-running beef with Baton Rouge’s Youngboy Never Broke Again, occasional legal problems, and verbal shots at fellow rap stars — that seems part and parcel with modern rap celebrity.
Durk has risen above the flotsam by refining a formula he introduced on his major-label debut, 2015’s Remember My Name, which splits between feral, hard-bitten street raps and anxious, melodically sung tracks. It has yielded increasing rewards. In 2021, he scored his first number-one album with The Voice of the Heroes, a collaboration with Atlanta rapper Lil Baby. Last year, he added his first solo number-one album in 7220, a reference to his family’s former street address in Chicago. (It’s also the title of a memoir by his mother, Lashawnda Woodard.) Durk has leaned into his growing role as a mainstream rap leader: earlier this month, he met with newly elected Chicago mayor Brandon Johnson, and he frequently touts his community organization, Neighborhood Heroes.
Durk’s latest, Almost Healed, initially seems to reflect his new image as a mature Chiraq survivor. It opens with an evocative intro from Alicia Keys, who nods to the lingering grief he feels from the murders of his brother Dontay Banks and longtime friend King Von. “I want to hear from Durk Banks,” she says in a comforting, therapeutic tone. That leads into “Pelle Coat,” where Durk ably balances lyrics about his pain and troubles with references to his Muslim faith over Chopsquad DJ’s melancholy piano lines. Durk’s hardly the first rapper to wrestle with worldly desires and a spiritual calling, a tradition that dates to Rakim stating, “But now I’ve learned to earn ‘cause I’m righteous” on the 1987 classic “Paid in Full.” Still, Durk mines that familiar tension well.
More explicit in pop ambition is “All My Life,” a made-for-streaming hit with J. Cole that has become Durk’s biggest single to date, peaking at number two on the Billboard Hot 100. “But the media call me a menace/I’ve been sitting with the mayor and politicians/I’m trying to change the image,” harmonizes Durk over a cheery, slightly cheesy Dr. Luke beat. But it’s not too long before Almost Healed swerves into an incessant stream of goon antics, drill threats, Percs, X pills, “brodies” dead and alive, Tito’s vodka, Lambo trucks, and hitting girls from the back. The album has 21 cuts and save for a handful of tracks at the beginning and the end, each one delves into the kind of druggy, violent trauma Durk initially planned to leave behind.
Lyrically, Almost Healed is an occasionally thrilling morass of contradictions. At its center are several throttling street cuts. Future, whose cameos can be very hit-or-miss, delivers a strong verse for “Never Imagined,” perhaps a sign of the respect Durk now commands. “Big Dawg,” which features Chief Wuk from Durk’s Only the Family crew, is a hard, fuzzy number full of stick talk. 21 Savage and producer Metro Boomin show up for “War Bout It,” inspiring Durk to threaten, “See, I ain’t respond on Instagram, I know how to go ‘bout it.” Kodak Black helps throw bows on “Grandson,” which is coproduced by Zaytoven and Metro Boomin. New Orleans rapper Rob49 of “Vulture Island” fame has a great breakout moment on “Same Side.” With its mock-church bells and pummeling bass, “B12” only raises the intensity.
Ideally, Durk would have cut five or so songs and tightened Almost Healed into a clearer portrait of his struggle to leave his pistol-scarred past behind. Instead, he offers his fans a buffet of listening options, some better than others. On the Dr. Luke-produced “Stand by Me,” he reunites with Morgan Wallen, continuing a treacly yet charismatic pop-country collaboration that began with their 2021 hit, “Broadway Girls.” “Baby, when shit gets real, I need your loyalty,” sings Durk. It’s helpful in decoding Durk’s artistic intentions. Unlike onetime friend and fellow drill pioneer Chief Keef, he doesn’t want to be a critically feted cult artist. He wants to be as accessible as possible, feed the streets, and build an empire. For the moment, Durk’s strategy is working.