Chicago rapper Malci doesn't need to sit at your lunch table

Andy Downing

Malci Atkinson has always viewed himself as a musical outcast — a perception the Chicago rapper has held tight to even as he’s evolved into a key member of the Why? Records crew, a loose-knit group responsible for some of the most esoteric and compelling hip-hop currently coming from the Windy City.

“I always wanted to make more accessible, digestible music, but given how my brain is wired, it always came out weird,” said Atkinson, who will join labelmates Free Snacks in concert at Cafe Bourbon St. on Friday, Sept. 6 (locals Kali Dreamer and TrigNO open the show). “Early on, the idea that I was never going to be the next Jay-Z was always a hard pill to swallow, but the older I get, and the more I’ve been rapping and around these other guys in Why?, the easier it gets, because we’re all akin.

“When I started, it was like I was sitting off at my own lunch table eating my own, weird food by myself. Now it’s like we have our own little table, and we all fit in there.”

Malci’s increasing comfort in his own skin is evident on his most recent album, Papaya, from 2019, a hazy, organic affair that blurs the line between noise rap and airy, free jazz exploration. The lyrics are alternately obtuse and revealing, with the MC setting deeply personal revelations alongside mundane daily details, because, as he explained it, “every rapper’s life isn’t extraordinary.” Other times, Malci’s voice functions as yet another instrument in the mix, syllables snapping like snare hits or elongating like dizzying blasts of brass. “I have big appreciation for experimental rappers like … Myka 9 and Busdriver and Hieroglyphics, where it’s not just normal rap patterns,” he said. “They all have that quality where you listen to the vocals and it sounds like they’re mimicking a saxophone or something.”

Musically, Papaya refuses to put down roots, each track staking out wild new terrain, which the rapper traced to his childhood — Malci grew up with an aircraft mechanic father whose job forced the family to move every couple of years — and to the fact that much of the writing for the album took place while on tour. “A lot of the instrumentals I was making at hotels and rest stops and other peoples’ houses,” he said. “And that transfers to the music. You can tell it’s a kinetic album and not set in one style or genre. … I’m really in awe of that organized chaos, I guess you could call it.”

While the music itself has become more formless, Malci ditching samples in favor of amorphous field recordings and airy synthesizers, the lyrical scope has both grown and sharpened, expanding beyond the internal explorations of the aptly titled Do You Know Yourself, from 2017, wrestling with where the rapper fits within the larger world.

“You have to find new things to talk about and new reasons to keep making music,” Malci said. “Of late, my brain has really been on the whole struggle of blackness and black lives, which I’ve always dealt with but I’m seeing now in a more insidious way, like, where I have this degree and I’m trying to get a job, but my blackness is used against me. Another big thing I’ve been putting into songs is my experience as a rapper and artist, where we’re marginalized and overlooked. … It’s a lot like therapy, where you run the tape and talk, and get all these deep, subconscious thoughts out, figuring out more of who you are and what you stand for.”

The MC described this evolution as part of a natural maturation process, which has revealed itself in everything from his genre-blurring music to his dwindling late-night interests.

In his early 20s, Malci said he was “all about the turn-up” of memory-shattering, booze-filled escapades. Now, as he approaches 30, “I really respect people that can be sober and have their shit together,” the rapper said

“I used to think those people were all squares, like, ‘I’m always going to be the cool party man,’” he continued, laughing. “But these days, it's like, 'Man, if you can make yourself go to bed at 9 p.m. and get up at 6 a.m. to go and lift weights, that’s what's really gangster.'”

Cafe Bourbon St.

9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6

2216 Summit St., North Campus

ALSO PLAYING: Free Snacks, TrigNO, Kali Dreamer