The RX is Uproxx Music’s stamp of approval for the best albums, songs, and music stories throughout the year. Inclusion in this category is the highest distinction we can bestow and signals the most important music being released throughout the year. The RX is the music you need, right now.
Chika’s story is as close to a hip-hop fairytale as it’s possible to get. That’s what makes the storybook theme of her latest EP, Once Upon A Time, so apt. The theme is doubly deft when it comes to Chika’s actual rhymes, which are shot through with a dazzlingly visual narrative style; the Alabaman MC is a naturally storyteller, blessed with a gift for understated metaphor and witty lyrical plot twists. That gift comes to the fore on her latest, which builds on the promising foundation laid by 2020’s Industry Games.
Clocking in at a trim six tracks — one fewer than on Chika’s previous effort — Once Upon A Time is not exactly a concept album but it feels like one. It has four songs whose titles play on the concept of the fairy tales from which the EP takes its title, with the intro actually being called “Fairy Tales.” They also express familiar narratives from the form like searching for true love and climbing from rags to riches, but as Chika notes within the first four bars of “Fairy Tales,” “No heroes inside a book look like me.”
Once Upon A Time, therefore, is an effort to change that — not just in storybook form, but in hip-hop as well. Think about how, in the last few years, there has seemed to be a concerted effort by labels to sign and promote more female talent in the genre than ever before. But when you scratch the surface, it can often look and sound like many of these newer rappers are coming straight off a Cardi Clone assembly line. At the risk of sounding like a respectability politics-wielding misogynistic old head, Chika presents a break from the norm.
No, she’s not telling women to cover up and “respect themselves.” She is, however, offering to tell the flip side of a story many of her peers have been serving up in the past few years. She is speaking for women whose hair isn’t augmented by 30-inch bundles, who haven’t been to Dr. Miami, who aren’t usually centered in discussions about beauty and desirability. That goes beyond the surface stuff as well; few rappers in general are telling the “American-born child of immigrants who defies their parents’ American Dream for them to live out their own” story. Chika does here.
On “Hickory Dickory,” Chika shouts out her Nigerian-born parents but also laments the sharp uptick in family members appearing to remind her of their existence now that she’s acquired a modicum of fame. Later, on “Save You,” she addresses her depression, calling her mind a busybody who “make time to plan out a damn pity party.” While mental health is a topic we’ve heard more about recently, it hasn’t often come from anyone who looks like Chika — someone many rap fans can relate to a lot more than the dominant “bad bitch” styles.
The crowning achievement of the album, though, is the two-part “Cinderella.” Aside from being an expertly crafted “art of storytelling” song with a clear plotline and some truly scintillating pen work from Chika, it’s also one of few songs on the mainstream level addressing one of rap’s biggest elephants in the room. Chika tells a “girl meets girl” story, eschewing rap’s usual focus on hypermasculinity where plenty of peers have subverted it. Instead of milking a trick for his dollars, Chika recounts a tender tale of finding a connection — with a woman, no less.
The significance of this is incredible. You see, once upon a time, rappers like Da Brat and Queen Latifah had to keep their queerness on the low, either playing coy about their relationship statuses or playing up their femininity to appeal to male fans and quiet rumors about their sexuality. Later on, Nicki Minaj leveraged her ambiguous attitude to appeal to LGBTQ fans before revealing that she was straight. Dej Loaf was another rapper who felt the need to fend off rumors, refusing to answer either way. Chika being able to write a straightforward love song addressed to a woman is a massive stride for representation and acceptance in hip-hop.
Rappers often come into the game loudly proclaiming that they have a story to tell — word to Biggie Smalls. But over time, it becomes clearer which stories are worth telling, and that’s when artists must grow beyond the bounds of what has already been done. That takes as much courage as it does creativity, and on Once Upon A Time, Chika shows she has both in abundance. While Industry Games was a bold and welcome entrance, her latest is an astonishing display of vulnerability and musicality that assures listeners her story will be worth paying attention to.
Once Upon A Time is out now via Warner Records. Get it here.
Chika is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.