In recent years, rappers like Gucci Mane, Kanye West, and even Lil B have been canonized as artists whose influence has been essential for the new crop of hip-hop practitioners rapping/singing/mumbling their way to the top of the charts. What’s strange to me, though, is how so few people have deployed this dictum in service of the Cool Kids, the rap duo from Chicago whose social media acumen and sartorial eccentricity helped make them one of the last decade’s most revered independent acts.
Back in the late ’00s, Sir Michael Rocks and Chuck Inglish turned their MySpace page into a proto-pop-up, where they peddled a slick, gold-chain-wearing, 808-knocking, BMX-riding brand of cool whose enduring influence on some of contemporary rap’s most prominent figures is undeniable. It’s hard to imagine what Tyler, the Creator would sound like without Chuck’s asymmetric drum programming and pixelated ’80s synths as a key reference point. And our current clout era wouldn’t look quite the same without Chuck and Mike there to help usher us out of the age of tall tees. With the release of Special Edition Grandmaster Deluxe—the pair’s first album in six years—I wondered how the internet’s original Cool Kids felt about finally releasing music again and what they thought of the rap world they helped usher into existence.
“This really feels like album no. 1,” Chuck Inglish told me at the Ringer office in L.A. “The Bake Sale  was a collection of songs we had out already. This is the first album where one song was made in front of the next song was made in front of the next song with no hiccups.” Most groups in their 10th year of existence aren’t releasing their “first” album, but this is the unfortunate part of the Cool Kids’ story. For legal reasons (that both members seemed reluctant to rehash in detail), Chuck and Mike haven’t been able to release music under the Cool Kids moniker for much of the past six years. To hear Chuck tell it, it got to the point where constructing a project involved navigating so much legal red tape and their pockets accommodating so many other hands that it seemed pointless. “We couldn’t really put out shit the way we wanted to,” he says.
In the intervening years, the two embarked on solo careers. For Mike, that meant a string of six mixtapes, two EPs, and 2014’s Banco, his well-received debut album. For Chuck, that included three albums of his own, three mixtapes, an EP, and production credits with a number of artists, including Mac Miller (“Gees”), Chance the Rapper (“U Got Me Fucked Up”), and Rick Ross (“Party Heart”). All the while, the two frequently made appearances on each other’s projects. They were never quite apart; they just couldn’t be fully together.
That is, until last July, when Chuck took to Twitter to make a triumphant announcement: The Cool Kids were back and ready to release new music. The furniture had been slightly re-arranged since their last visit, though. The listening public receiving Special Grandmaster Deluxe doesn’t consume music the same way it did even just a few years ago. “The way you get music is different. It ain’t cool to listen to wack shit no more,” Chuck explained. “Everybody wants to be hip to the Insecure soundtrack and shit like that, but that's how you get music. That's the DJ right now. That's the top 9 at 9.”
Both Chuck and Mike believe the Spotify playlistification of contemporary music has had a marked effect on not only the discovery and consumption of music, but also how musicians (particularly young rappers) are choosing to make it. ”There was an era where labels wouldn't sign you if you didn't come with your own shit, or everybody would dis you if you sounded like this guy or the hot rapper would dis you if you tried to bite his style, but now, that ain't it no more,” Mike said. “Everybody's just tryna get the likes right now … and whatever you gotta do to get ‘em, you gon' do it.” Chuck chimed in with faux excitement: ‘'Oh, look at lil dawg! He got Skittle-colored hair! Mo-fucker got a fidget-spinner grill!”
Still, despite their criticism, the Cool Kids aren’t beckoning anyone to get off their lawn. In fact, they think the finger-wagging that certain rap luminaries have been engaging in recently is silly. “All these purists came from an era of forgetting where hip-hop started,” Chuck explained. “That shit was a fuckin' party with a nigga on the mic bigging up the DJ saying dumb shit just to get people going! Where we at right now? Nigga on the mic saying dumb shit, getting party going! How is [that] not the culture?” In a way this stance perfectly encapsulates the Cool Kids’ ethos: a simultaneous reverence for hip-hop’s golden past with an acceptance and appreciation of its current form (along with a healthy dose of skepticism for both old and new). For them, it doesn’t so much matter what anybody else is doing now or what anyone did before—or as Chuck put it, “None of that goofy ass shit stop me from getting fresh everyday.”
On SEGMD, released last Friday through Propelr Music, they get fresh on every track. It’s 65 minutes jam-packed with the crisp, clever sound that first grabbed the internet’s attention 10 years ago. They’re back to bragging about style—“From the Starter to the Nautica to Cartier / See, I’m the nigga you was looking to start a wave” (“20/20 Vision”)—craft—“My beats got better and my bars got heavy” (“Checkout”)—and life’s necessities—“I don’t need much but a blunt” (“Gr8Full”).
Sonically, they’re painting with a bit of a broader palette. There are classic boom-bap slaps like the Smoke DZA–assisted “On the Set.” There’s a callback to West Coast G-Funk on “Westside Connections,” which sports a verse from Compton rapper Buddy. There’s “Simple Things,” the jazzy slow-burner in which we cruise with the Internet’s Syd, smoke a blunt, and go get some late-night Roscoe’s. There’s even a disco track of sorts in the form of the uptempo, two-stepper “Jean Jacket.” It’s an album fashioned for a long car ride, full of head bobs and the occasional laugh. “I ain’t just tryna smash / I’m tryna do some … yoga with you. I’m tryna watch Insecure,” Mike hilariously reassures the woman he’s courting on “T.D.A.”
With SEGMD, the Cool Kids are hoping to bring something to fruition that they feel has been long in the making. Chuck and Mike point to acts like SZA, Childish Gambino, and Solange—friends of theirs whose recent successes have come more than a few years into their respective careers—as artists whose arcs they feel they can emulate. “This isn’t their first shit!” Chuck exclaimed. “These are just their breakout albums. This is our breakout album.” Coming from nearly any other pop music act, a pronouncement like this would feel perfunctory, but sitting there in front of Chuck and Mike, I could sense that they really felt it. I hoped it would be true, or that perhaps—at the very least—two of rap’s original “influencers” would finally get the recognition they deserve.