Like a pair of former champions returning to the ring to reclaim the tag team titles, The Cool Kids have officially resurfaced. Six years after their official debut album and over a year since announcing their return, Chicago swag godfathers Sir Michael Rocks and Chuck Inglish are back with Special Edition Grandmaster Deluxe, their long-awaited 16-track return to form.
In the time since the release of When Fish Ride Bicycles, both members had established their own solo identities as legal problems prevented them from releasing music as The Cool Kids. A combined total of 9 solo tapes, 4 albums and 3 EPs later, Chuck and Mikey are together again, returning to a different hip-hop universe.
The good news is that today’s landscape is one the Cool Kids helped carve out, despite legal and financial barriers preventing them from capitalizing as a tandem. The current hip-hop world is a wild west of vibrant personalities, meme-worthy characters, genre-savvy specialists and nostalgia-mining romantics who document and share content through social media and streaming services to amass and galvanize a devoted fan base. The images of these artists are outlandish yet calculated, from vocal styles and beats, to streetwear and merch, to hair dye, to tattoo placement, to Soundcloud loose single album art, not only to garner clout for themselves but to attempt to break barriers and push forward a genre and culture into unforeseen territory.
This phenomenon has come to the forefront of critical and fan discussion on the genre recently, but the shift in tide was facilitated by acts rising to prominence years ago. Anyone from the midwest will tell you that The Cool Kids serve as one of the earliest and most overlooked facilitators of that shift, beginning in the late ‘00s. They built a cult of internet followers with their unique social media (Myspace) presence, relatable yet outside-the-box subject matter, and retro futuristic aesthetic. They traded lines like golden-age hip-hop vets and called themselves the “new black version of the Beastie Boys.” They exuded fresh style whether they rocked Nautica jackets or Iron Maiden concert tees. They laid out a new blueprint to smash the tall-tee, fitted cap mold, drawing a clear line from them to today’s stars like Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert.
In late 2017, The Cool Kids’ resurgence is a welcome reminder of just how influential they have been. Clocking in at 65 minutes, Special Edition Grandmaster Deluxe delivers exactly what fans hoped for and then some. Starting with a re-introduction from one of Chicago’s favorite comedians, Hannibal Burress, the Cool Kids pick right back up where they left us.
It’s clear from the opening bars of “Moonlanding” they haven’t lost a step. With pounding 808s, crisp retro analog synths and a Neil Armstrong sample backing up deft but somehow understated boasts, Chuck and Mikey go back and forth on a chorus of “Nautica or Ralph, Benetton or Calvin / Been around the world and I still ain’t found shit that I ain’t had yet,” re-visiting one of their core themes: they set the trends that everyone else follows.
The most crucial element of the Cool Kids’ output has always been the subtle simplicity of it all. They don’t think they’re reinventing the wheel; they’re refurbishing an old wheel and recycling it for their own unique purposes. They manage to be hip-hop old heads while still having open minds about what they can do. They never shut out innovative ideas, but they never get lost in the sauce either.
The growth and creative expansion of Chuck Inglish really shines through on Special Edition, which is impressive considering how skillful a producer he has always been. Perhaps the strongest aspect of the album is how varied, yet consistent the instrumentation is. The production transitions, starting with the signature Cool Kids retro-futuristic bump in the early tracks, to a series of more uptempo dance floor jams, to some more eclectic grooves later on. Thus, as the album goes on, we find Chuck and Mikey venturing outside of their comfort zone, yielding outstanding results. The poppy soul tune “Jean Jacket” illustrates this, as the Cool Kids sound completely at home over the funky bass line and an insanely catchy hook from Paul Usher and 10ille. On “Jean Jacket,” their signature chiller-than-thou, almost stoic delivery keeps them hooked to the beat, and their flows are as sharp as they’ve ever been.
On Special Edition, The Cool Kids’ willingness to experiment shines without overtaking the aesthetic that brought them to the table in the first place. Fans of previous Cool Kids releases have plenty to keep them satisfied. “On the Set,” featuring Boldy James and Smoke DZA, is a minimalist boom-bap posse cut reminiscent of “Roll Call” from When Fish Ride Bicycles. On “T.D.A.,” Chuck’s drum beat calls back to Bake Sale EP favorite “Bassment Party,” with additional brass hits, synth layers and surgically-precise scratches from A-Trak. On the airy “Simple Things” featuring QUIÑ and Syd (The Internet), a gliding groove takes the listener on a cruise through the city while Chuck and Mikey weigh the pros, cons and minutiae of settling into a relationship. On “The Motion,” Inglish taps a ‘90s Chicago house groove, similar to Chance the Rapper’s “All Night” or Kanye’s “Fade.”
Special Edition’s 16 tracks and 65 minute runtime make it the longest of any official Cool Kids release to date. It’s also the most complete, making it an impressive addition to a hopefully growing catalogue.
In any field, certain practitioners easily reach the masses. Others stay more under-the radar, but become deeply admired by their peers for their expertise. There are writers, and there are writer’s writers. In hip-hop, there are producers and there are producer’s producers, rappers and rapper’s rappers. If Special Edition Grandmaster Deluxe doesn’t necessarily rocket the Cool Kids to the top of the pops, it serves to further solidify their place as heavyweight contenders in a division teeming with talented competition. Some days it seems like subtlety, skills and knowledge of the craft are becoming relics of a forgotten era. Thankfully, we still have groups like The Cool Kids to dust off the gold-link chains once again.