I first heard of Chance the Rapper from this dude I know, let’s call him Marcus. Marcus is from Chicago, hella white, went to a private school, now goes to a small liberal arts school on his way to be a lawyer. My friends and I refer to him and his buddy solely as Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, due to their hip-hop stan-ship and general nonthreatening white people demeanor. So when this guy pitches me some rapper that I “Really need to check out, dude,” because he’s “totally about to blow up,” I approach the matter with understandable skepticism. Without mincing words, I listen to a lot of contemporary hip-hop, it takes a lot to impress me, and I don’t really trust this dude’s opinion.
So until now, I’d managed to avoid the buzz train that Chance the Rapper’s been building. But upon the release of his new mixtape, Acid Rap, it was not only Marcus that was excited. My twitter feed was popping off, I saw Complex articles, multiple Pitchfork nods, the whole internet was hyping this dude up. So when it came out, I copped it (as you can here), and these are my thoughts, as someone relatively ignorant of the Chance the Rapper phenomenon.
.I’m going to start by saying that Chance has a… distinctive voice. It’s whiny and nasal, not dissimilar to more recent Lil’ Wayne. If that is any indication, I am not the biggest fan, which makes it difficult to accurately judge the tape if I’m dismissing one of the largest components from the beginning. Luckily for me (and Chance, I guess), he has a good range, can sing well, and often switches up his flow mid-verse. Like a lot of other rappers (see Schoolboy Q, Chief Keef, Lil B), Chance has committed an act of self-branding with his trademark ad-lib. Unfortunately for Chance and the listener, his particular sound byte is reminiscent of a pocket-sized dog’s yap. It’s hard to take seriously, and on tracks like ‘Pusha Man’ it really diffuses the power of the more serious issues Chance is trying to bring up, like paranoia, rampant thievery, and gang violence in Chicago.
On ‘Cocoa Flavored Kisses’, however, Chance eschews the ad-lib, creating by far the best track on the album. It features the best of best of his contemplative ruminations on the expectations of his parents vs. the streets, his playful, well-articulated flow, and near the end of his verse his voice switches to a nearly overwhelmed, breathless torrent. Much like Kendrick Lamar on a ‘Backseat Freestyle’, Chance has the awesome ability to key up his voice to show intense emotion while keeping his flow on point. The track also features fellow fast-rapping Chicagoan Twista, who shows an incredible degree of consistency whenever he’s allowed to jump on a beat. A similar display of lyrical dexterity and careful collaboration choices is heard on ‘Favorite Song’, featuring Childish Gambino, who seems like a natural fit as a rapper with multiple voices and flows who tries to elevate and distance himself from stereotypical street rap content. Chance easily manages to keep up, beginning his tongue-twisting verse with “Chance, acid rapper, soccer, hacky sacker/Cocky khaki jacket jacker/Blap-happy faggot slapper/A Rocky rocket launcher/Shake that laffy taffy, jolly raunchy rapper”. The other features are of similarly high-quality, on ‘NaNa’ Action Bronson has a hilarious verse where he starts by imitating Chance’s flow before reverting to his natural style to talk about a bitch with a little arm (shoutouts to DJ Paul?). Ab-Soul is a bit disappointing, but the features help to offset whatever problems one might have Chance’s voice.
Now for the production. Good lord. It’s fucking beautiful, right from ‘Good Ass Intro’, which manages to live up to its name. It’s soulful, jazzy, clearly influenced by Kanye, but more freeform and often uptempo to compliment Chance’s faster rapping. The hooks are all emotional and heartfelt, even as Chance is singing “Everybody’s somebody’s everything” he manages to dodge the corniness that would overwhelm a less confident and skilled MC. That fearlessness is what makes the tape notable, over the course of less than an hour Chance manages to touch on gang violence, love, his dead friend, tripping, growing up, and does it in a wide variety of flows and over perfectly fitted beats. He’s a great songwriter, as shown on ‘Acid Rain’ — confessional and smooth, experimenting with a number of different voices and flows. This shit is the future. There, I said it. Despite my subjective issues, the tape is undeniably progressive in nature, combining jazz, poetry, soul, funk, and hip-hop in a way that seems indicative of the direction experimental hip-hop will be heading in the years to come.
Still, the tape has not converted me into a Chance stan (sorry Marcus). I can appreciate its creativity, but it’s not the breakout tape it seems to be heralded as. Chance is only 20, and one can only hope that as he grows he’ll retain his eclectic influences and continue transforming his unique blend of styles. Until then, I’ll take Tree as my pick for up-and-coming Chicago artist.- King James