Chance the Rapper, whose excellent second mixtape, Acid Rap, dropped on Tuesday, has become a trending topic this week, and not just on Twitter. He didn't exactly come out of nowhere—Complex included him on our list of 10 Chicago Rappers to Watch Out For last year. But his second mixtape is already being hailed in certain circles as a "classic" and one of the year's best albums. Suddenly he seems poised to cross over to a major audience. Where the hell did this kid come from?
Twenty-year-old Chancelor Bennett is from the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago' South Side, just blocks from where controversial street rapper Chief Keef blew up just over a year ago. Both rappers are charismatic, and both built an organic buzz through local word-of-mouth amongst their teen peers, although Chance is two and a half years Keef’s senior. Both relied upon the Chicago Public High Schools as engines to build a fanbase and achieve local success.
One major difference between the two rappers: Chance sounds nothing like Chief Keef. Where Keef’s music empowered through its singular vision—closed-off and unrelenting—Chance is open, experimental, jazzy and soulful. Acid Rap is a record informed by a multitude of influences; intellectually curious, he seems to incorporate any style that swims past him. The immediate influences and points of comparison are familiar: fellow Chicagoan Kanye West, first and foremost, but also the precision and delivery of Eminem and the ambition of Kendrick Lamar.
Although plenty of critics would try to set them against each other, Chance clearly wasn’t interested in competing with Keef; he was finding his own path.
That said, Acid Rap can’t be reduced to a simple mathematical equation, because Chance has also taken on the freewheeling dexterity of Freestyle Fellowship, the jazzy production of A Tribe Called Quest, and even the craft-focused performance style of Michael Jackson. There’s also his background: he came up in Chicago’s vibrant poetry scene, doing hip-hop shows and spitting at open mic nights, building an audience through the give-and-take of live performances for his ever-growing fanbase. Chance is Chance; he’s a locus of influences absorbed and subsumed through his own personality.
His debut, #10Day, was a concept tape based on a ten-day suspension from high school after he was caught smoking weed. His style on the tape was very performative; it could even, at times, come across as stagey. At a time when Chief Keef had captured the nation’s attention and seemed to draw a big bold arrow at the violent living conditions of Chicago’s South Side, something about Chance’s work seemed quaint. A track like “Fuck You Tahm Bout,” in which Chance rapped over Waka’s “Fuck This Industry”—one of the more subdued songs on Flockaveli—was a crowd favorite for his core fanbase, but in terms of visceral heft it couldn’t compare to the sounds his dreadlocked compatriot was unveiling just down the street.
Although plenty of critics would try to set them against each other, Chance clearly wasn’t interested in competing with Keef; he was finding his own path. Chance attended Jones College Prep high school. He has two supportive parents who by his account qualify as middle-class; his father works as the regional director for the Department of Labor, a presidential appointee, and his mother works for the Illinois Attorney General. When he was a kid, they wouldn’t let him have Kanye West’s The College Dropout unless he got the clean version. Some of Chance’s earliest proponents came from a wide support network of slam poetry mentors and high school teachers. It's natural that his music would evolve differently than Keef's.