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.
In Chicago, the line between the streets and the rest of the world is razor-thin. The consistent sound of the city is that of the legacy of segregation; communities divided by race, class, education, geography, and gangs. Everyone in Chicago is shaped by this history; you can either try to escape it, or you can get caught up in it—or try to find a third way. Still, everyone is impacted by it, and Chance is no exception.
His friend Rodney Kyles, Jr., was stabbed at a party during a fight. “I saw it happen, and it fucked me up for a long time,” Chance told Complex earlier this year. In an in-depth piece in the Chicago Reader, he went into more detail: "Right after that I started being in the studio every day. Didn't really go out anymore, stopped doing all the drugs I used to do—it changed my whole life around. It was a very sobering event."
The comparisons to Kendrick have been overstated, but Chance has been influenced by Lamar. Their connection is less stylistic than ideological.
He raps about the experience on “Acid Rain,” a profoundly moving track from Acid Rap. It’s subtly poetic, and resonant because of how honestly it unfolds. Chance's voice seems to catch in his throat as he rhymes: "My big homie died young, just turned older than him/I seen it happen, I seen it happen, I see it always / He still be screaming, I see his demons in empty hallways." It’s a dark moment, and it’s not the only one. #10Day was a record about growing up and figuring out your next move; tracks like “Nostalgia” looked back at childhood in an endearing way. Acid Rap, though, is shot through with lost innocence, sometimes more poetic (“Cocoa Butter Kisses”), sometimes more explicit.
The comparisons to Kendrick have been overstated, but Chance has been influenced by Lamar. Their connection is less stylistic than ideological. Much like good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Acid Rap is written from a conflicted-yet-principled point of view. Chance uses music as therapy, and he still believes in love and idealism, but he's also impacted by Chicago's epidemic of violence. So he addresses it, not because he feels obligated to, but because he's got something to say about it, a perspective worth hearing.
“Pusha Man” is the one song where Kendrick Lamar is also an unavoidable point of comparison. A seven-minute long multi-part track thematically similar to “Peer Pressure” and musically reminiscent of “Chapter Six,” "Pusha Man" is an attempt to humanize and empathize with a shooter, to convey the humanity of people trapped: “Everybody dies in the summer, so pray to God for a little more spring/I know you scared, you should ask us if we scared too/If you was there, and we just knew you cared too.” It isn't the album's strongest song, but it does feel, tonally, as if Chance's understanding has deepened, his outlook matured. His music isn't good because he has some socially conscious agenda; it's good because he complicates our assumptions about what's happening in Chicago in an honest way.
There's a lot more to say about Acid Rap, because it is about a lot more than this; the entire record celebrates hope and idealism ("Everything's Good," "Interlude (That's Love)"), the realization of an artist's own youthful abilities ("Juice," "Smoke Again"), and the possibility of therapeutic affirmation ("Everybody's Something"). His delivery has also evolved to the point where his unreal dexterity is effortless, no longer an end unto itself. Instead, he plays with the musicality of his phrasing, creatively using space to keep his verses interesting and unpredictable. The beats have a more unified feel, too, a blend of acid jazz, '90s hip-hop, a dash of juke, and the kinds of keyboards Quincy Jones would utilize in the late 1970s, all without sounding overly retro.
But it's his honesty, and the fact that he's got something important to say, that makes this record one of the most exciting this year. When asked recently about Chicago violence and the mass closures of Chicago public schools in an interview with the Chicago Red Eye, Chance made that point himself: “It makes me want to watch what I say, you know? Not like censoring myself, but making sure what I say means something. Be it positive or negative, everything I say can have an influence on a group of people. Everything going on in Chicago affects me as an artist, but it also affects me personally. I'm from here. I live here. I just turned 20. I know a lot of dudes that didn't.”