No, you're not tripping. The newest rap star out of Chicago is an energetic former Obama volunteer with a taste for the psychedelic. Take a ride with Chance The Rapper and set your mind free.
This feature appears in Complex's October/November 2013 issue.
When 20-year-old Chancellor Bennett, a.k.a. Chance The Rapper, hits the stage at the Fillmore on an unexpectedly cool July evening in Detroit, he does so with dramatic flair—racing onstage, he skids to the mic and staggers a few steps past it before recovering, like a cartoon character. Even though he has an air of spontaneity and his songs sound unforced and natural, his motions have a deliberate, practiced precision. He’s not only a born performer, he’s a careful one, who studied the work of his idols, from Michael Jackson to Kanye West.
Tonight he’s opening for Earl Sweatshirt and Mac Miller, and the audience—as it was in New York City, and as it will be in Cleveland and at 22 other tour stops—is young, mostly Caucasian, and overwhelmingly female. In other words, it’s the audience that brought Mac into the game. There is some overlap with Chance’s fan base, but for the most part, these are strangers who need to be won over. Chance has a charismatic, exuberant stage persona that easily earns converts, as he’s proven in his native Chicago. He’s in continual motion, lunging, mugging, and dancing to the strains of “Smoke Again” in coordination with his DJ, Oreo. The fans in the audience who know his songs make a show of rapping along as he performs tracks drawn primarily from his acclaimed second mixtape, Acid Rap, released in April. Beyond Chance’s musical gifts and his crowd-pleasing energy, there is a sense of a growing intellectual restlessness on the record: “Used to tell hoes I was dark-light/Or off-white,” Chance raps on “Everybody’s Something.” “But I’d fight if a nigga said that I talk white/And both my parents was black, but they saw it fit that I talk right.”
Chance attended a selective-enrollment high school in downtown Chicago called Jones College Prep. He was raised by two supportive parents, both of whom work in government: his mother, Lisa, in the office of the Illinois attorney general, and his father, Ken, as regional director for the Department of Labor. As a teenager, Chance interned for several political campaigns, including Barack Obama’s first run for president. “I wasn’t a higher-up anywhere because I was like fucking 17,” he says, though he did meet the president several times. “I was there, you know, in the battlefield. Trying to create change.”
Chance is unapologetically middle class, and extremely honest about this fact in his music. His outlook on life is endearingly innocent. On his 2012 mixtape debut, 10 Day, however, that earnestness could come across a little precious. Inspired by a suspension he received during his senior year for smoking weed, 10 Day includes songs with titles like “Prom Night,” “Nostalgia,” and “Hey Ma.” It feels cloying at times, infused with the sentimentality of a yearbook note to a good friend.
With the arrival of Acid Rap, though, his music was shot through with something darker. There’s a morbidity underlining even his nerdier punch lines. On “Smoke Again,” Chance raps about lean-soaked cigarettes: “Lean all on the square, that’s a fuckin’ rhombus.” During a break in the action in Detroit, Chance says he has since kicked the habit. “There was a point where I just did not care about my body. I just felt indestructible. I was smoking mad lean squares,” he explains. “That was really bad for me, so I stopped.”
The buzz and attention generated by Acid Rap says a lot about the current state of hip-hop. Listeners are looking for artists who can challenge conventional wisdom about hip-hop archetypes and the younger generation.
Since Acid Rap’s lead single, “Juice,” dropped in the spring, there has been a major-label feeding frenzy, with rampant rumors of multimillion-dollar offers. Anyone who hadn’t been swayed by “Juice” fell for the follow-up, “Acid Rain,” which Chance’s manager, Pat Corcoran, says attracted the attention of Paul Rosenberg and Shady Records. The song makes an explicit, heartfelt reference to the fatal stabbing of Chance’s friend Rodney Kyles Jr. during a fight in Chicago. Chance witnessed it firsthand, as he explains on the track: “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 screamin’ I see his demons in empty hallways.” In the next line, Chance implies that this trauma may have led to his LSD use: “I trip to make the fall shorter/Fall quarter was just a tall order.”
The buzz and attention generated by Acid Rap says a lot about the current state of hip-hop. Listeners are looking for artists who can challenge conventional wisdom about hip-hop archetypes and the younger generation. The success of Kendrick Lamar, who rose from mixtape sensation to best-rapper-alive contender, has helped fuel the excitement around Chance. His music reflects a diverse set influences, incorporating Eminem’s delivery, the joie de vivre of Lil Wayne, and the technical innovations of California’s underground heroes Freestyle Fellowship. “When I found Freestyle Fellowship, I started getting into the construction of rap,” Chance says. “You get better at it the more you do it, you figure out the science and the math behind it. You can construct shit like it’s a problem instead of listening to the song. But with Em it was just so fucking sporadic and energetic. It was a big part of me figuring out my sound.” Looming above them all, of course, is Chance’s fellow Chicago native Kanye West, the forefather of a generation of artists interested in complicating rapper archetypes.
As everyone notes the first time they hear Chance rap, he sounds a world away from the music being made by drill rappers like Chief Keef and Lil Durk, even though those MCs grew up down the street from where Chance was raised, in the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. When the drill scene first broke into the mainstream in 2012, part of the reason it resonated was because it seemed like these were voices that hadn’t been heard before. Since then, the pendulum has swung so far that for some, the city’s hip-hop scene—and even the city itself—has been reduced to a violent caricature. Now, a new voice is confounding perceptions about Chicago rap.