Interview: Chance the Rapper on Relationships, Losing a Mentor, and Police Brutality

We spoke to him backstage at his sold-out show in Cambridge, Mass. last week.

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Complex Original

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After a brief hiatus following the success of his critically acclaimed Acid Rap mixtape, Chance the Rapper has been laying down some solid feature verses and working diligently on Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment’s Surf album. On Action Bronson’s song “Baby Blue,” he ethers an ex with the eloquence of Shel Silverstein and the pettiness of 10,000 Drakes. On his latest release, a remix of Jeremih’s “Planes,” Chance makes Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket sound more appealing than Gene Wilder ever could have. He’s really just reminding us why we lionized him in the first place.

Last week, the 22-year-old MC, along with the Social Experiment, performed in front of a sold-out Cambridge, Mass., crowd at Sinclair put on by Converse Rubber Tracks. Hometown hero Michael Christmas opened the show, performing an unreleased track off of his upcoming album, What a Weird Day, followed by Action Bronson and professional shit-talker Big Body Bes. The three MCs almost set the venue on fire (the smoke alarm went off before anyone had even taken the stage) and had the crowd on tilt all night.

Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment are gearing up to drop their debut album, Surf, this week featuring Chance the Rapper. In anticipation of the release, we caught up with Chance to talk about falling in love and the women in his music, the passing of his mentor, Michael Hawkins, and hip-hop’s social responsibility.

Brian Padilla is a writer living in New York. Follow him @brianmpadilla.

Women are a common theme in your music lately—let’s start with your verse on Action Bronson’s “Baby Blue.” Who hurt you?

Well, “Baby Blue” is a product of Action Bronson, who’s a good friend of mine, also, obviously, an amazing talent, working with Mark Ronson and me just happening to be in the right place in the right time to get on that. I guess, that verse is just inspired by…I don’t know. I like to think that all of them are a combination of different experiences and relationships I’ve had with women. I’m still friends with all of the women that I know. That verse isn’t necessarily all real hatred. The last line in the song is kind of, like, a sly retracting of all the statements before. They are petty occurrences. They’re not like, “I hope you get hit by a car.” It’s about a girl I would like to annoy but would never want to cause harm to.

How about “Lady Friend”?

Yeah, “Lady Friend” is a good track. I wrote that about two or three girls, really two girls that I can think of, that just played that sisterly, friendly role. A girl that you’re attracted to and you want more from it. But it’s also not just in that immediate relationship of being friends, but [afterward], they maybe want something from you. Whether it’s romantic or otherwise. It’s about that strain in the relationship.

What do you do in that situation?

You gotta be friends with that person regardless, because you guys were friends to begin with. But, you just gotta pick your battles. You know, when you’re friends with somebody, when you love somebody—you’ll see it in certain arguments—you’ll be a little bit understanding in certain situations. And sometimes you’ll be naive in the post and look deeper into those relationships. But sometimes that’s what it is—you guys are just friends.

Did the “Lady Friend” girl turn into the “Baby Blue?

They could all be the same.

On Kehlani’s “The Way,” she’s singing about being inspired by her man, while your verse is more about a casual thing. How did you guys end up with that dynamic?

It wasn’t a direct response to the way that I do things, but it’s kind of just based off that relationship where it’s the opposite strain. Where it’s not always necessarily the guy that gets friend-zoned. Girls get put in the friends-with-benefit zone, too. There’s girls that you fuck, and there’s girls that you look for something more in. That song is specifically about the situation where you got it and you use it when you use it.

Have you been able to have a relationship since Acid Rap dropped?

It’s very difficult. There’s a lot of emotional strain when you’re place-to-place. I’ve been touring for like two years now. I have friends, and I keep it like that. I feel like, at a certain point in life, I’d like to be the type of man that gets married and has more serious relationships. It definitely affects the music—I write about what I go through. I don’t know, all of those girls will probably read this so.... [Laughs.]

“Sunday Candy” is about your relationship with your grandmother. What was her response to the song?

My grandmother loved it. My grandmother is a huge part of my life. She’s just a great woman; a woman of the church. [She’s] a huge influence in my life in terms of my faith and my ideas of love, and women, and family roles: matriarchal role, patriarchal role. She’s very involved in my music and very attentive to what I do. She always wanted a song, so me and Nico, he’s Donnie Trumpet, we both are very close to her. We were making the project, we made the record for her, and we decided we wanted it to be the only single. We did it like that.

You started an open mic series in Chicago in honor of your late mentor, Michael Hawkins. How did his passing affect you musically?

Musically, from before he passed, he’s just been a huge influence, and teacher, and molder of me [from] when I was 14 years old. A father figure not just to me but everybody who grew up in that community: No-Name, Vic, Nico, Saba, Mick—anybody. As a man, also, he’s just taught me a lot of things about your role and how you speak to people. He’s just a great man.

I would think the open mic thing would be musically how he affected me, him building that space for me. And, also, in his passing, taught me that’s my job. I’m not a mentee anymore. I’m not a young artist in the same place; I’m not hungry for the same things. [The] gratification of being donned a great rapper isn’t as important as giving people the resources they need in order to make the statements they want to make.

A lot of hip-hop artists have been speaking out about the situation in Baltimore—and beyond. Do you feel, as a prominent black man in the industry, that you have the responsibility to say something about police brutality?

I think, as a black man, I have a responsibility to have knowledge and have an opinion. I don’t necessarily think, as a person of influence, that it’s always my job to influence people regarding my opinion. I try to explain to people a lot: There is no singular black experience or black opinion or black thought. We are united in a lot of experiences. Because I’m a black man, the life that I live is a part of the black experience, but it’s not something I can just pass off as the ultimate.

I think it’s important for me to be qualified to have an opinion on it, and it be informed, but I don’t necessarily think using my platform is always the right thing. It’s more important for [people] to have information. I don’t necessarily always have information. If they’re getting it directly from an uninformed source, or they’re getting it from a source that they don’t really have a filter on in terms of how they take it in, it kind of becomes more propaganda.

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