Most people know the story of Chance the Rapper, the Chicago rapper who took rap by storm in 2013 with the release of his second mixtape, Acid Rap, and has since become one of hip-hop’s brightest voices. But this Saturday, the 22-year-old rapper’s story took a historic turn when he hit the Saturday Night Live stage as the week’s musical guest. When the camera panned to the stage, history was made: Chance was the first independent artist to ever grace the stage in Studio 8H.
Staying independent is a decision that has seemingly paid off for the rapper, who has yet to even release a proper debut album. All adoration and support from fans and critics alike is off two mixtapes, a couple SoundCloud singles, and one free album made alongside with the other members of Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment titled Surf. That free album was surprise released to the masses at the beginning of summer 2015. In the first week of its release, Surf was downloaded 618,000 times on iTunes and amassed one million individual downloads.
From the moment Chance stepped onstage for his first performance on SNL, it was clear the audience was in for something new. He wasn’t performing a song that was a huge radio hit. Instead, he premiered the official version of "Somewhere in Paradise," a song he performed two years ago on tour. The song features R. Kelly and Jeremih, two other Chicago natives, the latter of whom ended up joining Chance onstage to sing the chorus. One week prior, Jeremih's third album, Late Nights: The Album, dropped after years of delays. That Chance played the SNL stage solo before Jeremih, who's been in the game for over five years, is a testament to the rapper's great success. For years, Jeremih's struggled with his own career in part to label pressures and album rollouts, which he's since been more vocal about. In the meantime, Chance released three projects on his own accord—most entirely for free—while unleashing a plethora of incredible music videos, successfully headlining his own nationwide tour, and appearing on the main stage of the year's biggest music festivals. All on his own, with a solid team on his side and no label.
This year especially, Chance held the ability to make choices, both artistically and financially, without the interference of a label. It's why his performances went from a premiere of what may be a radio hit to a more acoustic version of "Sunday Candy," backed by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment and a full gospel choir. The performance, like everything else Chance has done musically or otherwise from the start, was on his terms. Two weeks before Christmas, and we're watching Chance sitting on a stool belting out a song about grandmothers encompassing everything that's good at the core of black families and likening the time spent with her to the communion you get at church, "Sunday candy."
Both of Chance’s performances on Saturday night served as stunning introductions to those who aren't familiar with the Acid Rap star, but most importantly, they marked the victory lap in his most successful year yet. In the time since Acid Rap, Chance has seemingly been less about proving himself and more about opening the door for other upcoming artists to make music on their own terms, as he has done. Maybe his SNL performances weren’t as dynamic as when he premiered “Angels” featuring Chi-native Saba on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert—the juking here is on another level—but he still made good use of the spotlight. On the SNL stage, he made add some lines to “Sunday Candy” with “I've been waiting all week/I've been waiting all night/Jason Van Dyke/Had to say something on Saturday/See you at church on Sunday,” a reference to the police officer who was charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in Chicago. This was a moment for independent artists, but it was also a moment for Chicago, where an ever-rising hip-hop artist put the city's heartache front and center. Watching an artist like Chance makes you realize that it is possible to stay true to yourself and your message, regardless of the size of the stage.