Chicago rapper Chancellor Bennett, better known as Chance the Rapper, wears his heart and his influences on his sleeve on his second mixtape “Acid Rap”. His strange, theatrical delivery style recalls recent artists like Danny Brown and Kendrick Lamar, with a fair helping of classic weirdos like Fatlip, Baatin, even a little Pimp C for good measure. Often his raps aren’t even raps at all; his vocal style borrows liberally from dancehall, gospel and soul. “Acid Rap” is about a lot of things – drugs, gang violence and grilled cheese – but mostly it’s a self-portrait in the form of an album, wherein Chance mines his surroundings, his relationships, his behavior and his inner thoughts for some insight into who he is, a potent example of how youthful self-narrativization can make for powerful, even political art.
For example, the album’s second track, “Pusha Man” sounds like art-nerd version of a mid-90s UGK song; Chance raps like a classically trained actor playing a rapper in a movie, which is actually pretty great. His energy is matched by a lush instrumental built out of warm 1970s style organs, airy female vocals and a screwed-down hook. Its cheerful tune and noble-hustler archetype build a false-sense of revelry which is abruptly cut short by thirty seconds of silence. It’s a ballsy move to try the old CD-era hidden track trick so early on the tape, but it commands full attention from casual listeners who may have lost themselves in the fun melodies of the first song.
Stream: Chance The Rapper – Pusha Man (ft. Nate Fox & Lili K.)
On the hidden song, “Paranoia,” Chance explores his feelings of malaise and fear over a woozy beat from Nosaj Thing. As the track progresses, he becomes increasingly direct. “They murder kids here / why you think they don’t talk about it? / They deserted us here,” begins his second verse. Chicago is a deeply segregated city with a steady flow of illegal guns. Murder saturates a few South and West communities, even as it pops up consistently across the map. And after the long, harsh winter ends, a boggy, midwestern summer takes its place. Most people don’t have air conditioning here and the summers keep getting hotter. On the news, you hear about old folks dying of heat stroke. On the hottest days, the public beaches that stretch along the lakeshore are packed with people. These are also the worst days for violence and killing. “Acid Rap” is a spring album, and it is with dread for the immediate future that Chance reveals, “I hope it storm in the morning, I hope that it’s pouring out / I hate crowded beaches, I hate the sound of fireworks.” “I know you’re scared, he says, to middle-class Northside Chicagoans who refuse to ride south of Roosevelt, to the national news media eager to brand Chicago a scary war-zone, to a government willing to use this city as a political talking point despite never addressing its actual problems, “you should ask us if we scared too.” It’s an indictment of everyone who wants to treat the South Side as a terrifying bogeyman in neighborhood form while ignoring the lives of the actual human beings who live there.
Stream: Chance The Rapper – Smoke Again (ft. Ab-Soul)
Remarkably, Chance maintains this high level of lush production and innovative rapping throughout the mixtape, showing an incredible emotional range, from despondent numbness (“Lost”) to ecstatic love for his fellow human (“That’s Love”). Collaborations with Childish Gambino, Action Bronson, and Ab-Soul later in the album break up the overwhelming wackiness of Chance’s rap style, which could become tiring were it not paired with such catchy, melodic production. “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” which features legendary Chicago speed-rapper Twista on a particularly geeky verse, finds Chance lamenting how his smoking habits have alienated his mother and friends. On “Everybody’s Something,” which has breezy chorus from local R&B singer BJ the Chicago Kid, Chance is at his most posi. He delivers corny lines like “if [God’s] son had a twitter I wonder would I follow him” with his tongue squarely in his cheek, and trippy aphorisms like “everybody’s somebody’s everything.” His melodic flow is pushed to odd extremes on “Smoke Again,” featuring Black Hippy member Ab-Soul, where Chance sings, shouts, and dips into a heart-wrenching Future-esque vocal fry that demonstrates Chance’s abilities as performer.
Stream: Chance The Rapper – Acid Rain
“Acid Rap” is a deeply personal, intimate album that rarely veers outside of Chance’s world of friends, family, girls, and his neighborhood; at the same time, Chance discusses these topics with great nuance, relishing in rather than fleeing from his own ambivalence. His persona is huge, complex, even contradictory. One minute he’s singing #based truisms about love, the next he’s wishing herpes on a girl. Chance’s occasional dips into cruelty or aggression do not negate the dizzying peaks of his more positive songs because they feel equally honest. “If you touch my brother,” he raps on “Acid Rain,” “all that anti-violence shit goes out the window along with you and the rest of your team.” The song is something of a thesis statement for an album bursting at the seams with artistic and thematic detours; Chance raps, or rather says, with resignation, “sometimes the truth don’t rhyme.” The mixtape portrays a complex young man who wants to be good and fill the world with the love and peace, but his environment and the expectations placed upon him stand in his way. Ultimately his empathy and optimism overshadow his incidental nastiness. Chance doesn’t seem to know who he is, or who he wants to be, which is a perfectly reasonable place for a 20-year-old poet with a sensitive streak and penchant for psychedelic drugs.