Chicago’s Latest Gift to Hip-Hop: My Thoughts on Chance the Rapper

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By Nikasi Doorn

On a hot, summer day in 2013 I discovered Chance the Rapper. Not hot enough to cause alarm, but hot enough for me to question if I really needed to go outside that day. I was in the office, doing what I usually do in my spare time: listening to music, getting lost in the videos in the YouTube sidebar, going from artist to artist, taking notes of who I connected with and who I didn’t. I stumbled across this one video: The “So Good (Good Ass Intro)” Music Video by Chance the Rapper.

Not completely out of the loop, I heard this guy’s name before. People on YouTube, DatPiff, and various streaming sites raved about him—dubbing him ‘the next best thing to come out of Chicago. At the time, Chief Keef — to my wonderment – held that designation. As my taste in music broadened, I started to appreciate the trap/drill genre and can say now that Chief Keef influenced many drill artists who came after (It also helps that “Faneto” and “Earned It” are absolutely fire tracks). Nevertheless, the thumbnail looked bright and colorful, so I clicked it.

I was not ready for the infectious horns and instrumentals of Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment to invade my home and completely claim it as their own. I was not ready for the multitude of vocals to capture me with the words “Even better than I was the last time, baby!” I most certainly was not ready for Chance the Rapper to hop on the track with one of the most distinguishable voices in hip hop.

Within the first minute of the music video, I jammed to this song, speakers turned all the way up (I didn’t know if I was home alone, and honestly didn’t care). The upbeat instrumental swept me off my feet. I got so lost in the moment that I was disappointed when the music video stopped. This would most certainly not do. I quickly went to DatPiff, downloaded his mixtape, Acid Rap, and played it from start to finish, which became one of my favorite mixtapes EVER.

Chance resonated with me with Acid Rap – beyond the clever wordplay, infectious instrumentals, and witty references to anything and everything — because he gets ‘it.’—something that I haven’t even gotten around to understand completely yet. Some people call it the ‘human condition’: the characteristics and events that make up the essentials of existence. In all of his music, he demonstrates his awareness of all elements of the human condition.

One song on Acid Rap that gives us a glimpse of his past is “Acid Rain”, a track wherein he lays down some introspective bars on a brainwashing beat. His verse effortlessly switches from subject matter to subject matter. He talks about how true wealth lies in the mind, body, and spirit, as well as how he grows up to see the surrounding evil.

Wore my feelings on my sleeveless
My weed seedless, my trees leafless
I miss my diagonal grilled cheeses
And back when Mike Jackson was still Jesus

Growing up, I was unaware of the many evils in the world, as surprising as that might sound for a Brooklyn kid. After we left BK to live in a quiet suburb in New Jersey, I realized that there were sights in Brooklyn that I became accustomed to seeing that were not present in the nice, middle-class neighborhood in Jersey. I often wonder if other young people share that experience. Children become a product of their environment, so you can imagine what happens to the kids who grow up around violence, drugs, and gang activity. They contribute to their environment; we all know the cycle.

That’s why I respect Chance so much. He used to be one of those kids, kind of like me. Growing up in West Chatham in Chicago exposed him to the wave of violence and gang activity present in Chi-town since the late-1800s. Although the violence experienced a decline in the 1990s, West Chatham was still a place of frequent gang activity, as referenced in “Summer Friends”:

We still catching lightning bugs
When the plague hit the backyard
Had to come in at dark cause the big shawtys act hard
Our summer don’t get no shine no more
Our summer die, our summer time don’t got no time no more

The summer reference relates to the spike in gang activity spikes in the summer when everyone stays outside until much later in the evening. In areas like Chicago, Brooklyn, Compton, and Newark, you associate the summer with the loss of loved ones to street violence. Chance also comments on the summer violence in “Pusha Man/Paranoia”, saying:

It just got warm out, this the shit I’ve been warned ’bout
I hope that it storm in the mornin’, I hope that it’s pourin’ out
I hate crowded beaches, I hate the sound of fireworks
And I ponder what’s worse between knowing it’s over and dyin’ first
Cause everybody dies in the summer

I empathized with his concern for his loved ones’ well-being. Even though I didn’t live in a particularly violent Brooklyn neighborhood, I knew fear. You live with the knowledge that you –or someone you love — could walk out the door and not come back. Chance and I know what it means to lose a loved one. He lost his homie at a young age while my grandparents both passed from old age. You never forget those moments, nor do you forget the lessons that you gain from those experiences.

Acid Rap covered the gamut of what I wanted to hear from a project. The outstanding instrumentation provided by Chance’s bandmate and band, Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment, as well as Nosaj Thing, kept me hooked for the duration. Each unique beat turned my speakers into a fountain of audible chocolate. His punchlines, eloquence, and complex rhymes kept me deciphering lyrics on RapGenius until I knew their hidden meanings by heart. Every reference he made to a TV show that I watched put a smile on my face. After listening to Acid Rap, I wanted to hear more from Chance.

Skip ahead to 2016, one of music’s greatest years. So many artists dropped amazing albums and mixtapes … and we’re not even halfway through the year. As I came down from the high of The Life of Pablo and All-American Trash, I heard that Chance would soon release another mixtape; Coloring Book, previously named Chance 3. I stayed up the whole night before it dropped, listening to every Chance song I could find. After listening to Good Enough, The Back to School Pack EP, 10 Day, Acid Rap, Surf, and Free (Based Freestyles Mixtape), I confidently hit the play button, certain that Chance would not catch me off-guard this time.

Sometimes the universe seems bent on proving me wrong.

Acid Rap grabbed me, threw me in a rocket ship, and took me into orbit. Like an usher, Coloring Book took my ticket and guided me to the front row of the theatre to watch a theatrical performance. The opening track, “All We Got”, kept me bouncing off the walls of my room at some ungodly hour. As I listened to the Kanye West feature on the track, I wondered, “Is this what Chance envisioned when he first got that College Dropout album?” I loved hearing Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment killing it with the instrumentation, the soulful, jazzy beat being a representation for Chance’s love of jazz and soul before he started listening to hip-hop. As a jazz head, I appreciated what Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment did on this album.

The fifth track, “Blessings”, a gospel song with a slow tempo beat and The Social Experiment’s horns accompanying it, stopped me dead in my tracks. In “Sunday Candy” Chance masterfully combined gospel and hip-hop, something he did not do on Acid Rap. Given his personal and artistic growth since his previous release, it’s as easy to see as the DragonBall Z reference in the song that he has matured since his last big project.

I’m feeling shortness of breath, so Nico grab you a horn
Hit Jericho with a buzzer beater to end a quarter
Watch brick and mortar fall like dripping water, ugh!

The tones of Chance’s cousin Nicole singing Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God” warmed my soul like a fire in a cozy cabin on a winter day. I got so lost in the singing that Chance startled me when he started his verse. His allusions to biblical figures like Malachi and Barak, coupled with his internal rhyme schemes, mastery of alliteration and assonance, and references to Harry Potter turned the cabin fire into a roaring inferno.

Shabach barak, edify
Electrify the enemy like Hedwig till he petrified
Any petty Peter Pettigrew could get the pesticide
79th, 79th, I don’t believe in science
I believe in signs

Then Jay Electronica hopped onto the beat and the cabin burned down in an instant.

I was lost in the jungle like Simba after the death of Mufasa
No hog, no meerkat, hakuna matata by day
But I spent my night time fighting tears back
I prayed and prayed and left messages but never got no hear back, or so it seemed
A mustard seed was all I needed to sow a dream
I build the ark to gently, gently, row my boat down Noah’s stream

Throughout the mixtape, Chance drew on those who inspired him, like gospel legend Kirk Franklin, who appeared on the track “Finish Line”. You can almost smell the early 2000s Lil Wayne in his flow and delivery, which is why he wanted him as a feature on the song “No Problem”.

Kanye’s influence on Coloring Book is palpable. Chance’s metaphors remind me of early-2000s Common, painting pictures and telling stories within the music—taking all of these influences, and creating his own spin on them. I can’t get enough of his unique sound.

Since his introduction to the hip-hop world, Chance the Rapper took major strides in his craft, becoming one of the most successful independent rappers since Lauryn Hill. He became the first independent rapper to perform on Saturday Night Live, both on his own and alongside Kanye West, one of his inspirations.

His contributions to his city made him a dynamic presence in Chicago, through his music and activism. His positive messages and actions earned him the title of Chicago’s Outstanding Youth of the Year for 2014 from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. His efforts in the “#SaveChicago” campaign, an effort to stop gun violence during Memorial Day weekend, helped the city go 42 hours without a shooting. He met with President Obama this year for My Brother’s Keeper Challenge, promoting involvement in the lives of boys of color and pushing for racial justice. In 2016, Chance became one of Chicago’s most dynamic entertainers and progressive activists.