On his second mixtape Chicago's Chance the Rapper takes us on a psychedelic journey that's as ambitious as it is appealing.
"Everybody dies in the summer" sighs Chance the Rapper in a particularly poignant moment on his latest mixtape, "so pray to God for a little more spring." It's this heart-rending reality that underlies the 20-year-old Chicago MC's second release, Acid Rap. In the more affluent areas of the city few things are cherished more dearly than warm weather, yet in Chance's Chatham -- and other south and west side neighborhoods -- the sunshine and clouds have become a precursor to gunshots and sirens. There has been serious discussion recently of how much Chicago's historically warm dry weather in 2012 lead to a 13% rise in shootings in a city where more Americans are shot each year than in Afghanistan.
Being raised in a community that can resemble a combat zone is guaranteed to warp anyone, especially a child as sensitive and intelligent as Chancelor Bennett (Chance's real name). For him growing up meant preparing to either be killed or to mourn the loss of friends and classmates. Chance processed that reality (and sometimes tried to escape from it) through music. His biography is telling. He started rapping in mid-2011, shortly after which witnessed his friend and fellow rapper Rodney Kyles, Jr. get fatally stabbed. Kyles's death profoundly affected him and it was one of the major topics on his 2012 mixtape 10 Day (named after the time he was suspended for smoking weed on his high school campus). Another recurring theme was youthful escapism as, despite the tape's name, the music proved to be more a wistful than defiant or anti-authoritarian. Bennett had been forcibly evicted from high school (and with it, childhood) and thrown out of the Loop back to reality on the south side.
There are a lot of musical touchpoints for Acid Rap and that's exactly the way Chance likes it. To start with there are his hometown influences. Kanye, master of voracious musical consumption and personal ambition, of course looms largest over the young Mr. Bennett. But also tucked away in this tape are shades of classic Chicago juke, Common's soulquarian experimentalism, Twista's matchless flow (he also drops a fantastic guest verse) and even the goof-off charm and throwback production style of the Cool Kids. Chance also betrays a heavy Southern influence that ranges from Lil Wayne to OutKast. In interviews he's been citing Jamiroquai and acid jazz as major influences and that sensibility provides a unifying motif that ties together the horn samples, dusty piano popping and eclectic production styles that dominate the tape.
What's impressive isn't necessarily Chance's laundry-list of influences but rather how inventively and interestingly he recombines their ideas into something entirely new. Displaying a jazzman's unconventional sense of timing, Bennett's flow is something to behold. Starting from say, a laconic patter resembling early Weezy, his rhymes stumble into and out of rhythm, allowing him to peel off verses in a heady double time that calls to mind recent tourmate Childish Gambino. These verbal speed-shifts are pulled off with 0-to-60 flashiness until Chances exhausts himself and collapses back into his endearingly off-kilter verbal lope.
The ambition is immediately apparent on Acid Rap starting with "Good Ass Intro", a track that would be perilously close to Kanye biting if Chance and an impressive cast of fellow Chicago rappers didn't manage to make the whole soul-sampling thing sound fresh. "Better than I was the last time, baby" the song proclaims and it's not lying. These songs are some radio-ready jams with stars in their eyes. But even more impressive than the opener is two-part seven minute statement song "Pusha Man". Showing the depth and both thematic and structural ambition of Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city, the song starts as a relatively upbeat outing with Chance boasting about his ability sling music as if it were a drug. Then it stops abruptly for 30 seconds in the middle and re-emerges as downbeat meditation on life and loss. Over a hazy organ wash, Chance raps about "driving around with a blunt in my hands" and seeking escape before suddenly lashing out at the world. "Where the fuck is Matt Lauer at? Somebody get Katie Couric up in here" he snarls, calling out reporters who would sooner visit a war zone than parts of his city. "I know you scared, you should ask us if we're scared too" he murmurs afterwards in a raw, yet also humanizing moment. "Pusha Man" is a shot across the bow, meant to let us know that even though his music is often fun this is it's also got larger points to make.
Although the record has many moods, it's this underlying fear and sadness, the fallout from Rod's death that ultimately shapes Acid Rap. As befits a good druggie record, the production is inventive and Chance uses a broad palette to color in his sadness. Songs like the tipsy piano stomper "Juice", horn heavy 4/20 anthem "Smoke Again" and jokey "Favorite Song" are carefree summer jams of the first order and they keep things light enough but most of the record is more haunted. "Coco Butter Kisses" and "Acid Rain" are both meditations on lost innocence, as Chance explores substances that help bring him back to a world of orange cassette tapes and grilled cheese. Meanwhile the trio of "Lost", "Everybody's Something" and "Interlude (That's Love)" are more direct and mournful reactions to the violence of Chicago.
Though it's not a perfect collection of songs, as a coming-out party Acid Rap is pretty impressive. Bennett's idiosyncratic flow is sure to put some people off and the music's jazz foundation means that it takes a few listens to fully appreciate. Nonetheless, it's hard not to see this tape as a ticket to bigger and better things for the MC who's still nearly a year away from being able to legally drink. If he keeps making music this inventive, charming and occasionally soulful, he'll surely have a lot to toast to.