Even in the midst of an epidemic of violence that’s earned Our Town the nickname of Chiraq, life on the South Side is anything but one-dimensional. Gangs, drugs, poverty, a fundamentally flawed school system, and the despair that comes from knowing that so many people in a position to help just don’t give a crap are inescapable facts. But so are love, hope, community, and reveling in a thousand humble joys—from grilled cheese sandwiches to birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese, and from smoking weed to dissing Kobe Bryant—all of which combine to make life worth living.
Alternately giddy and profound, veering from braggadocious to comically self-deprecating, and equal parts slacker pothead and street philosopher, on his second mixtape Acid Rap, Chance the Rapper paints the most complete portrait of young male African-American life on the South Side of Chicago since Kanye West gave us The College Dropout in 2004. And he shows every indication that he’ll prove to be just as a formidable and necessary a voice in hip-hop.
The national spotlight on the artist born Chancelor Bennett has been so intense that his story already is well known: Barely out of his teens now, this resident of West Chatham was punished with a two-week suspension from Jones College Prep in Spring 2011, and he dropped his first mixtape 10 Day to prove the teachers who said he had no talent, the younger brother who competed with him, the classmates who wouldn’t sleep with him, and anyone else who doubted him wrong.
That motivational tale is, of course, as old as rock ’n’ roll itself, and musical history is one of the many things Chance knows a little something about. “I got the Chicago blues,” he raps on “Everybody’s Something” from his new set. “We invented rock before the Stones got through.”
In a nod both to Acid Rap bettering its predecessor and these 13 tracks being best appreciated on “repeat” in a steady loop of insinuating grooves and elastic rhymes, singer Lili K. opens and closes the set by cooing, “Even better than I was the last time.” Indeed Chance is, though at other points, he questions whether he’s got the goods (“And I’m hungry, I’m just not that thirsty/As of late, my verses seem not so verse-y”) or paints a most unflattering portrait of himself as a chain-smoker who stinks so bad of cigarettes that his mother and grandmother won’t hug him. (And remember, tobacco still is a bigger addiction, in the hood and everywhere else, than any illegal drug.)
These and other expressions of self-doubt or self-loathing really are deflections, however. Rhyming over melodic and often very Kanye-like backing tracks (the two share a fondness for building on sampled dusties), Chance’s way of viewing the world and his skill at delivering those observations in a deceptively laidback but consistently gripping style are uniquely engaging and thoroughly undeniable. And he knows it.
This is as true of those moments when the artist is just goofing around or riffing off the top of his head—waxing nostalgic about hours whiled away with The Rugrats “back when Mike Jackson was still Jesus,” say—as it is of much deeper fare, including his crises of faith (“I still be asking God to show his face”; “Why’s God’s phone die every time that I call on Him?”) and the conflict between the enduring allure of the mythical gangsta lifestyle and the harsh and painful truth of the reality.
The catchiest bits in the multi-part suite “Pusha Man” are the hook-filled refrains: “I’m you pusha man/Pimp slapping, toe taggin’/I’m just trying to fight the man” and “I’ve been riding around with my blunt on my lips/With the sun in my eyes, and my gun on my hip,” which are both as insidious and as insinuating as anything Dre and Snoop delivered back in the day. But Chance, who lost his best friend to street violence, is setting up the cliché only to tear it down: “They murder kids here/Why you think they don’t talk about it? They deserted us here.” And then he drops the 10-ton truth as casually as if it’s another toss-off about weed: “I heard everybody’s dying in the summer, so pray to God for a little more spring/I know you scared, you should ask us if we scared, too/If you was there, then we just knew you’d care, too.”
I do believe Chicago’s crisis of the streets just got its “Ohio,” right down to the way those lines echo Neil Young’s “What if you knew her/And found her dead on the ground/How can you run when you know?”
To be sure, this is not to say that Chance is p.c., and despite his admitted fondness for LSD, he sure ain’t no hippie backpacker. He’s just a young and very talented guy who’s trying to make sense of a crazy world and have some fun while doing it, and he doesn’t give a damn about fronting as a badass. Like Kanye, Lupe, Common, and Rhymefest from the pre-Sosa pantheon of Chicago hip-hop greats, he’s fearless in showing that he has a conscience and real emotions. Though we know he loves his grandma, it’s impossible to imagine Chief Keef rapping, as Chance does, “What’s better than tripping is falling in love/What’s better than Letterman, Leno, Fallon, and all of the above… What’s better than yelling is hollering love/What’s better than rhymes, nickles, dollars, and dubs/There ain’t nothing better than falling in love.”
For his talent, for his courage, for the breadth of his vision, and for a worldview that refuses to be bludgeoned into nihilism, Chance is a thousand times the artist Keef is… though venturing to say so will no doubt stir up this critic’s critics, the wisenheimers who maintain that I don’t know sh*t about hip-hop because I prefer mine free of hate and clichéd posing. Witness this recent Tweet:
Everyone, enjoy listening to this Chance the Rapper tape, now, while you can, before @jimderogatis‘s cosign makes liking it impossible— Chris LG (@chrislagreca) May 5, 2013
Gee, it sure would have been nice to pan this disc, if only to prove my friend above wrong. But I can’t do it. Acid Rap is a masterpiece, and it’s your loss if you let me keep you from allowing it to enrich your life.
Chance the Rapper, Acid Rap (self-released)
Rating on the four-star scale: Four stars.