ALBUM: Acid Rap
ARTIST: Chance the Rapper
It seems like Chance the Rapper forgot how to be serious. That’s not to say he doesn’t try at various points on the star-making Acid Rap; it’s not even to say that things don’t often fall into place for the 20-year-old Chicagoan. But the project—one that he uploaded himself, only to see it crash at least two major websites—is 54 minutes of a brilliantly, stunningly gifted rapper wrestling with conflicting impulses. On one hand, Chance is funny, daring, and entirely unhinged: single “Juice” is an origin story by way of a clinic on technical rapping masquerading as a lazy party jam. On the other, he’s at a point in his development where he’s evidently feeling pressure—maybe internal, maybe from the rappers with whom he’s touring and collaborating, maybe both—to fit into existing templates. If someone’s in his ear telling him to check off certain boxes on A&R reports, they need to stop immediately: Chance’s is a talent so immense that none of those boxes could hope to house him for very long. Considering that raw ability (and the penchant for sneakily grim realism that peppered last year’s 10 Day), Acid Rap’s middling ‘deep’ songs are all the more regrettable. Fortunately, they’re buried in a tracklist stacked with writing that’s as thoughtful as it is schizophrenic and rapped like lives depend on it.
The result is something that plays more like a very convincing resume than a coherent artistic statement. Turn off the tape after the first twenty minutes and you might think you’re missing the album of the year; turn it back on and you might think someone hit shuffle on a playlist of half-finished ideas. But that’s not a criticism that can sit without qualification—indeed, much of Chance’s appeal lies in his off-the-cuff, dorm-room philosophy style. Letting notions linger often serves him better than attempts to drive them home. To wit, the latter half of “Pusha Man/Paranoia” flourishes when the mood is supported by a list of haunting, evocative images. But when Chance scrubs away his tics for a vague, stone-faced the-ghetto-is-harsh-and-America-should-know second verse, he could tag out of the record and be replaced by any number of unknowns from any of the last three decades. The good news is that that’s the only time the tape is missing his endlessly listenable personality. The two (unfortunately consecutive) low points on the tape never approach truly bad territory; they’re mediocre songs, but they’re Chance’s take on mediocre songs. “Lost” is a paint-by-numbers conscious rap lament about a romance with a damaged girl, but at least it still has giddy moments like “her pussy like me…her heart like ‘fuck it’”. Slum Village nod “Everybody’s Something” is largely inane, but it opens “what’s good, good? what’s good, evil? and what’s good, gangstas? and what’s good, people?”, which is enough to hold interest until the next track.
As messy as that two-song run is, that’s as bad as it gets—and boy, does it get good. Immediately after “Everybody’s Something” is “Interlude (That’s Love)”, which is the kind of song that manages to be unassuming and anthemic at the same time. Devices like wordplay and parallelism have a definite cache in hip-hop, but most practitioners lack the ability to use them as a secondary part of their writing. (A spin of the last Eminem album or any Papoose mixtape is a quick reminder of how deliberate most rappers are in putting cheap puns front and center.) But the way Chance’s verse on “Interlude” dances over the page is nothing compared to how it dances over the track. His ability to write fascinating lyrics is child's play when contrasted with his ability to emote while rapping them back. “What’s better than eating is feeding your fam/what’s better than meetings is missing meetings to meet with your fam” looks great, but it sounds like someone having an epiphany in real time.
“Juice” is a bouncy summer song that seems to gain momentum until it reaches a fever pitch by the second time the chorus hits. A close listen reveals that the beat is the same throughout the track; Chance flips the pace of the entire record with the density of his flow on the second verse. And it’s not as simple as someone cutting loose and rapping in double time—Chance’s cadence is always changing, always stopping and starting and finding new directions, seemingly on the verge of falling in on itself but never quite giving in. Opener “Good Ass Intro”—which reprises the John Legend hook from the Freshman Adjustment introduction—works at a frenetic pace, but not so fast that Chance can’t drop king-of-the-everyman boasts like “how many lab partners have I fucked since I got suspended?”
If that last part seems a bit heavy on the Kanye influence, that’s because it is. Beyond sharing a hometown with the house producer-turned-demigod, Chance borrows heavily from West’s early persona, but with a couple of twists. The College Dropout led to a decade where rap superstar archetypes didn’t necessarily tote guns or have to worry a whole lot about verified criminal backgrounds. In 2013, all one has to do to separate themselves from the pack is creep back to the middle. Chicago’s gang violence problem is the subject of intense media scrutiny, as it should be, and Chance makes it very clear that this helped define his formative years. The Chief Keef shoutout on Juice also blurs a lot of lines, refusing to take the easy conscious rapper stance that would have been the default position a decade ago.
And Letterman jackets aren’t the only things Chance borrows. His most distinctive quality is, by far, his voice. The delivery is instantly recognizable and—while this will no doubt be tested immediately if not already—inimitable. He’s quite obviously the product of a childhood of Kanye, Wayne, and now Kendrick, but that vocal adventurousness (especially from the latter two) is a trait that might be cribbed, but is put to use in entirely new ways. Even when his influences can be easily traced, the similarities between Chance and other rappers are a foundation, never the endgame. So instead of being a merely good song, “Acid Rain” becomes an unpredictable mess of crooning and spitting, wistful regret and gruff assertions. Childish Gambino-assisted “Favorite Song” leaves the former Community star to do the thematic heavy lifting while Chance darts in and out of the instrumental, buoyantly claiming that “the album feel like ’92”.
So even when there’s disaffection or loneliness mixed in, the project works best when Chance is at his happiest and most playful—with one exception. On the penultimate “Chain Smoker”, what should be off-kilter self-deprecation becomes a touchstone for a generation of Chance’s peers. It’s easy to dismiss youthful indiscretion as shortsighted hedonism, but the entire song is rumination on why the cigarettes simply won’t go out. Chance knows why it’s wrong, but he also forms a pretty coherent argument for his vices, and the fascinating part is that it’s not an indignant one. He just seems pretty happy with himself, and if that lets him stumble onto brilliance like he finds at times on Acid Rap, then he’ll be all right.
"Why toss my filter when she saved my life?"