Chance the Rapper - Acid Rap

While imperfect, Acid Rap is the work of a young talent too good to ignore.

Additional Info

8.1

ALBUM: Acid Rap

ARTIST: Chance the Rapper

2013

Hip-Hop/Rap

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?"

1. Good Ass Intro
Aside from the color palate that Acid Rap’s cover shares with that of Graduation, the title and hook of “Good Ass Intro” are as explicit Kanye references as you’ll find on a tape that certainly bears his influence. Interestingly, Chance shrugs off the easy callbacks to soul loops or boom bap and focuses on creating a dizzying pace. More than anything, the song feels like an event. And it’s so fun: champing at the bit to fuck up the late night circuit is far from standard rap fare. Aside from the drug of choice, passages like “keep a tab on my exes, keep some X on my tongue/keep my work out in Texas, that’s just me flexing my lungs” would get a rapper all the props they’ll ever need in any era. 9.5
2. Pusha Man/Paranoia
“Ten damn days/and all I got to show for it is shoes and shows and chauffeurs with road rage”. Chance’s 10 Day mixtape, supposedly written and recorded during a two-week suspension in the spring of his senior year, made him a local celebrity. “Pusha Man” quickly dismisses that notion (the quoted bars are the first on the song), sliding back into familiar territory for the 20-year-old. Fortunately, Chance’s commitment to innovative flows and turns of phrase means that even his wheelhouse is a disorienting place to be if you aren’t paying attention. The play on pill colors (from The Matrix and from…his pocket) is cunning, and the juxtaposition of a letterman jacket and a gun may as well be his press bio. The “Pusha Man” portion of the track is outstanding, and as the upbeat record gives way to the unsettling “Paranoia”, Chance stays just as sharp—at least for a while. The first verse is a great embodiment of the sleep-deprived anxiousness that makes the song work, but the political rap that takes over is run-of-the-mill. Still, the suite is an exceptional show of range.9.0
3. Cocoa Butter Kisses
A warm, nostalgic song about your family members being disgusted with your smoking habits is the kind of thing that would be a look-at-me kitsch fest in the hands of someone like Gambino, but Chance strikes the perfect balance of playfulness and sincerity to make it fun without ever approaching gimmick territory. He comes out on top of the two disparate Chicagoans to follow: fellow millennial Vic Mensa and Twista, who regrettably reminds the listener he’s “never too old for a spanking”. Both guests are solid, but it’s hard to top writing like “Jesus pieces, sing ‘Jesus, love me’/put Visine inside my eyes so my grandma will fucking hug me”. This has one of the stronger hooks on the record as well.9.0
4. Juice
A truly brilliant single. The hook is timeless—not in the sense that it touches on some deep truth about humanity, but in the sense that it can and will seem appropriate when placed in rotation from songs of any era. By contrast, the verses are a great primer on Chance, which is to say they’re exceedingly specific. The ability he shows to drive songs just by varying his flow is something it takes most rappers over a decade to master, if they can get to that point at all. Quick turns like “I ain’t really been the same since Rod passed/I ain’t even really need that shop class” are a microcosm of his young career: a tremendous range of emotion packed into impossibly little time. 10.0
5. Lost
What’s supposed to be a ballad for codependent, drug-fueled relationships (and relationships with drugs) is something of a missed opportunity. Chance is hitting all his marks to this point on Acid Rap, and drugs and girls would seem to be, well, kind of his territory. But the song is a grasp at faux-deep Tumblr appeal, and as such it deals in mostly expired images and sentiments. The guest verse from Noname Gypsy would be completely forgettable if it weren’t for the improbably clichéd “the empty bottled loneliness, this happiness you seek”. 5.5
6. Everybody’s Something
Sampling Dilla songs is precarious at best, and “Fall In Love” is the kind of thing that probably shouldn’t be touched. At least Chance didn’t waste his good bars: this is the only time on the tape when Chance’s lyrics are particularly poor. “Swallow them synonyms like cinnamon Cinnabon/keep all them sentiments down to a minimum” is the kind of writing that would be at home on rap-as-poetry projects from middle school kids. The hook is saccharine and, once again, the guest spot (this time from Saba) is nothing to write home about. 6.0
7. Interlude (That’s Love)
Now things are back on track. One of Chance’s hallmarks is how he sounds like he genuinely enjoys rapping, and “Interlude” must have been a joy. The attention to detail in the writing—not a syllable is wasted or out of place—is absolutely no hindrance to the song feeling improvisational and emotional. It’s a tight rope act, but Chance doesn’t even sound like he’s breaking a sweat. 9.5
8. Favorite Song
It would seem that this song was conceived while the two rappers shared a tour bus. Chance and Childish Gambino have been vocal supporters of one another, with the actor/rapper/hotel notepad thief giving Chance some of his earliest national exposure. It’s actually a pretty amusing concept, and one that suits both artists—a girl they’re eyeing literally doesn’t know the words to her favorite song. Still, Chance leaves Mr. Glover (and his capable hook) to take care of the theme; he has more important things to worry about, like rhyming “skeet-skeet-skeet” with “three retweets”. 8.5
9. NaNa
In another inexplicable turn of events, this song samples A Tribe Called Quest gem “Sucka N****“, which is almost certainly a misstep, if only because it’s hard to stack up favorably with the Abstract Poetic representing from Queens. Fortunately, this is a much better track than “Everybody’s Something”. That said, it’s the only time Chance gets shown up by a guest. The first two verses are more than solid, but Action Bronson shows up at his most cartoonish, his “team full of hoes, like Pat Summit” in tow. It’s unlikely that the ridiculous appeal of the verse can be communicated without hearing it, but suffice to say that at one point the ample New Yorker says “she had the cleft palate…I ordered chef salad”. 8.0
10. Smoke Again
Chance has probably developed enough since 10 Day that Acid Rap’s highs are more impressive than those of his debut, but the former keeps up in most respects. The one undeniable improvement from the first tape to the second one, however, is that Chance has defined a sonic world all his own. While it might not be as singular as his voice itself, the soundscape of this album is cohesive across a variety of tones and tempos, which is more than can be said for even the most heavily lorded-over major label projects. The lone outlier is “Smoke Again”, a song that falls somewhere between Chance’s world and TDE’s and ends up not working very well in either. Chance and Ab-Soul are both good enough rappers to make it work, but the Los Angeles upstart doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain, phoning in what’s likely his worst verse since he became a national figure. The song still works on some levels, but doesn’t make a good argument for its place on the tracklist. 6.5
11. Acid Rain
Finally, Chance sets out for some introspection and comes back with something worth sharing. We don’t need soul searching for aphorisms and quippy life advice; lines like “making all of this money hoping I don’t get rich/’cause n****s still getting bodied for foams” are incredibly cutting. “Acid Rain” is a promising sign that the emotive qualities of Chance’s delivery will continue to be of service to him on slower, more serious songs. “I still get jealous of Vic/and Vic still jealous of me” is as real as it gets for aspiring rappers, especially in a climate like Chicago’s. 9.0
12. Chain Smoker
A track tailor made to come near the end of albums, “Chain Smoker” is everything it sets out to be and so much more. In theory, it’s a song about knowing the consequences of your actions, but the song is written so that it seems as if he changes his mind halfway through. It’s not a cheap ‘twist’ in the song; it’s a gradual progression. The first verse sees Chance calling his own bluff about not fearing death, but he later acknowledges that he’s unlikely to change his ways. But instead of being a woe-is-me addiction tale, it’s framed as a choice: Chance likes what his vices do for him, knowing full well what that means for himself and his health. That’s distilled into the song’s fantastic bridge and resonates through the entire album on repeat listens. 10.0
13. Everything’s Good (Good Ass Outro)
“Everything’s Good (Good Ass Outro)” ends with a reprise of the “Faithful” interpolation from the first song. The nod to Common is peculiar; Chance shares very little topically and almost nothing stylistically with the Chicago elder statesman. But the song from Be might have some things in common with Acid Rap: both are about stepping outside yourself and examining your life. “Everything’s Good” is an unremarkable song in the scheme of the album—in fact, the instrumental is weak enough that it probably could have been left off all together. But Chance is where he would naturally be after “Chain Smoker”: he’s assured and comfortable in his own skin. “I ain’t really that good at goodbyes/I ain’t really that bad at leavin’”. 7.0
Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is a the lead writer at 2dopeboyz and a frequent contributor to Passion of the Weiss.

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