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In another world, you can imagine Chance the Rapper lip-syncing “Twist and Shout” at Chicago’s Von Steuben Day parade, surrounded by frauleins doing the money dance. You can visualize a rap game Ferris Bueller: arms outstretched to snare a foul ball, staring stoned at Seurat, ducking fascist educators and oblivious parents with cinematic ease. You can hear his impression of Abe Froman, sausage king of Chicago, and it’s pitch-perfect.
Barely out of his teens, Chancelor Bennett has already transformed himself from a suspended high school student to the young Chicago rapper universally adored. But life rarely parallels a John Hughes script. Unlike Bueller, Chance actually got caught skipping school, a 10-day sabbatical that inspired his first mixtape, last year’s #10Day. His neighborhood of West Chatham might not be the worst in a city whose alias is “Chiraq,” but it’s still South Side and far removed from baronial Highland Park. The drugs are high-velocity, the slang is crisper and in this scenario, Cameron dies.
The victim was Rodney Kyles Jr., a close friend who Chance saw get stabbed to death one gruesome night. His memory haunts Acid Rap. On “Juice,” Chance mourns his inability to “be the same since Rod passed.” On “Acid Rain,” he still hears screams and sees “his demons in empty hallways.” The circumstances aren’t necessarily unique.
Last year, Chicago murders outnumbered American casualties in Afghanistan. Drill stars, King Louie, Chief Keef and Lil Durk have given the violence a public face with videos so dark they practically resemble a first-person shooter PS3 game set in Section 8.
Acid Rap isn’t trying to be an alternative; it’s an attempt to encompass everything. There are shoutouts, musical or lyrical, to practically every important Chicago tradition short of Thrill Jockey. It invites elements of classic soul, juke, gospel, blues-rock, drill, acid jazz, house, ragtime scat, R. Kelly, Twista, and a young Kanye to the same open mic poetry night, where the kid onstage is declaiming about what’s going unreported. Its genius is that he somehow makes this work.
The structure is as expansive and freewheeling as any strange trip. Acid Rap is less about the attempt to break through than a way of describing the hallucinatory shades, transitory revelations and cigarette burns of the journey. You can get off or on the bus at any juncture. There is no ideology or orthodoxy. No arbitrary binaries between conscious or gangster, apostle or agnostic. Freaks and freethinkers are accepted. Chance understands that those who are frightening are often frightened, too. He comes off as a guy who could find something in common with anyone but a high school principal.
Chance mixes nostalgia with a nasal tone as effectively as almost anyone since the Pharcyde. He’s only 20-years-old, but “Cocoa Butter Kisses” laments the days of bright-orange Rugrats’ cassettes and Chuck E. Cheese pizza. It could come off like sentimental back-in-the-day cliché, but there’s a street-smart edge that holds the cheesiness in check. He puts Visine in his eyes so his grandmother won’t know he’s high, acknowledges his addictions and invites Twista to play the smoked-out, speed-rap, O.G. Jedi.
The guest spots mirror the funhouse characters you’d expect to meet on a memorable acid excursion. Action Bronson offers instant quotables on “NaNa,” sticking out his tongue, slicking back his hair like Rick Pitino, and peeling out in an El Camino with three Japanese lesbians. Ab-Soul plays the shadowy street pharmacist in the liquor store parking lot, opening up the trunk of his Dodge to offer grass, acid and offside soccer metaphors. Chance’s Save Money crew partner, Vic Mensa and Childish Gambino, act as effective co-conspirators.
Some ears won’t settle to Chance’s voice. It occasionally recalls an Animaniac playing the harmonica, a scat singer with a mean soft shoe routine, and/or Lil Wayne and Kendrick Lamar. The latter is his most obvious immediate predecessor and clearly, Chance owes him a stylistic and conceptual debt down to the parental voicemail of “Everything’s Good (Good Ass Outro).”
But Chance’s vocals are mostly modulated for effect, not eccentricity. The cartoon squawk of his first single “Juice” bears no resemblance to the mournful Caribbean Kaddish of “Acid Rain.” He leans on his hip-hop inspirations as homage. The intro and outro flip a Baptist hymn from an early Kanye mixtape track. The beat from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Sucka Nigga” is repurposed for “NaNa.” Slum Village’s “Fall in Love” serves as the base for “Everybody’s Something.” 2Pac gets rightful daps on “Juice,” while “Favorite Song” artfully nicks the sample from Mary J. Blige and Biggie’s “Real Love (Remix).”
Even if the voice leaves you cold, you could be sold by the sheer sense of playfulness and love of language. Despite the weighty subtext, it’s often fun and life affirming.
Chance stretches syllables to ToonTown lengths. He caroms them off each other like a pool hustler sinking trick shots. He’s a “tobacco-packing acrobat/packin’ bags back and forth with fifths of Jack.” You tend to get swept up in the youthful adrenaline rush like Lamar, mixtape Wayne, early Eminem, or Jay-Z in the ”22 Twos” era. To make sure he has his own spin, Chance stashes his own psychedelics and local slang (“thot,” “dino,” “hitters”).
If Lamar’s good kid m.A.A.d city stoked tension through plot cliffhangers, home invasions and ominous minor chords, Chance’s Acid Rap is a triumph of meditative moments, open-ended quests and brass flares. The hooks are more jabs than uppercuts. None will probably bang in a club, but most will make sense live, as chanted back by a thousand fans.
“Everybody dies in the summer, wanna say ya goodbyes, tell them while it’s spring.”
Chance sings this with funereal drone on the second half of “Pusha Man.” It’s the line that keeps sticking in my head when I play the record on loop. It’s a requiem for those already dead and a warning about the imminent carnage coming soon. It’s this fleeting spring afternoon where Acid Rap seems to take place – the last day off before adulthood – after you’ve realized your mortality, but before your fate has been sealed…when you aren’t sure if you’re supposed to say hello or goodbye.
Hunter Julius can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org