You know those nights where every puzzle piece falls into place and a nonstop sequence of magic commences? When every hand you’re dealt is a straight flush? Yeah, that.
That was last Sunday night at the Fillmore watching Chicago-born Chance the Rapper spin around stage like a dradle on Chi-town steroids. An epic evening of adventure and solid hip-hop just cascaded into my hands.
One of my brilliant, best friends from college was in town—also visiting from Chicago. I bought a ticket to the show immediately; she planned to get one at the door. We couldn’t wait to geek out together. After all, she was the one who introduced me to Chance the Rapper.
We naively sauntered to Silver Spring to realize the show was sold out, and only one of us had a ticket. After a few semi-panicked moments of indecision, a dutiful security guard asked us to move along. I briefly explained our situation; he paused. After saying he would be right back, the man attended to other business for several minutes. We considered our options with more than a little disappointment while waiting. But, just like that ace—that stroke of luck you’ve been waiting for—the security guard returned and smoothly whisked us through the door, no questions asked.
Enter more drinks, more re-connection and camaraderie with a great friend and fellow hip-hop fiend, and then a short-statured 20-year-old Chance the Rapper opened his mouth until his presence inflated the entire room. The sold-out crowd was surprising, but I should have known I wasn’t the only one obsessively chanting in his corner.
The rap phenomenon started rapping at the age of 17 and dropped his first mixtape, 10 Day, when he was suspended during his senior year of high school. While he hustled to pay for studio time, Chance studied the lyrical textbooks of East Oakland and early 90s hip-hop, meaning he dined on mouthfuls of Hieroglyphics, Outkast, and Freestyle Fellowship, as well as Kanye, early Eminem, and Lil Wayne.
Chance was a quick study. He discovered a unique style that’s slightly reminiscent of Chicago natives like The Kidz in the Hall, The Cool Kids, and The Underachievers—acid rap fellows, if you will. By creating a trippy jazz-infused style that pays homage to mainstream heavy-hitters like Yeezy and Lil Wayne, Chance landed touring spots with Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, and Childish Gambino. He’s been featured on a Lil Wayne track, he blew up his home turf at Lollapalooza back in August, and he’s currently on his eighth sold-out show in a row.
It was impossible to take your eyes off the ball of spastic energy cloaked in a White Sox jersey, a Chicago Bulls t-shirt, and a mischievous smile. Though the set was admittedly short, Chance delivered everything you want from a hip-hop show—overwhelming passion, soul, dancing, lyrical prowess, and mass amounts of sincerity.Instead of a constant hype fest like one might expect, the young musician immediately slowed it down in the second song, “Brain Cells,” and drenched his audience in layers of soul. As he began the first verse, “Here’s a tab of acid for your ear. You’re the plastic, I’m the passion and the magic in the air,” his sincerity was palpable. He pulled passion from the depths of his soles and poured it out of his pores into my ears.
After the slow, smooth instrumentals of “Brain Cells,” Chance built the energy back up until it practically blew a gasket with jams like “Juice,” “Pusha Man,” and “Favorite Song.” It’s only slightly obnoxious to make a song called “Favorite Song” that genuinely happens to be a favorite song—but that did not stop me from launching into some aggressive dancing as soon as I recognized the beat.
Hip-hop shows have the risk of falling flat when there’s only a rapper and a DJ, even if both are skilled. But Chance avoided that by rapping with a full band behind him—a guitarist, bassist, drummer, and a trumpet. Not to mention, he was nothing but elated and gracious from start to finish. He used the mic like an extension of his arm, caressing it, spitting playful verses dense with rapid-fire alliteration and clever syntax.
Before seeing him perform, I heard Chance in an XM interview with Sway in the Morning. In the interview with Sway, Chance divulged about his second mixtape, Acid Rap, as well as the psychedelic that inspired parts of it.
“Acid is a very different drug…” Chance started to explain to Sway and his crew, “It’s about finding yourself and asking yourself questions. It’s just like a self realization and kind of an epiphany drug. With ‘Acid Rap’ it was more about asking the questions. It’s not necessarily all about the answers, because everyone is an individual and everybody can find their own answers. It was really about getting people to ask questions like “why do black women tell everybody that they’re part Native American when they’re younger?””
Chance elaborates on being young and telling people he was mixed, alluding to a larger conversation in the black community about claiming a mixed ethnicity—Puerto Rican roots or Native American heritage, for example—to account for “good hair” or light skin. He says his light skin made it easy to tell people he was mixed.
“I used to tell people I was biracial,” the young rapper admitted. “I’m 100 percent black, and now I’m at a point where I can say that.”
The rapper—born Chancellor Bennett—has quite a few songs about childhood, Christmas mornings, and growing up, full of soft melodies and nostalgia. But you don’t forget he grew up in Chicago—a city where the yearly death toll hit 202 in July. He speaks to the brutality of the streets and the accessibility of guns, as well as the fear of gentrification and the reality of poverty.
That brutality, combined with influences from oldies to soul to jazz, helped shape a melodic rap style with roots in so many different places. Even after Common, Lupe, Twista, RhymeFest, and Chief Keef, Chicago did it again. The streets of the Chi—Yeezy’s muse—helped birth another hip-hop whiz kid who managed to translate his personal experiences and coming of age questions into two impactful mixtapes. The 20-year-old is already cruising at a Superman-level flight plan. The game can barely wait for Chance the Rapper to release his first full-length studio album.