Chance The Rapper is going to irritate the shit out of a lot of people. This is unavoidable. His voice is a pitched-up puberty-squeak, cracking and cackling and warbling all over tracks, never quite flowing even when it flows. And when he does lock into a straightforward rap cadence, he leaps out of it just as quickly, singing euphoric nonsense in a knowingly grating infantile jazz-scat thing. He’s an undeniably talented rapper, but the first time you hear his new mixtape Acid Rap — and you’re probably still on your first time, if that, since the thing is less than 24 hours old — you might have a whole lot of trouble hearing beyond that voice or the word-games that Chance loves to play. He’s arty, perma-stoned, all-over-the-place, desperate to stand out in a way that seems distinctly teenage even if you don’t know that Chance is, in fact, a teenager. But when Acid Rap starts to sink in, something that doesn’t take too long, it quickly becomes obvious that the mixtape, like Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, is a document of a furiously smart and talented young guy attempting to make sense out of a world that doesn’t make any sense. But unlike Kendrick, he’s not flashing back to his high-school years to dive into all of these questions; he’s figuring them out in real time in front of us.
Here’s Chance’s story: He’s 19, from Chicago’s South Side, the vast region of the city that’s turned depressingly apocalyptic in recent years. But he went to Jones College Prep, a prestigious high school in the city’s downtown, and spent enough time hanging out with white kids there that he now cites Jamiroquai as an influence. During his senior year, he was suspended from the school after getting caught smoking weed, and he started work on 10 Day, the 2012 mixtape that put him on the map. If that tape was the (tremendously endearing) dry-run, Acid Rap is the fully-formed introduction to the world, the complete and cohesive announcement that a rare and serious talent has arrived. On the tape, Chance favors sun-dazed jazz and soul samples as busy and cluttered as his own delivery, swollen bits of orchestral psychedelia that always hit from weird angles, like the way “Lost” producer Nate Fox chops up a frequently-used Willie Hutch sample just a bit more than usual, interrupting it enough to keep you on your toes.
Because of Chance’s verbosity and his musical aesthetic, people will want to paint him as a corrective to Chief Keef, his fellow South Side teenage rap phenom, and the drill music scene he represents. That’s wrong. Chance, in fact, shouts out Keef on “Juice,” Acid Rap’s first single, just so that nobody will make that mistake. And he can get just as ignorant as Keef, in his own oblique way. In Acid Rap’s most risible moment, he calls himself a “slaphappy faggot slapper”; he could’ve goddam well found something else to rhyme with “hacky sacker” and “cocky khaki jacket jacker.” And he spends a whole lot of time rapping about drugs and cigarettes with the head-blown fuzziness of someone so young that he hasn’t yet learned firsthand that drugs and cigarettes have a downside. Even so, though, he has more fun, and finds more interesting ways, to talk about drugs and cigarettes than just about any other rapper in recent memory. Like this line: “Lean on a square, that’s a fuckin’ rhombus.” He’s talking about dipping cigarettes in cough syrup, but he’s making a head-spinningly smart math-nerd pun out of it, constructing the punchline elegantly and economically but treating it like it’s a throwaway line. There are hundreds of tiny little word-games like that embedded deep in Acid Rap, and it’ll take me way more than a day to dig them all out.
But the most alive moments on Acid Rap come when he turns that word-drunk eloquence toward his stuck-in-the-middle situation, talking about being a smart and fundamentally decent kid trapped between poor black and rich white worlds, not quite sure where he fits in, like Michael Jackson in the “Bad” video. On “Everybody’s Something,” he gets deep into skin-tone identity crises: “I used to tell hoes I was dark light or off-white / But I’d fight if a nigga said that I talk white / And both my parents was black, but they saw it fit that I talk right / And my drawers here, but my head and my heart stayed in the clouds like a lost kite.” On “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” he’s lamenting lost innocence and wishing his elders would still look at him like a little kid even though he knows he’s doing stuff they’d hate: “Put Visine inside my eyes so that my grandma would fucking hug me.” On “Pusha Man,” he’s straightforward but sharp about the desolation around him: “They be shooting whether it’s dark or not / I mean, the days is pretty dark a lot / Down here, it’s easier to find a gun than it is to find a fucking parking spot.” Summer, that brief sliver of time where Chicago weather turns glorious before returning to hellish-barren-winterscape status quo, turns out to be the worst time of all: “It just got warm out, this the shit that I’ve been warned about / I hope that it storm in the morning, I hope that it’s pouring out / I hate crowded beaches, I hate the sound of fireworks / And I ponder what’s worse between knowing it’s over and dying first.”
Chance might get lumped in as an internet-rapper, and Acid Rap has a few contributions from products of the internet-rap zeitgaist: Ab-Soul telling potty jokes, Childish Gambino making “Harlem Shake” jokes, Action Bronson actually singing. But a big problem with internet-rap is that it loses the sense of place that’s always been so central to rap, and Acid Rap does not have that problem; it’s a Chicago record through and through. The orchestral-soul aesthetic put it in a lineage that runs through early Kanye West back through the Curtis Mayfield records that Kanye was sampling. At the end of “Acid Rain,” he sings R. Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest,” flipping them to turn them into straight gospel rather than implied gospel. The awkward lightspeed drum-stutters of footwork show up from time to time, especially on the album outro, where they rampage all over the expansive horns and pianos of the intro. And on “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” Chicago rap originator Twista shows up with a frankly jaw-dropping triple-time verse, cramming syllables in your ear way quicker than you can possibly process them. “When it come to fast-rapping, I’m like Higgs Boson,” says Twista, and yeah, pretty much. (He rhymes it with “Voltron.”)
So Chance is an internet guy and a Chicago guy, and both of those things are central to his identity. But more than either of those, he’s a razor-sharp rap dreamer, like Kendrick, like Earl Sweatshirt, like Andre 3000, like fellow Chicagoan Common Sense, like “I’m so high I could eat a cloud”-era Lil Wayne. And he’s fully willing to push his voice and his delivery to irritating extremes because a regular lead-footed rap style wouldn’t let him get as expressive as he needs to be. The best thing about the online mixtape explosion in recent years is that it’s emboldened rappers like Chance, kids with things to say, to push themselves as far as they need to go, because anything good enough, no matter how weird, will find an audience. Chance will find an audience, probably a huge one. He deserves one.
Download Acid Rap for free here.