For a while there, I was worried about Chance The Rapper. He’d come to national prominence in 2013 with Acid Rap, a mixtape that showed ridiculous levels of promise but also the sort of tendency toward self-indulgence that ruins a lot of rappers’ careers. Chance’s voice was a headlong hamster-squeak, a self-consciously grating yammer, and he’d cram syllables into his bars like he was seeing how many he could fit in there. He had an innate melodic sense, but he was also perfectly willing to sing stuff that was way out of his range, knowing that it would sound ridiculous. There was something almost twee about his whole aesthetic — a sensible response to growing up in an honest-to-god South Side Chicago warzone, yes, but also the sort of thing that has capsized more than a few rap careers. (Think of Lupe Fiasco, also from Chicago, letting self-importance compromise his entire mission before he’d managed to attain much in the way of actual importance.) And then the months after Acid Rap stretched out to years, and the little shards of music we heard from Chance weren’t all that encouraging. He was now part of a band, Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, the band’s mere name resigning Chance to supporting-player status even though he was obviously a star on the rise. There were profoundly halfassed bits of squelchy crooned melody. There were the paychecking guest appearances with people like Madonna. Chance seemed to be catching a premature case of Andre 3000 Disease, in which rappers decide that their talent is too great for rap to contain them and so they have to move onto bad Prince impressions. But then the last few weeks happened, and now it feels like Chance is absolutely and completely back, making some of the best rap music of his life.
Chance is on a roll right now, and that roll probably started a while back, before I noticed. It really occurred to me, though, with his staggering verse on Action Bronson’s “Baby Blue.” On that song, Chance just lights up Bronson, buries him on his own song. But he doesn’t do it in a combative way. Instead, he just takes the loping, good-natured breakup-anthem conceit and runs with it. He’s a more humane and warm rapper that Bronson, so while Bronson is guffawing about underwear sauce and crooning that you’re acting like a bitch, Chance is rolling out a byzantine parade of low-stakes curses: “I hope there’s always snow in your driveway / I hope you never get off on Fridays and you work at a Friday’s that’s always busy on Fridays.” But he’s not just being an asshole ex; he’s doing it to mask bad feelings. And those feelings come out by the end of the verse: “I hope you happy / I hope you ruined this shit for a reason / I hope you happy.” I love Bronson, but he’s never going to be able to come out with a moment that emotionally honest — or, if he does, he won’t be able to present it with that giddy cartoonish silliness that Chance brings even during serious moments.
That hot streak continued on “Heaven Only Knows,” a song from fellow Chicago rap kid Towkio. The song’s aesthetic is a bigger, slicker version of what Chance was doing on Acid Rap: Ecstatic gospel choir, bright bursts of organ, handclaps weaving through bursts of footwork-inspired drum-skitter. And Chance jumps all over it, weaving in and out of five or six different flows while talking about starting a nonprofit or running for alderman. Near the end, he starts straight-up singing without losing the thread of the beat, and it’s glorious. When the chorus kicks in, he yelps and barks through it, then he sticks around after the song is over to talk about how Towkio’s mixtape is going to be the hottest of 2015, as if Chance didn’t have his own tape coming right out. It’s a command performance from someone who’s basically an elder statesman of his corner of the Chicago scene already.
The real reason I’m writing this column, though, is the beautiful, ridiculous high-school musical that Chance stages in his “Sunday Candy” video. “Sunday Candy” is credited to Donnie Trumet & The Social Experiment, and I didn’t really take to it when it first hit the internet back in November. I don’t know why. But the purpose of music videos is, on some level, to convince you to like a song, and the “Sunday Candy” video is a resounding success on that score. With its frantic-but-graceful choreography, the clip conveys the natural exuberance of the song beautifully, and it helps you hear all the juke and gospel and soul things happening in the music. The track goes from easy lope to sped-up stutter-step to beauty-dazed jazz-melody explosiveness, but the whole track hangs together. And on the song, Chance sounds even more dialed into whatever spirit was moving him when he made Acid Rap. I’ve probably watched the video 10 times now, and I’m not remotely sick of it. If Chance can pull off a few moves like this on Surf, I promise not to complain about his singing voice for a while. He seems ready to do something really, really great, and I’m excited to bear witness when he does.
When I was worried about Chance, I had grounds. There was, after all, another Chicago rapper who seemed primed to take his spot if he drifted too far off into self-indulgence. Vic Mensa came from the same freestyling-at-the-public-library circles that Chance did, and they’ve worked together a few times over the years. Mensa’s 2013 mixtape Innanetape felt like a flatter, more entry-level version of Acid Rap. It didn’t have as many ideas, but it had that same sense of hope and possibility to it. Mensa was a more limited rapper than Chance, but he also seemed more dialed into his set of gifts. And then he discovered a whole new set of gifts. Mensa’s single “Down On My Luck,” a soulful Chicago house glide with very little actual rapping, was the harbinger: Mensa might make more sense as a dance-conscious sing-rapper than as a baby Chance. He kept that sensibility going on songs like “Feel That” and the Kaytranada collab “Drive Me Crazy,” loose tracks with more fire and purpose than Mensa had showed on Innanetape. Then, Kanye West pulled Mensa into his orbit, and who even knows what’s going to happen now.
On the SNL 40 special, we saw Mensa, hair freshly bleached, crawling on the stage floor next to Kanye and an extravagantly wigged Sia. On Kanye’s “Wolves,” Mensa sang a gooily gothy verse about not being bad for you, and was light years removed from the music he’d been making just a few years ago. Mensa’s been doing a lot of recording with Kanye lately, and it’ll be fascinating to hear where that goes. I saw Mensa at Coachella this past weekend, and though he looked like he belonged on the big stage, his set was all-over-the-place. He still sometimes sounds like a baby Chance, especially during the wincingly goofy freestyling-about-Coachella bit. But he’d abruptly switch to the cold, hard synthy rap that he’s making these days. He looks like a ’90s cyberpunk now, with blonde hair and Doc Martens. And before doing his verse from “Wolves,” he sang a cover of Kid Cudi’s “The Pursuit Of Happiness.” That was a crowd-pleasing move, for sure, but it also felt like an application to become Kanye’s new Cudi now that Kanye and Cudi have parted ways.
(Incidentally, I’d orignally planned to do a sort of Coachella rapper power rankings with this week’s column. But then I figured out that the list would just be Drake’s name 10 times in a row, so I scrapped the idea. In any case, Azealia Banks’ name would be higher on the list than you’d expect, and Ab-Soul’s name would be lower.)
During that set, Mensa debuted “U Mad,” his newest Kanye collab. It’s a grimly impressive song, in the way that a lot of recent Kanye songs are grimly impressive. It has a powerful momentum working for it, and it’s got a concrete-cracking horn loop that makes me want to do push-ups. But it’s also got a Ray Rice punchline that Kanye would’ve never been dumb enough to spit at any point in his career. It’s a rough and mean-spirited song, and it certainly could be a hit. I like it, and I’d like it even without its great Kanye verse. But I don’t think it tells me much about who Mensa is. In that sense, the Mensa of this moment is far, far behind Chance. Chance has found his lane, and he’s doing great work within it. Mensa is still drifting from lane to lane, trying to figure out where he fits.
OG Maco – “Good Gracious” (Feat. Quavo)
Atlanta’s OG Maco is rap-famous now for “U Guessed It,” a thudding howler of a song that, rumors claim, Maco himself absolutely hates. This, with its spaced out pianos and its tortured sung hook and its rampant Auto-Tune, seems to be a lot closer to Maco’s heart. And amazingly enough, it actually works, with Maco’s emotive croon contrasting nicely with lead Migo Quavo’s high-stepping flow. These guys make sense together, and this is the first indication I’ve heard that Maco may still be around once “U Guessed It” finishes fading.
Da$h – “Mudd Walk”
This New Jersey rapper has a ferociously generic name, and that’s often enough to convince people to ignore a rapper. Don’t ignore this guy. His music lately has expertly walked the line between hard and weird, and over Metro Boomin’s lovely placid piano and soul-shuddering bass, he sounds like a machete to the face.
White Gzus – “Lotus” (Feat. Tela)
Tela, from Memphis, was one of the great hard-drawling Southern pimps of the late-’90s, but he’s pretty much disappeared from the face of the earth in recent years. Chicago duo White Gzus somehow dug him up for a guest verse, and he sounds as nasty as ever over a lovely orchestral-soul loop. The White Gzus guys, to their credit, sound comfortable enough next to him, but Tela’s presence brings a gravity that the song would’ve never had otherwise.
Curren$y & Freddie Gibbs – “Fetti”
Alchemist and Oh No’s new Welcome To Los Santos collection has a wonderful drug-rap float going for it, and it makes its fictional Grand Theft Auto universe feel that much more real and tangible. But its greatest moment might come from two guys who don’t come from anywhere near California. Curren$y and Gibbs have shown serious on-record chemistry before, and both of them sound like they were built to ride hazy guitar samples. I would zone out so hard to a whole album of this.
Lucki Eck$ – “What I Wanna”
Chicago pillhead goes staggering and stumbling over an eerie, flickering beat. This is atmosphere-rap, rap that seems to bleed into the air around it on a hot day.