You see plenty of good performances at music festivals, but you don’t see too many great ones. I’ve been going to these things for literal decades, and the list of transcendent music-festival performances that I’ve seen is a short one: The Prodigy at the 1997 HFStival, Radiohead and a Tribe Called Quest at the 1998 Tibetan Freedom Concert, Sleater-Kinney at Siren in 2002, Rancid at the Warped Tour in 2002 or 2003, Lil Wayne at the 2008 Hot 97 Summer Jam, LCD Soundsystem at Pitchfork in 2011, the Chemical Brothers at Way Out West that same year, and that’s pretty much it. I could be forgetting one or two, but I don’t think so. Les Savy Fav at the 2001 Anti-Fest was pretty special, but Anti-Fest was in an alleyway with a few hundred people in it, so I don’t think I can count it. Those ones I mentioned are the only times I left that big field buzzing with the feeling that I’d just seen something. And this past summer, I added another one to the list: Chance The Rapper, headlining the Pitchfork Festival in his Chicago hometown, rapping for a field full of kids who knew all the words to every mixtape deep cut, executing slick dance moves, bringing out gospel luminary Kirk Franklin, and generally stealing the entire three-day show from everyone else who was there. The entire time Chance was up there, he seemed to be taking it in, unable to believe that he’d reached that level and done it his own way. For most artists, that would be the climax of the year. For Chance, it was one highlight among many.
Chance had another year/career highlight this past weekend, when he performed on Saturday Night Live, an extremely rare feat for an unsigned artist. In a case like this one, “unsigned” is a funny word. It’s true that Chance has no label, and that his crew released the Surf album as a free iTunes download when they absolutely could’ve sold the thing. But Chance is by no means an underground artist. (The Funky 4 + 1 may have had a Sugar Hill contract when they became the first people to rap on SNL in 1981, but they were way more of an unknown phenomenon than Chance was.) Chance is more someone who’s recognized the way the sands are shifting, who knows that you don’t necessarily need a label to launch a major career as long as you’ve got the right team in place. It’s impressive that he made it to SNL, sure. But for my money, it’s way more impressive that he managed to overcome SNL notoriously shitty sound to give a pair of heartfelt, virtuosic performances, tailoring his raps to specifically address the moment (“ain’t my principal told me I can’t rap on this show”), and generally making a moment out of that. This was another time Chance seemed to understand exactly how huge this was in the moment. He always seems to know that. It’s one of the great things about him.
Immediately before rapping on that show, Chance debuted a new song, and it’s another stunner. “Somewhere In Paradise” has cascading handclaps and ecstatic horn-bursts and gospel-choir whoops and Jeremih and R. Kelly and chilly bleeps from Purity Ring’s Corin Roddick. And sure, it’s shitty that Chance is choosing to work with R. Kelly even when we know everything we know about him. But Chance is also a kid from the South Side of Chicago who was born the same year 12 Play came out. I submit to you that R. Kelly might mean different things to him than he does to you or me. And anyway, Kelly is on the song as an agent of buoyant, joyous, overflowing melody. He’s one of many. This is just an explosively happy song, and it feels, in a lot of ways, like it’s coming along at the exact right moment. “They say I’m saving my city, say I’m staying for good / They screaming Chano for mayor, I’m thinking maybe I should” — this at a moment when Chicago seems to be realizing, en masse, that mayor Rahm Emanuel has been complicit in covering up police shootings, among other awful things, and that he should get the fuck out of there. Chicago is a cold, hard town right now, and it’s suffered a lot in the last few years. A lot of its rap music reflects that coldness and hardness. On “Somewhere In Paradise,” as on so many other songs, Chance inverts that. He brings out all the warmth and excitement and sense of community that you can see in Chicago at its best.
He did the same thing on “Angels,” the song he released a few months ago and then almost immediately debuted on Colbert. That’s another soulful, jazzy, violently happy song, and he showed that same theatrical verve when he was rapping it on TV. These songs might be advance singles from another Chance mixtape. They might be signs of his artistic progression; they are, somehow, bigger and brighter and more melodically dense than anything on the big, bright, melodically dense Surf. But they could also just be one-off songs thrown out into the world. Chance doesn’t seem to exist in a world where album cycles determine everything. When he wants to spend a day with Lil B recording an improvisational mixtape, he does exactly that, and that turns out to be special. When he wants to make a mellow and contemplative song with fellow Chicagoan Noname Gypsy, he does that, too, and that turns out to be something special. Chance’s little brother just released an album, one that builds on Chance’s lush aesthetic, and even that is pretty great, for reasons that have a whole lot to do with Chance. Chance is in an absolute zone right now, and he’s been in that zone for at least the past year.
Nobody else in rap is in that zone right now. Nobody else in music is in that zone right now. Plenty of rappers had career years in 2015: Drake, Future, Kendrick Lamar. But Chance is still in that era of discovery; he seems to get better and more complete everytime he ventures out into public to do something. And if he really is working on that elusive Acid Rap follow-up, I can’t help but expect something fucking stunning. He’s got that in him.
1. YG – “I Wanna Benz” (Feat. Nipsey Hussle & 50 Cent)
The gift of the classic West Coast rapper was always the ability to sound rugged and smooth at the same damn time. YG has that gift, and that, in part, is why it’s so good to hear him rapping over that classic G-funk synth-whine. Bonus points for the way 50 slides onto the track, sounding like he hasn’t been on a years-long losing streak.
2. Jidenna – “Long Live The Chief”
Jidenna’s not even a rapper, and yet here he is, huffing effectively all over this absolutely ridiculous beat. This beat sounds like a broken-down spaceship hovering over a junkyard. It’s incredible, and the fact that it’s not wasted on Jidenna is a serious testament to Jidenna’s rapping.
3. Wiz Khalifa – “Move On” (Feat. Kevin Gates)
Wiz’s new Cabin Fever 3 mixtape is eminently skippable, except for this one song, which has an authentically beautiful Sonny Digital beat that sounds like the figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling suddenly coming into life and stepping out into the sunshine. And it also has Kevin Gates, who done threw a ring around his dick and his finger.
4. King Chip – “Fat Raps 3″ (Feat. Chuck Inglish, Earlly Mac, Curren$y, & Big Sean)
A Midwestern rap summit over a synthetic beat that slaps hard enough to make up for the worst Big Sean verse in recent memory. (“Fuck the world through a glory hole” was bad enough before he rhymed it with “Maury show.”)
5. Black Thought & Statik Selektah – “Couldn’t Tell”
Just a reminder that Black Thought is still perfectly capable of scalpel-sharp rap precision when he’s not singing the Star Wars score or whatever.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
"First things first I'll eat your brains" pic.twitter.com/zYpxjMqdxS
— #Pray4CO (@RealLifeKaz) December 10, 2015