Chicago’s drill scene divides audiences, critics, and peers, artists like Chief Keef either vilified for glorifying the city’s violence or given credit for shedding light on the ever-growing body count. In some ways, Chance The Rapper stands entirely apart from that scene, his acid-washed production and trademark “igh!” emanating miles away from Keef’s spare rumbles and “bang bang” ad-lib. He sings ballads, reminisces about the orange color of Nickelodeon VHS tapes, and once sampled indie rockers Beirut. And to be sure, Chance is often quoted as drawing inspiration from Kanye West and Michael Jackson, decidedly non-drill influences. But as different as Acid Rap and Finally Rich may be, Chance is rapping both from and of that same world, his unique voice offering a different view of the city he loves.
The two-part “Pusha Man” provides the most direct analysis of the city’s violence. After a few minutes of booming and boasting about getting girls and making newspaper covers, Chance jumps to the chase, switching gears into a paranoiac view of the city through a car window. Though while he’s rolling with a gun on his hip, he’s not mirroring the violence, but admitting to the accompanying fear and hoping for change. Where Keef and other drill artists play the role of the anti-hero, Chance wants to be “captain save the hood,” asking Matt Lauer and Katie Couric why he and the other kids have to be the ones to show the world just how bad things are. “I know you scared,” he sighs, adding that “you should ask us if we scared too.”
Later, the mournfully nostalgic “Acid Rain” explains that, in part, Chance’s appreciation for LSD comes from its ability to help escape the pain of the real world. After describing the haunting memory of a friend’s murder, he admits that he “trip[s] to make the fall shorter.” He’s living in a world where “funerals for little girls” is an everyday worry, and the acid offers a way out. Another, though, is Acid Rap.
Where the harsh, cold production of drill echoes the harsh, cold sentiments, Chance’s voice and the multi-faceted production are all about change, examining any little moment that might provide some fun and relief. “Good Ass Intro” reveals the world as a vibrant, soulful, footworking wonderland, a welcome mat unfurled by Peter Cottontale’s clacking percussion, smooth piano, and rich horn section. And the first line? A choir of singers proclaiming Chance’s ambition: “Even better than I was the last time, baby,” a serious claim after #10Day, a polished tape that showed a unique voice (an accomplishment for anyone, let alone a high-schooler). The four minutes that follow work by on skittering rhymes and slippery wordplay, ending with a line proclaiming this to already be your favorite album. Later, the Childish Gambino-featuring “Favorite Song” zeroes in that same aspiration to a single track, gliding by on Save Money cohort Nate Fox’s tropical guitar samples.
The fun continues on tracks like “Juice” and “NaNa”, Fox’s production on the former a woozy, delirious high. The song’s sepia-tinged piano sample and blues guitar swing lightly as “Chatham’s own” swaggers through a few verses. Getting into a thick Russian accent to find a rhyme for Oscar and shouting out Keef and the rising Chicago scene garner an equal sense of impish glee, Chance’s confidence rightly displayed. “NaNa” finds Action Bronson flying in for a typically Bronsolino verse (“she had the cleft palate, I ordered the chef’s salad”), but the fun comes mostly in Chance’s taunting repetition of the song’s title in the hook. While the tape and its production mutates like a hallucinogenic vision, nothing matches his ability to twist his own voice, from lazy drawl on the hook, to that gritty ad libbed “igh!”, to the lurching verses. Not to mention his witty wordplay, as displayed on this gem from the hazy “Smoke Again”: “Lean all on a square / That’s a fuckin’ rhombus,” he whines, pushing the drug reference into a geometry joke.
But, just like Chicago in the summer, the flashes of innocent fun come with steady, violent reminders that that innocence is impossible to hold onto for very long. The last verse of “Pusha Man” admits that “everybody dies in the summer,” crowded beaches and fireworks making things out like a warzone. The drugs are a problem too. Chance, Kids These Days’ Vic Mensa, and Chicago legend Twista take turns on “Cocoa Butter Kisses”, the track a meditation on growing apart from family due (at least in part) to weed, a sentiment that won’t dissuade the Kendrick Lamar connections being made of late. Though he’s afraid that his new lifestyle and the violence can take everything away, there’s hope: “everybody’s somebody’s everything,” he and BJ The Chicago Kid croon on “Everybody’s Something”. As long as they can repeat that mantra, there’s hope for a better Chicago, a goal Chance hopes his personal look at the city can help become a reality.
Essential Tracks: “Juice”, “Good Ass Intro”, and “Cocoa Butter Kisses”