Chance the Rapper is going to make sure he gets this right: rap music, a pop-star ascent from Chicago, a record deal, that whole fame thing — and on his own terms.
Chance, whose full name is Chancelor Bennett, has been drawing increasingly large and enthusiastic audiences since he released his upbeat debut mixtape, "10 Day," last spring. An instant success, the tape catapulted Chance into touring with Childish Gambino (perhaps better known as actor and comedian Donald Glover, of NBC's "Community"), headlining sold-out shows at prominent local venues like Lincoln Hall and Metro, taking meetings with major record labels and earning the ears of such prominent musical acts as Kendrick Lamar and James Blake.
The momentum has continued to grow not only locally, where Chance, 20, has the city at his fingertips, but nationally as well. The April 30 release of his latest mixtape, "Acid Rap," twice shut down the servers of popular Chicago rap blog Fake Shore Drive and attracted 50,000 downloads within the first 24 hours.
A melodic, idiosyncratic work blurring the line between hip-hop and pop, "Acid Rap" is purposefully open-ended, its tone equal parts celebratory and thoughtful. As the title hints, two of the creative influences behind the release were the mind-expanding effects of psychedelic drugs and the acid-jazz compositions of artists like Jamiroquai and Roy Ayers, somewhat uncommon reference points for a rapper. Praise upon its release was immediate and widespread.
The project was also meticulously assembled on Chance's own terms, without the help of a record label and in many places favoring lesser-known local artists over higher-profile collaborators. As he noted in an interview at the Humboldt Park studio where he was adding the mixtape's finishing touches, his primary interest is in making sure the story of his music makes sense, which has meant occasionally sacrificing short-term gains in the interest of a long-term vision.
"He just wants to go left field," explained Caleb James, a friend and fellow member of Chicago artistic collective Save Money. "He doesn't want to go the normal way, like 'getting a single made.' He's not really that type of person."
Instead, Chance is resolute about having a career narrative that people can identify with. Last summer, as the broader Chicago hip-hop scene was gaining a national profile and many local artists landed major-label record deals, Chance was approached about signing as well. For many young artists, signing such a contract is often treated as a critical milestone or even as the primary objective in pursuing a music career. Chance chose to consider how the offer might complement his eventual goals.
"I really wanted to sign last year," he said, adding, "It took me a moment to step back and be like, 'I can tell this story better.'"
The story, as it exists so far, begins with Chance's 10-day suspension from his high school in 2011, the South Loop's Jones College Prep, after being caught smoking marijuana off-campus. Already a fixture within a music, spoken word and performing arts scene centered at the Harold Washington Library's YOUMedia youth center, Chance conceived of a project that would involve making a song during each day of his suspension and releasing the results as a mixtape. It ultimately took around a year for the project to come together, but the suspension served as the origin for several songs and remained a thematic inspiration.
When Chance graduated high school (also in 2011) he wanted to pursue music, despite his parents' urging that he go to college. He spent the summer burning copies of a five-song demo CD called "5 Day," which he would hand out or try to sell for whatever people would give him in front of the Columbia College dorms. The CD, labeled with the rapper's Twitter handle, served as a business card of sorts, helping him build a small social media following and meet more people in the local music scene.
Even as his profile has risen, Chance has largely maintained the approachability borne of that experience, and he remains an enthusiastic booster of his peers. Outgoing and easy to relate to, he greets new people without pretense and apologizes for name-dropping when he talks about the well-known artists he's been working with.
"I've just always tried to be not just humble but (to) put forth effort to make things easier for other people," he said. "That's just the type of people I like, regardless of what your job is."
His promotional model, like much of his work, continues to be rooted in inclusiveness. To advertise shows and sell tickets, Chance has made impromptu visits to local high schools to talk to students. For a show at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he made arrangements for Chicago fans to ride down and back with him in one of two school buses. Pat Corcoran, his 23-year-old manager, highlighted Chance's willingness to do things like join fans for pizza or stop by a fraternity party after tour dates.
"He thinks of himself as a fan," Corcoran said, "like, 'What would I like if my favorite rapper was going to be in my school? What would I like for him to do?'"
While that extroversion has been consistent, though, the focus required to channel it into a career is a more recent development. Throughout much of 2011, music remained in many ways a casual interest. Chance was spending much of his time partying, and his insistence on not going to college had made his relationship with his parents fraught to the point that they were barely speaking.
Much changed that fall, when Chance witnessed the stabbing death of a friend after a North Side party. The incident forced a reevaluation of his priorities: He repaired his relationship with his parents and renewed his dedication to making music. He stopped going out and doing drugs.
"It's a very fast way of life in Chicago, and a lot of (stuff) happens, and a lot of people get killed," Chance explained. "And then the next day people forget about it, so it's like you've got to live every day and be happy that you're safe and just be careful and be open about how you feel about people." He added, "I just decided that I needed to be doing something more important and take everything that I was doing more seriously."
When "10 Day" debuted, it stood out due to its unusually melodic songs and a sense of liveliness drawn from the broader artistic community that helped create it. The product of careful composition and extensive collaboration, it exuded optimism and reflectiveness.
These aspects became more prominent in the process of recording "Acid Rap," which features much more live instrumentation and, as Chance explained, attempts to offer a more inquisitive viewpoint. While, by Chance's account, the final push to complete "10 Day" involved little more than brief touch-ups of two-track recordings — vocals and a beat — "Acid Rap" is an intricately layered work, incorporating contributions from a range of musicians. Chance's own involvement was complete and overarching, even as he drew on others. Consequently, each element is painstakingly considered.
The final product is lush and conversational, a mixtape that covers a spectrum of themes with equal gravitas. Quiet, halting tracks like "Acid Rain" and the second half of "Pusha Man" (a hidden track called "Paranoia") explore the emotional toll of Chicago's violence, while triumphant songs like "Good Ass Intro" and "Interlude (That's Love)" radiate excitement and showcase Chance's dense, acrobatic lyrical style. A dexterous, inventive rapper, Chance ties phrases in knots, bursts into unexpected strings of melody and delivers ad libs halfway between a whine and a growl.
His music is aiming as much for widespread appeal as rap acceptance, and Chance's goals — to play "Saturday Night Live," to both present and win Grammys, to change the landscape of hip-hop — reflect that ambition. The names that get repeatedly referenced in conversations with Chance and his associates are those of pop stars like Prince and Michael Jackson, as well as that of another Chicago rapper famous for exacting standards of quality and distinct, inventive sounds: Kanye West.
"I want to be that guy that comes out and has a whole new sound and goes into hip-hop with hip-hop being whatever it is … to come into hip-hop and make something different that people can respect," he said, citing Kanye as a precedent. "That's the goal."
Incorporated into Chance's grander career strategy is something else West accomplished, at least momentarily: an interest in exposing Chicago's hip-hop scene to the wider world. Chance's pride in and knowledge of local music both past and present is extensive, a fact reflected in occasional production nods to the city's juke scene as well as lyrical references to Chicago musicians ranging from Muddy Waters to Chief Keef.
While his music is often held up as a counterexample to the darker, more nihilistic strains of Chicago hip-hop, by both media commentators and some of his own collaborators, Chance is emphatic about the idea of presenting a unified movement of great music coming out of the city. Joking one night in the studio, he mimicked interviewers asking how he planned "to totally eliminate the drill sound (a slang term for the lyrically violent hip-hop of the city's South Side)." Chance would rather celebrate Chicago hip-hop's overall success than be seen as an antidote to its rougher artists.
Accordingly, after his recent Double Door performance, Chance mingled with the crowd. Preparing to leave for a late-night studio session, he ran across a musical friend and invited her to come record some background vocals. Outside, his group piled into a black SUV.
And as Chance figures out his music, his career, he's not just putting on a show. He's bringing everyone along with him.
Chance the Rapper
When: Metro, 7 p.m. Sat. and Sun.
Where: Metro, 3730 N. Clark St.
Tickets: $13-$15 (all ages); etix.com or metrochicago.com