Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Chance the Rapper's "Acid Rap" is an Early Contender for Album of the Year

Rap is, or at least has lately become, an inherently cold genre.  Built on the foundation of urban ideals, many of the greatest and latest have made a career focusing on songs about running drugs and gunning thugs.  That's not to say that rap music can't be fun anymore, but even so called "fun" or "lavish" music -- the MMG crew or Watch the Throne -- takes on a chilly hedonistic feeling.  Even a rapper like Drake, maybe the first person you'd think of when asked to name a "soft" rapper, explores the cold disconnect between wanting to be genuine while still needing to exude braggadocio.  I can't say that I blame the rap world for retreating back to these default modes of comfort.  After all, making music full of genuine feeling is difficult.  More often than not, artists like J. Cole push platitudes about "the struggle" and just come off as corny.

Perhaps the last popular bastion of warm rap music was Kanye West.  Over the years, he's become so cloistered behind his own wall of ego and self-involvement that it's easy to forget how earnest his music used to be.  Relistening to The College Dropout recently, I was amazed by how frequently moved I was by it.  It's a mildly flawed album with a misstep or two, but it's a work of obvious passion and emotion.  Looking back from a 2013 perspective, it's hard to imagine that album not getting laughed off the face of the Earth.  Yet somehow Kanye weaves themes of family, education, and religion into lush, completely sincere songs that totally work.

If there's anybody to pick up where old-school Kanye West left off, it's the 20 year old Chicago native, Chance the Rapper.  His most recent mixtape, Acid Rap, might be the warmest, most exuberant rap release I've heard since I first listened to The College Dropout in the 7th grade.  That's not to say that it's as sonically layered and exquisitely detailed as Kanye's debut (which itself is not as rich as Late Registration, West's true masterpiece), but Acid Rap is an infectious and whip-smart album loaded with pathos.  His first mixtape, the excellent but scattered 10 Day, was mostly written during a 10 day suspension from high school, and much of his music seems to be filtered through the lens of what it's like to be a black gifted kid (sound familiar?).  However, this latest mixtape is notable for how it also incorporates themes of a city crumbling from violence too.  With the soulful beats filled with horns, woodwinds, and twinkling keyboards even those songs feel full of life.

Contributing to the spark and endless listenability of Acid Rap is the sense of melody that seems to be ingrained in Chance's DNA.  Most rappers couldn't write a good hook if their lives depended on it, but on this mixtape it's almost as if Chance the Rapper can't not write a good hook.  His voice is both his greatest weapon and the biggest potential detractor for new listeners, as he effortlessly moves in and out of rapping and singing, using a giddy yap reminiscent of Lil Wayne.  But even if you're not a big fan of him vocally, lyrically Chance is a force to be reckoned with.  It's so much fun to just follow him down whatever rabbit hole of language he chooses to navigate, spewing out dense phrases like "Chance: acid rapper / soccer hacky sacker / cocky khaki jacket jacker."  Given the nature of the mixtape's title, there are certainly songs about drug use, but even those have a pretty strong emotional core.  Take "Cocoa Butter Kisses," where he nostalgically longs for the days before he smoked weed, when he didn't have to fear his grandmother being ashamed of him.

With just 13 tracks, the mixtape perfectly shows off Chance's wide range of talents.  7 minute sprawler "Pusha Man" does it all in one song, starting off as energetic posturing before transitioning into a more ruminative mediation on the tumultuous Chicago streets.  Opener "Good Ass Job" is resplendent with blaring horns and twisting rhymes, a good introduction to the anything goes attitude of Acid Rap.  A veritable rogue's gallery of rappers appear, with internet favorites like Ab-Soul and Action Bronson offering up verses on the back half.  He even manages to get an entertaining verse from the otherwise generic Childish Gambino and brings Twista out of hiding to deliver a sidewinding sixteen.  Constantly, the mixtape pulls off the balancing act of having contemplative songs like "Lost" and "Acid Rain" right next to jovial potential radio hits like "Juice" and "NaNa."

However, the clear highlight of the album is the penultimate track, "Chain Smoker."  Featuring Chance's signature knack for catchy sing-song rapping and a breezily agile beat, it's a perfect storm of songwriting.  It may very well end up being the song of the year and it certainly contains the most joyous moment I've heard in music in a long time.  After the deceptively catchy chorus finishes, the synths kick in and Chance shouts "This part right here right now right here, this part's my shit / I play it so loud in my car I forget to park my whip."  In that moment, there's no level of distance between the artist and the audience.  It's almost as if he's surprised that he produced something so brilliant, and he loves it just as much as you do.  This is the kind of relatability that makes Chance the Rapper so endearing.  Album closer "Everything's Good (Good Ass Outro)" starts off with a phone conversation with his father, where Chance thanks him for helping him out with funding his music career and it just sounds so genuine.  Then his father says something like "I'm so proud of you.  You don't have to thank me, it's my job to do that" and it struck me as something that my mother would say.  A moment like this specifically affected me in a way that nobody else could identify with, but the joy of Acid Rap is that it's full of these little touches that are bound to mean something to somebody.

Last year when Kendrick Lamar dropped good kid, m.A.A.d. city, everyone went nuts over it and positioned it as a masterpiece that would save rap.  I like the album quite a bit, but it often felt like it was specifically engineered to be a classic.  Between its sprawling length, discursive philosophizing, and interminable skits and interludes, it's easy to become worn down by the "artistic importance" of it all.  On the other hand, this one feels so unassuming, as if it was as easy for Chance to make it as it is to blink, and it's all the more impressive because of that.  Many of the newer rappers that I enjoy don't break into the mainstream, but hopefully this mixtape will put Chance the Rapper on the map, because Acid Rap is the rare rap release that comes around and makes me excited about the genre again.

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