Exhausted. That’s what 20 year-old, rap-phenom Chancelor Bennett, aka Chance The Rapper, should be by now. It all started when he dropped the video for his single “Juice” on January 31st. A few short months later, Chance dropped Acid Rap, a mixtape that’s both critically adored and wildly popular in the hip-hop blogosphere and beyond. As you probably know, Acid Rap propelled Chance into space. This summer he toured the world and opened with some of rap’s biggest names, from Eminem to Macklemore to Kendrick Lamar to Odd Future; recorded songs with both megastars (‘You Song’ on Lil Wayne’s Dedication 5’ and up-and-comers (‘Wendy N’ Becky’ with Joey BadA$$); and went on his own country-wide tour, the Social Experiment Tour, which spanned 30 cities in just under 2 months – it just ended on December 7th.
Last Monday night, on one of his final dates of the tour, Chance arrived at Oberlin College – a small liberal college, home to just under 3,000 students, located 35 minutes west of Cleveland, Ohio – and took the stage at the Dionysus Disco. The ‘Sco is in the basement of Oberlin’s Student Union and is fully equipped with a half-bar, slightly usable restrooms, a stage fit for a children’s church choir, and capacity for 250-300 uncomfortable people. In other words, it’s not exactly a place you’d expect the next big thing in hip-hop to be performing at. You’d expect Chance to at least be in Cleveland, possibly at the House of Blues, or maybe even the Grog Shop or Peabody’s. But no, sitting in a not-so-hidden parking lot right next door to ‘Sco was Chance‘s tour “bus,” a mini-van with “Acid Rap” detailed into the sides. But though his bus wasn’t a marvel, he’d nonetheless been selling out shows in nearly every city he’s been to; everyone – hip-hop heads, hipsters, word nerds, smokers, groupies, and generally curious individuals – has been clamoring to see this kid from the Windy City.
Accordingly, here he was, performing in the basement of a liberal arts college’s student center, in Ohio, early in December, as his first country-wide headlining tour was winding down. He didn’t have to leave his heart on the stage, he didn’t have to perform like this was his first show, he didn’t have to bring those Michael Jackson-esque dance moves that he’s been busting for the last six months, and he didn’t have to give not one, but two encore performances. He should’ve been tired, he should’ve been beaten down by the road, the studio and the shows. He should have been exhausted. Alas, somehow he was not.
When you play Acid Rap through your car speakers, or in your headphones, the tape is beautiful and bloated. The cover art is a cartoonish picture of Chance, lost in the woods, surrounded by his trippy world, and that’s exactly how the tape plays out. You never fully know where he’s going, but it’s worth the ride. The mixtape oscillates between stratospheric highs and painfully grounded lows. In a live setting, these dynamics are exploded even further. The Chicago acid jazz that influenced the mixtape is as important to the live show as Chance is. Chance frequently gave the floor to the instrumentation as often as he did himself, and the jazz vibe of the show made the emotional intimacy overwhelming. The complexity of Chance‘s songs really plays out a bit more raw in person. This tape is rejuvenating on record, but in a live setting, it’s actually kind of exhausting. Well, it was for the crowd. Chance himself? He just kept on going.
People used to – and still do – complain about seeing Lauryn Hill live because she would take her powerful, soulful songs and turn them into electro-future tracks. Fans wanted the hits, and they weren’t getting them – at least not the way they sound on her album. Chance flips the Lauryn approach on it’s head; where Hill changed her songs, and removed much of what made them soulful, Chance doubles down and super-sizes the soul. There’s trumpet solos by Nico Segal, there’s James Brown-meets-Footwork dance breaks, and on more than one occasion it felt like Chance was going to either breakdown crying or pass out on the spot. Live instrumentation has a way of doing that, especially when soul is involved. In fact, this set was soulful that it transformed the ‘Sco from a basement at a small liberal arts school to a speakeasy playing the latest and coolest jazz. On that stage, Chance wasn’t the latest incarnation of Kanye or Andre. Nah. Chance was the reincarnation Howlin’ Wolf, cooing at the moon, controlling the crowd, feeling every note, every word.
It felt unfair to have this boiling pot of talent trapped in a basement with a handful of fans jumping and screaming every word to every song, but at the same time it felt so right. When he finished that show, and the tour, it felt like things were winding down for the young kid from Chicago. It felt like he was just finishing one of the longest, most successful, and hardest working years in hip-hop. It was as if he had just finished a marathon. And at the end of the night, as he closed the show with “Chain Smoker,” we felt like that was the moment he would finally give in. We thought the lights would go down, the curtain would fall and he would collapse, exhausted. Instead, it felt like Chance the Rapper was just getting started.
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