Chance the Rapper

Acid Rap Mixtape

(Self-released; 2013)

By Brent Ables | 6 June 2013

There’s a great book waiting to be written on drug use in hip-hop. The drug business, of course, is well-exhausted territory. The rap game may be like the crack game, but it remains true that the players rarely get high on their own supply. Recall Ghostface’s careful division of labor on “House of Flying Daggers”: “Rae’s job is to make sure the coke stays fluffy / While I politic his birthday bash with Puffy.” What happens at that birthday bash? Lore whispers to us of Colt 45 and top-grade kush—practically canonical substances, right along with their southern cousin sizzurp. Where things get interesting is in the last few years, where as independent and mainstream artists both push the boundaries of their genre they’ve also expanded the bounds of legitimate debauchery. Schoolboy Q drops oxys like they were tic tacs; Danny Brown’s the Adderall Admiral; everyone and their mother’s on molly. But no one has yet hit on Chance the Rapper’s combination of cigarettes and acid before now, which is one among many signs of the MC’s total ubiquity. Acid makes him crazy; cigarettes make him cool. Together they spawn this weirdo concoction called Acid Rap, which is so startlingly buoyant that—as with an acid trip—it’s sometimes all too easy to mistake the spark and spunk for substance.

That Acid Rap is the best hip-hop release of 2013 so far may be less of a testament to Chance the Rapper than it is to the genre’s general fallowness this year, but that doesn’t mean the guy doesn’t deserve our collective props. Acid Rap is a cohesive, carefully crafted record, and Chance’s considerable skill on the mic is undeniable. But as fun and even poignant as his breakthrough can be, the same playfulness that sets it apart sometimes makes it feel a bit like a juvenile curiosity. This is, after all, a rapper who first made his name with a concept album about being suspended from high school. Youth is hardly a liability in rap—Nas was only a few years older than Chance when he recorded Illmatic (1994)—but immaturity can be. Thus when Chance interpolates (has anyone else ever put a “hidden” song on track two of a record?) a downbeat lament for the named and unnamed victims of Chicago’s apocalyptic gun violence into a string of songs about cigarettes and the Lakers, it doesn’t hit with the same force as any of Chief Keef’s technically unsophisticated transmissions from the abyss. No one is going to argue for Keef’s technical merits over Chance’s, but you’d be forgiven for missing the gravitas.

While it might not send you on the full-body trip you’ve been waiting for, however, Acid Rap is still eminently worth dropping. The high points get you very high. “Favorite Song,” the first track off Acid Rap’s B-side, illustrates why. In a word: enthusiasm. Chance plays hacky sack here with the rap axiom that cool disinterestedness is…well, cool, instead smirking out every line like it was the punchline of some especially clever fart joke. His preternatural gift for alliterative wordplay is fully realized from the first lines of the track, shorn of the need to convey any message: “Chance, acid rapper / Soccer hacky sacker / Cocky khaki jacket jacker.” The hook, courtesy of go-to producer Nate Fox, is simple but insanely catchy: a few slap-back guitar chords complemented by some juke claps for the chorus leaves Chance with all the room he needs. Even the guest verse, courtesy of Childish Gambino, is likely to run circles in your head for weeks: it’s nearly impossible not to picture Troy at his blithe best when Gambino deadpans a Harlem Shake wisecrack.

In line with his general positivity, Chance likes to rap about capital-L Love: witness the mid-album one-two of “Everyone’s Something” and “That’s Love.” Set to a Cheers-y piano riff, the latter is disarmingly direct: “What’s better than followers is actually falling in love.” Which: no argument, but then who listens to rap for the love songs? Original though Chance’s particular version of Good Times may be, it’s still fangless. “Everything’s Good,” right? But it isn’t, Chance’s brief allusions to the chaos of his city notwithstanding. It’s not like he has any obligation to wade into that particular mire any further, but Chance’s framing of the record as a major statement remains at odds with the scope and potential of his rhymes. Most glaring in this respect are his many allusions to fellow Chicagoan Kanye West: “Good Ass Job,” “Good Ass Outro”—in a word, G.O.O.D.. Chance is more technically spry than Kanye will ever be, but he hasn’t yet learned how to balance scope and ambition with force and discretion. It took Kanye most of his career to really nail that balance, of course, so we oughtn’t expect it quite yet. But if you’re going to position yourself as a successor to contemporary rap’s undisputed overlord, you’re probably just building the walls higher than you can scale. Maybe the better strategy would be to burn right through. But that would require a different kind of acid.