“Call me Chancellor the Rapper, please say ‘the rapper,” Chancellor Johnathan Bennett rapped in 2013.
Three years later, Chance the Rapper is up for multiple Grammy nominations, both for his gospel-influenced third album, Coloring Book, and his collaborations with Kanye West on the latter’s “Ultralight Beam.”
There’s a lot to unpack in Chance’s lyrics, but that’s a great place to start. He might be referencing Lil’ Wayne‘s line, “Weezy F. Baby, please say the baby,” (from “6 Minutes of Death”) or Katt Williams’ Boondocks character, A Pimp Named Slickback, who insisted people refer to him by his full name, “like A Tribe Called Quest.”
Both are good guesses, and both are a good way to understand Chance’s influences. His dense lyrics are full of references to everything from Nicktoons to Gundam Wing, and he’s a fierce champion of underground and grassroots hip hop.
Chance didn’t take over 2016 out of nowhere: His first mixtape, 10 Day, was released in 2012 after being produced during a two-week suspension from school. Its dizzying mix of heartfelt memories of Chance’s childhood, tales of Chicago’s troubling violence and the rapper’s compact rhymes, odd yelps and half-sung passages sent ripples through the rap community. (It even had a hook based around a sample from Balkan-horn indie-band Beirut.) 10 Day was a hit on the mixtape-download site Datpiff and caught the eye of Donald Glover, a.k.a. Childish Gambino, who offered Chance the opportunity to open for him on tour.
But it was 2013’s Acid Rap that made Chance a true underground sensation. The album continued to showcase his own skills as a rapper and singer and unique mix of confessional, inspirational and self-aggrandizing lyrics. Loaded with hooks and astounding guest spots, the album’s production was a snapshot at Chance’s wide-ranging sensibilities. Everything from classic soul and gospel to acid jazz collides throughout the album.
And Chance’s emotional raps continued to mine vulnerable places. He’d rap about Animorphs one second, watching his friends get shot the next, and then dedicate a whole song to feeling sad that his mother stopped kissing him because he smelled like cigarettes. Released in April, the album hit No. 63 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart entirely due to free downloads, landed on almost everyone’s year-end best-of list, and made Chance a live sensation.
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Then he went silent for two years. Well, that’s a gross exaggeration. He continued to do dozens of guest verses, usually stealing the show from the actual artist (see “Baby Blue,” by Action Bronson) and he continued to dive into the ’90s nostalgia trip that characterized a lot of his music by releasing a star-packed cover of Ziggy Marley’s theme from the animated Arthur show, “Wonderful Everyday.” The song had been a staple of Chance’s live act for some time, and it was also one of the first of his credited to “The Social Experiment,” the name of Chance’s artistic collective he headed with trumpeter Nico Segal, a.k.a. Donnie Trumpet.
So it was all a little confusing when the next major work Chance appeared on was Surf, by Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, in May 2015. It confounded people, largely because (1.) everyone from the major labels on down was expecting another Chance album, and (2.) Chance had been billing his live band as The Social Experiment, and Donnie Trumpet featured prominently in it. Though Chance was featured all over Surf, he resolutely refused to call it his project, and it was even more of a stylistic deviation from the hip hop template, featuring choral arrangements, live drums, marching band horns and extended atmospheric passages. The lead single, “Sunday Candy,” was even more indicative of the group’s wide-ranging creativity, a large-scale mini-musical featuring intricate single-take choreography.
Then Chance appeared on “Ultralight Beam,” from Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, in February 2016. The song’s gospel-tinged feel was a preview of Chance’s triumphant third album, Coloring Book, which dropped in May. The album was heavily influenced by gospel music and again featured Donnie Trumpet (who has since reverted to his birth name as a protest against Donald Trump) and live instrumentation at the fore. It’s also Chance’s most overtly religious album: “I get my word from the sermon, I do not talk to the serpent,” he raps in the album’s first track, “All We Got.”
The album was a hit, propelled not only by Chance’s now-fervent fan base, but by “No Problem,” which eventually peaked at No. 39 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song’s success seemed like a kind of cosmic joke — the hook was basically a threat to major labels trying to intervene with Chance’s career, and it climbed the charts after being released solely on Apple Music. “I don’t make songs for free, I make ’em for freedom,” he rapped on “Blessings,” another track from Coloring Book.
“I’ve met with every A&R, VP of A&R, president of the labels, CEOs. I know all these people,” Chance told The Fader in 2015. “I’ve had a lot of advice from people [in the industry] who wouldn’t give me that same advice today. It’s not even that they have any ill will towards me because I didn’t take their advice at the time. They’re almost like, ‘Keep going. You’re in uncharted territory, and you’re helping to shed light on what [the future of the business] will look like, and we’re all curious.'”
It’s not just the labels that are curious. It’s definitely the rest of us. Keep going, Chance.