Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on important albums from the past and what they mean to us now.
Anniversary Records: Chance the Rapper Acid Rap
by Chad Jewett
Late last year, a then-twenty year-old Chance the Rapper closed out a mid-December episode of the newly-resurrected Arsenio Hall Show with a performance of “Chain Smoker,” the jubilant peak to his breakthrough sophomore album, Acid Rap. The performance was a gleeful synecdoche of everything that has made Acid Rap one of the best albums of 2013, and everything that makes us lucky to have a performer as joyfully expansive and boundlessly gifted as Chance. Built around a four-piece ensemble of trumpet, organ, synthesizers, and drums, the sheer ebullience of “Chain Smoker” blossomed into something even more starkly radiant, a celebration song bursting at the seams as Chance swung through giddy falsettos and David Ruffin-esque gritted tenors with so much energy that at certain points it seemed like the Chicago native hardly knew what to do with himself. At times his grins were euphoric, his movements ecstatic. During one chorus Chance simply backs away from the mic to smile, at another moment in the performance, with no where to go but up, he simply leaps in place, embodying the skyward trajectory of “Chain Smoker,” its pop-soul extroversion, its melody-soaked desire to break-through and embrace.
What that performance literalized is the overwhelming connective power of Acid Rap, the sheer warmth of spirit and yearning for completion that made the album such a compelling, joyful, perhaps even exhausting masterpiece. Not only was Chance’s performance of “Chain Smoker” remarkably physical, a re-statement of purpose that filled the song with a whole new charge of beaming electricity, but its exultation felt like a manifesto, a final completion of what Acid Rap is ultimately about – exhaustive, elated humanism. During the same episode Chance the Rapper sat down with Arsenio Hall to discuss his ideas for a Rap Union to support undervalued artists; elsewhere he has frequently made the point that the impetus for Acid Rap and its availability as a free download was a paradigm shift, a new way of looking at the way art enters, and stays in, our lives.
Ultimately, not only is Acid Rap a remarkably generous album in the social sense – with the exception of an unfortunate and wholly uncharacteristic word-choice on “Favorite Song,” the album is marked by an overpowering level of empathy; Acid Rap’s defining quality is its search for understanding – it’s an incredibly generous gesture in the literal sense, a landmark of committed craftsmanship that the Chicago emcee/songwriter/producer simply gave away, as if wanting to complete the cycle established by the album’s chief values of transparency and thoughtfulness.
A year later, the album is still breathtaking. Beginning with the swirling harmonies, swelling church organs, and Technicolor horns of “Good Ass Intro,” Acid Rap announces itself as a kaleidoscopic synthesis of pop expressionism and complex self-interrogation. As the track’s major-key soul bounce bursts into a merry-go-round of stuttering kick drums, handclaps, effervescent piano jabs, and curling, pointillist bass, Chance blends anxiety and celebration, essentially summing up the entirety of the album in a single line: “Balancing on sporadicity and fucking pure joy.” Indeed, Acid Rap is almost purely steeped in both – in sudden bursts of expression and waves of elation. The album’s brightest moments so frequently arrive as near epiphanies because they often arc upward from sudden depths and remarkable interludes of affecting rumination.
The introspection that runs through the album, like an emotional triptych, is frequently deep and reflective, dosed with insecurity, fear, mourning, doubt. The reprise of “Pusha Man,” which explores the (now improving) conditions of inner-city Chicago (for a while the only thing journalists felt like talking about in connection with Chance the Rapper) is especially heartbreaking. At one point, Chance places a metaphor for the city’s chilling trauma in the fear of nice weather, since such clear days are often accompanied by increased violence. There is even greater complication in the fact that this narrative follows earlier passages of bright, rubbery R&B in the song’s first half that veil anxiety with good humor and wide-open tunefulness, only hinting at the song’s later devastations.
Elsewhere, “Cocoa Butter Kisses” offers a poignant meditation on interpersonal distance, blending explorations of various chemical dependencies with the tolls they take on relationships. The irony lies in cycles of muted pains and stifled bonds, each feeding the other. Addictions cause distance, which exacerbates addiction. It is in these moments where Chance the Rapper reveals a lyrical attention to detail as exact as his ultra-precise musical aesthetic, allowing a short missive about dosing his eyes with Visine before visiting his grandmother to stand in for the song’s deeply mixed feelings about drugs and their varied reverberations. There’s a complexity to “Cocoa Butter Kisses” that is at once comforting and troubling, as nostalgic memories of orange Nickelodeon cassette tapes pull both earnest smiles and a vague grief; as the song’s plush, gauzy soul bed feels both welcoming and cloudily distant. “Cocoa Butter Kisses” details warmly held objects as if through a haze, literalizing nostalgia as the “pain of returning.” It’s the albums quietest moment as well its most emotionally complex, committed to a sort of sadness that wavers in the back of your headphones like an uncanny aftertaste.
Acid Rap remains a standout out for the way it blends studio-as-instrument avant-garde and ultra-direct pop statements into a gloriously affecting olio. Like several of rap’s recent masterpieces (I’m thinking of good kid, m.A.A.d city, or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) the album operates as a set of ultra-compelling vignettes, each song operating on multiple levels as pop songs, thematic explorations (love, self-esteem, artistic creation, death, loneliness, joy – each get their moment(s)), and forward-thinking fugues of experimentation. It means that a song like “NaNa” (produced by brandUn DeShay) can be both a slinky, bass-lead bit of 90’s boom-bap classicism and a collage-shaped sonic space full of off-beat samples, effects-drenched drums, random clouds of organ, buzzing synth, and sparkling studio effects. “Juice” is effortlessly catchy, built around swinging barrel-house piano and spartan bass-snare stomps, which all almost bely the song’s odd stops-and-starts, its unconventional call-and-response hook, its phasing percussion, its dense rhythmic feints, the gorgeous falsetto melodies that come and go in the songs outer spaces.
Similarly complex in its sonics “Lost” is dotted with airy woodwinds, winding loops of spectral guitar, and wide passages of free-floating harmony, adding up to an instrumental of near post-rock impressionism. Like a less claustrophobic relative to good kid, Acid Rap does its best to make its most ultra-modernist moments double as its most infectious, making the process of understanding its aural complexities a rite of passage whereby, like all the albums you end up loving, the joy of understanding Chance’s album doubles as the joy of discovery. Different parts, bars, ideas, effects float to the surface each time, like dots of color in an abstract painting, till you know the album like the streets in your hometown, with that same charmed affection.
If that admixture of sonic adventurousness and type-A pop connection defines the sound of Acid Rap, then a similar attention to a combined plumbing of difficult emotions and expression of humane depths defines its narrative through-line. “Everybody’s Something,” the album’s stirring centerpiece, serves as both a poignant expression of empathy – “Everybody’s somebody’s everything / Nobody’s nothing” – and a complex interweaving of soul-searching, socio-political critique, free-association wordplay, critical race theory, and confession. The song’s beat is a warm blanket of boom-bap drums, antique organ, and night-owl harmonies, pausing during the hooks as if to underline Chance’s assurances, his emphasis on our own individual value. The song is a marvel for the ways in which it balances all of these concerns, the care with which it refracts the many anxieties and cares floating through Chance’s verses as it clarifies an undercurrent of shared experience.
“Everybody’s Something” is so moving because its equilibrium of specificity and universality is bracingly unique. The subtle, epiphanic thrill of “Everybody’s Something” carries over into the short, richly-constructed soul of “Interlude (That’s Love)”, a perpetually lifting fugue of deep organ, ultra-bright piano, and gnarled blues guitar. A love song of startling directness, Chance the Rapper’s complex, elastic lyricism is here devoted to overflowing imagism: “What’s better than frolicking, follies, fallin’ in mud / Rolling in green pastures, wandering, following love / What’s better than eating is feeding your fam / What’s better than meetings is missing meetings to meet with your fam.” Placed alongside “Everybody’s Something” and the similarly tender, bleary slow-core of “Lost” (capped by a deeply moving verse from Noname Gyspy who explores questions of anxiety and identity in the context of imperfect relationships), “Interlude” completes a mid-album trilogy of deep emotional resonance, a suite of differently-angled love songs poised between the anxiety of the album’s opening third and the measured brightness of its denouement.
“Favorite Song” crystalizes a major sub-plot of Acid Rap, its prizing of creation-as-apotheosis, art-as-epiphany, and indeed, Chance the Rapper and producer Nate Fox quite cannily build an undeniable pop symphony for a song about the un-deniability of great pop music. “Favorite Song” literalizes itself; the song’s chiming, sunbursting guitars (sampled from the equally effervescent “Clean Up Woman” by Betty Wright) and shimmering beat — all bubbling programming and rallying hand-claps – are more or less custom-built to embody the chemistry of modern pop. The whole thing is a synapse-hammering confection, gluing Chance’s most connective, sing-song verses and his most effortlessly infectious chorus (“It’s my jam, it’s my jam, it’s my jam, it’s my jam / I’m ‘bout that jam, I’m ‘bout that jam, I’m ‘bout that jam, I’m ‘bout that jam”) to the aural equivalent of mid-June.
The album ostensibly ends with “Chain Smoker,” a final expansive gesture after the deep-cut cloudiness of “NaNa” and “Smoke Again,” and the early-70s soul hangover of “Acid Rain” (whose echo-pocked percussion cleverly recalls the spacey congas of Marvin Gaye’s similarly contemplative “What’s Goin’ On” and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”). As the penultimate song to an album that is most recognizably about mapping the interiority and ethos of Chance the Rapper, “Chain Smoker” arrives as an exuberant culmination. The track, once again produced by Nate Fox, who seems almost instinctually adept at matching Chance’s blend of rumination and jubilant expressionism, is a glimmering patchwork of exultant soul melodies, dancing programming, expressive voice samples, and warm, glowing electric piano. Lithe synth melodies come and go, lacing over verses; parts speed up, slow down, matching Chance’s contagious excitability; keyboards brim over choruses in fizzy radiance, a bright sonic landscape for the rapper’s final whirlwind of autobiography, replete with self-descriptors like “Brain broken” and “Frank Ocean listening” (imagine a Chance the Rapper/Frank Ocean collaboration. Wow.). Like “Favorite Song,” “Chain Smoker” is also taken with the notion of music’s total power. As much as the song is about Chance, it’s also about what great art can do, what it makes possible; at one point the young emcee is overcome with his own creation: “This part right here, right now, right here, this part my shit / I play this so loud in the car I forget to park my whip.” The song’s verses are delivered in a half-sung breeziness that constitutes Chance’s finest melody and his most warmly major-key moment.
Watching him perform the song on Arsenio, his band reconstructing the dense, energetic soundscape of the recording, you get the sense that Chance the Rapper might be wholly unique. Fearlessly expansive, restlessly creative, blending strains of Motown-era pop, golden-era 70s soul, neon-lit 80s New Wave and 90s hip-hop classicism into something that feels simultaneously reminiscent of and wholly unlike any of those things, you begin to realize that Chance’s talent might not be simply revelatory — it might be seismic. Acid Rap is polychromatic in a way that is almost entirely unique – it’s not only that nothing sounds like it; it’s that I can’t think of any records that even operate under the same philosophy, that are so energetically devoted to new territories, to incandescent overflow, to the euphoria of synthesized pop-connectivity (excepting only Kanye West, a fellow Chicagoan and an influence to whom Chance nodded by name-checking “Good Ass Job,” once one of West’s working titles). Watching Chance the Rapper and his band, dubbed The Social Experiment, dig into the sparkling surface of “Chain Smoker” you got the sense that the young Chicago artist had about fifty directions he could go in, and none of them were wrong. On Acid Rap he found a way to start off on every path at once. So what’s next?