What a difference a year makes. At the end of 2012, Chancellor Bennett — aka Chance the Rapper — was regarded as a promising MC, part of a legion of young Chicago hip-hop artists who were attracting national attention and, in some cases, major-label deals.
Last spring, the South Side artist released his second self-released mix tape, "Acid Rap" (available for free at chanceraps.com), and everything changed. The promise shown on his precocious 2012 debut, "10 Day," had expanded to include a wider range of music — everything from psychedelia to old-school soul and Cotton Club R&B — and daring, multi-part arrangements such as the epic "Pusha Man," with its shifting perspective on crime, punishment and fear.
"It just got warm out … everybody dies in the summer," Chance raps, a shiver in his voice as he offers one of the most chilling commentaries yet on Chicago's unconscionable street violence. He brings out details of his personal life — the "diagonal grilled cheeses" he enjoyed in his mother's kitchen, the insecurities of being young and in love ("when I'm ugly, hug me") — as he chronicles the transition from youth to adulthood (the album was released two weeks after Chance turned 20 last April). In the song "Acid Rain," the narrator takes a long walk in which he drifts back to his past, muses on what he might become and laments the carnage he's seen descend on his friends and neighbors. "And I still be asking God to show his face," he says, barely above a whisper.
The novelistic level of detail, the willingness to open himself up and explore his insecurities, and the humanism that courses through the melodies make "Acid Rap" one of the most accomplished hip-hop albums in a Chicago tradition built by artists such as Common, Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West and Rhymefest.
Chance was slotted into a small side stage at Lollapalooza in August, a booking made before "Acid Rap" was released. But when Chance arrived on stage, his performance was nearly drowned out by the sheer size of the audience — thousands of fans engulfed him, and so the performance became more of a celebration of sudden stardom then a convincing portrayal of his artistry. But by the time he returned to his hometown to play two sold-out concerts at the Riviera sandwiched around Thanksgiving, he had upped the ante with a full band and a brilliantly executed show, in which he included one of his inspirations (Twista) and one of his peers (Vic Mensa).
A national television appearance followed, and then a windfall of year-end top 10 list mentions for "Acid Rap." For Chance, the achievements were tempered by his sense that his work was just beginning. "I used to be worse than worthless," he says as the album winds to a close, but "I'm better than I was the last time."