Chance The Rapper: The Man Behind The Year’s Best Hip-Hop Album

Chance The Rapper has been praised by Kanye and made one of 2016’s most acclaimed albums. And he still isn’t signed to a label. Jordan Bassett dissects an unconventional star

When he appeared on the NME cover back in January 2014, we called Chicago’s Chance The Rapper “the most famous unsigned artist on the planet”. Over two years on, 23-year-old Chancelor Bennett’s DIY attitude hasn’t budged an inch. His stunning third mixtape ‘Coloring Book’ was self-released, like its predecessors, and features a starry cast that includes Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Justin Bieber. Here’s how Chance The Rapper made the year’s best hip-hop record…

He out-Kanye’d Kanye

Wake up, Mr West – Chance The Rapper is nipping at your heels. Kanye bigged up his latest album ‘The Life Of Pablo’ as “a gospel album with a whole lot of cursing on it”. In truth, the record’s uplifting gospel elements were window-dressing to a dark, paranoid work that dealt with self-obsession and the claustrophobia of fame. In fact, its opening track ‘Ultralight Beam’, sampling the traditional gospel song ‘This Little Light Of Mine’, was the only one that lived up to the gospel billing. Chance featured as that track’s star turn, rapping, “This is my part, nobody else speak”.

Chance took those themes and ran with them on ‘Coloring Book’, effectively making the album that Kanye had claimed ‘Pablo’ to be. His sunny collaboration with Kanye ‘All We Got’ (which also features the Chicago Children’s Choir) opens the record. Ye recently tweeted, “My brother Chance!!! Thank you for letting me work on this masterpiece. One of my favorite people.” Kanye isn’t known for his bashfulness. When he defers to you, it’s safe to say you’ve got it made.

He’s playing by his own rules…

Like London’s similarly independent Skepta and Jme, Chance isn’t interested in the traditional inner workings of the music industry. He almost signed to a label in 2013, but backed out because he realised they were unlikely to allow him to play 2,000-capacity shows with no official album – only mixtapes – to his name.

Last year he told The Fader magazine, “I’ve had a lot of advice from people [in the music 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… We’re all curious.’” Chance, it’s your move.

…And defying expectations

He started out typically enough, handing out mixtapes while at school in Chicago. But when 2013’s ‘Acid Rap’, a jazzy, soulful record that served as a counterpoint to the aggro drill sound his fellow Chicagoan Chief Keef was leading, saw him poised to become a star, Chance retreated into a group scenario as a member of hip-hop/soul/jazz four-piece The Social Experiment.

Their 2015 album ‘Surf’ was downloaded over 600,00 times in a week on iTunes. True, much of this hype was centred around Chance’s involvement, but he was always keen to emphasise the egalitarian nature of the project. The point being, Chance The Rapper does things his own way and he couldn’t care less about being a celebrity.

‘Coloring Book’ is a brilliant album that makes you feel good

On ‘Blessings (Reprise)’, Chance raps, “I speak of wondrous unfamiliar lessons from childhood / Make you remember how to smile good.” Forget acting like a badass; Chance The Rapper wants to help you reconnect with the wonder of your early years, when every day felt like an adventure. A list of the nostalgic references he runs through: Harry Potter, Dragon Ball Z, Space Jam, The Lion King and roller-skating. Don’t let adulthood corrupt you, Chance is saying, because the dreams you had as a kid are still attainable.

He’s after Kendrick Lamar’s crown

This is not to detract from Kendrick’s 2015 all-time rap masterpiece ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, a searing, jazz-infused sucker-punch that addresses inequality, poverty and institutionalised racism. It influenced David Bowie’s final album ‘Blackstar’ and set the bar for modern hip-hop – the genre doesn’t have to be politicised but Lamar’s music certainly sounds like an implicit challenge to the likes of Atlanta rap outfit Migos, whose materialistic rhymes have few hidden depths. And Chance’s ‘Coloring Book’ belongs in the same category as ‘…Butterfly’.

On his previous mixtapes ‘10 Day’ and ‘Acid Rap’, Chance cast himself as a lovably goofy stoner suspended from school for smoking weed (a genuine anecdote from his adolescence). Here, though, he embraces religion and spirituality. He’s tweeted that the track ‘Same Drugs’ “isn’t about drugs”. Instead, when he raps, “We don’t do the same drugs no more”, he’s talking about accessing a higher plain through “happy thoughts” and becoming as close to life as possible, living fully in each moment. When it comes to self-actualisation, Chance and Lamar are singing from the same hymn sheet.