Chance the Rapper chews gum like he wants to draw blood, like he's trying to quit something. It's a small thing to notice, when he's herky-jerking, "Thriller"-clapping, jumping jack-ing and gliding like Jamiroquai, but it's something that's there, or at least something to focus on.
He possesses this intensity, this quality – and it really is a quality – that makes him scrunch his chipmunk face into a fist, only to open it up like it's a magic trick. His energy is addictive, persuasive: he tells everyone to put their right hand on their hip, their left in the air, to whirlybird around while screaming "ZAN ZAN ZAN ZAN" – I am surrounded by teapots on the fritz. If his music is inspired by LSD, his stage performance is sponsored by meth, sugar and Citgo. Keeping up with Chance – as a lucky few did last night, at Hot97's monthly "Who's Next?" concert at New York's SOBs – is like watching someone's fingers on the piano, each and every one of them at once.
Chance is well-practiced, confident and 20 years old. He seems like he just popped out of the Mattel box, ready to go. Few are born that way. Kendrick Lamar had to go through a name, a record deal and a bunch of styles to end up where he is today; Drake was terrible onstage until people respected him enough to not care.
Watching Chance plow through "Juice," "Smoke Again" and "Fuck You Talm Bout," transforming them from quiet rumblings into full-fledged riots, I couldn't help thinking of Andrew Noz's write-up on Biggie, for The Fader: "Big entered the game as a fully-formed great rapper, with seemingly no blemishes on his track record. For most of his peers – the greats – there exists a paper trail, however thin, of their evolution – an awkward guest appearance, a sloppy demo, an under-polished underground album – but there are very few Biggie verses on tape anywhere that are anything less than perfectly structured and delivered."
It's not a perfect comparison – who knows how history will ultimately view Chance's mostly-overlooked first mixtape, 10 Day, recorded during a high school suspension? – but it's something to get excited about. At SOBs, representatives from every record label seemed to hang from the ceiling; RCA bought a reported 25 seats on the side of the stage.
Five songs in, Chance moves to the middle of the stage, chin down, eyes up. "My name is Chance the Rapper." It's a loud room. There's a flatscreen by the bar, and game seven is on. It's crowded over there, which seems like a weird moment of people having their cake and watching someone else eat it. It's hard to hear Chance, here, now. When he raps, he channels demons, kicking out the inside of his throat, turning quiet songs into locker room chants. When he speaks, he mumbles.
"Me doing my first headlining show in New York, it's a pretty big deal," he says. There's a lot of applause for that line, a supportive crowd. "I dropped . . . " – raucous cheers; someone scored – ". . . my second mixtape two months ago. I need y'all to make a lot of noise for me right now. How many of y'all love y'all mama?" A lot of clapping, a lot of yelling, as Chance starts "Hey Ma."
It can't be overemphasized what Chance means to Chicago, even – or especially – for outsiders. Not to make him out to be Batman (he's not; wrong voice), but the city needed light. Kids become statistics every day. Last year, Chief Keef responded to one particular 18-year-old's death with a tweet that read, "hahahahahhahahahahahahahaahhAAHAHAHAHA." While King L has the money dance and Sasha GoHard can smile wide, that's overshadowed by gun talk and drug tales.
Chance the Rapper has colors in his songs, life in his vocals, and he exudes this sense of hope, of steadiness and normalcy. (That's not to say he's oblivious to the Chicago around him. On "Acid Rap," he says, "I trip to make the fall shorter." Oof.)
The show ends on a strange note. He pogo-hops and catapults to French Montana's far-underrated "Ain't Worried About Nothin" and a song by Katie Got Bandz, then thrashes around with a droopy-eyed Travie McCoy for a minute or so. Suddenly, it's over – poof – a blur racing downstairs to the backstage area, trailed soon by A$AP Yams and others. For tonight, he's gone, a comet moving too quickly to be fully captured.
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