3.5 stars (out of 4)
Chance the Rapper opens “Acid Rap,” his second, self-released mix tape, with a boast: “Even better than I was the last time, baby.” It’s hard to argue with him.
As a teen MC, Chancellor Bennett turned his 10-day suspension from Jones College Prep School in the South Loop into the central riff on his 2012 mix-tape, “10 Day.” Here was the kid next door who professed his love of mom, weed and soul-dipped “dusties” soul tunes, a precocious rapper with big ambitions who ignored the violent clichés coursing through Chicago drill music.
Whereas “10 Day” burst with callow exuberance, “Acid Rap” is a deeper, more emotionally complex work. Chance spreads the wealth, welcoming peers and inspirations from Twista to BJ the Chicago Kid into his party. But this is his show, a springboard for his versatility as an MC, thinker, improviser and surrealist. Little wonder he’s being pursued by a gaggle of record-company suitors, following in the foot-steps of recent Chicago major-label recruits such as Chief Keef, King Louie, Lil Durk, YP, Lil Reese and Young Chop.
“Good Ass Intro” essentially reprises the smart-aleck, non-threatening strut of the debut. That engaging persona reappears on the affable “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” which riffs on his addiction to cigarettes over the sound of smoker’s cough percussion, and “Juice,” a hilarious parody of Cab Calloway-style Cotton Club jive, complete with a shoutout to Keef and a giggly putdown of Kobe Bryant’s basketball team. Later, over the guitar riff from Betty Wright’s 1971 soul hit “Clean-Up Woman,” he cackles, “This is my favorite song, I just don’t know the words.”
If only for the obvious fun he’s having making up rhymes and poking fun at himself, Chance would be a gem of an entertainer. But tracks such as “Pusha Man” suggest that description is far too limiting. The track is a multi-part, perspective-jumping hip-hop suite in the lineage of Kendrick Lamar’s “The Art of Peer Pressure.” It shifts from the shallow bravado of the dime-store playground drug dealer into something a good deal more disturbing: the pusher as paranoid drifter, “blunt on my lips … gun on my hip,” his life disintegrating with an out-of-tune music box as a soundtrack. Chance’s ability to shift perspective within the narrative makes for riveting theater. Along the way, he picks at the scab of Chicago’s abysmally high murder rate among young African-Americans and the absurdity of a culture in which it’s “easier to find a gun than a … parking spot.”
“It just got warm out … everybody dies in the summer,” he notes with a shiver in his voice.
“Lost” is another three-minute slice of unexpected introspection, woozy and vulnerable all at once – “when I’m ugly, hug me” – that gives the last word to his better half. Noname Gypsy delivers a scene-stealing response: “I wanna stop seeing my psychiatrist… Tragic actress on a movie with no screen, the only time he loves me is naked in my dreams.”
Chance takes a long walk on the title song, free-associating images from his past, reminiscing about what he was, and dreaming about what he could be. He misses the “diagonal grilled cheeses” in his mother’s kitchen and the open-mike nights at local clubs that gave him his start. These casual, everyday details give way to even more deeply ingrained convictions about family and spirituality. “I still be asking God to show his face,” he softly mutters.
“Everything’s Good” brings the mix-tape full circle, and it presents Chance not as a kid burning to vanquish his rivals by cracking jokes, but as a would-be adult striving to overcome his flaws. “I used to be worse than worthless,” he admits without a hint of self-pity, but “I’m better than I was the last time.” Over a trumpet fanfare and a New Orleans parade-drum beat, he heads toward the next challenge.
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