Chance the Rapper came out to a hero’s homecoming welcome Wednesday at the Riviera, radiating energy that matched the roar coming at him from 2,500 voices. The 20-year-old South Side rapper was so hyped he resembled a speeded-up video of a street-corner kid break-dancing.
He broke off some of his most potent songs after a single verse, smashing together “Brain Cells,” “NaNa” and a snippet of “Pusha Man” in between shuffle steps and pogo jumps. But then the show settled down, and something else became apparent – the artistry behind the fresh-faced MC with the ubiquitous baseball cap and the T-shirt proclaiming, “Lead Don’t Follow.”
Only 18 months ago, Chancellor Bennett self-released his first mix tape, “10 Day,” so titled because that’s how long he was suspended during his senior year at Jones College Prep High School for a minor drug violation. It announced the arrival of a refreshingly down-to-earth persona, a teenager who made the act of rhyming sound like the most fun anyone could possibly have.
But nothing on it quite prepared anyone for this year’s follow-up mix tape, “Acid Rap,” a leap in scope and subject matter that separated Chance from a pack of promising Chicago hip-hop artists. It earned him a slot at Lollapalooza in August on one of the smaller stages, which was overrun by thousands of fans and made the set something of a city celebration rather than a proper showcase for his skills.
That’s why this week’s two sold-out concerts at the Riviera had plenty riding on them. This was to be Chance’s opportunity to make a statement on his home turf, to demonstrate that his stage presentation had caught up with his skill in the studio.
At Lollapalooza and at an earlier showcase at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, Chance appeared wired to the point of losing control, as if racing time and his own sense of confidence about his ability to hold the audience’s attention. That carried over to his solo opening Wednesday, but then he brought on an eight-member band (which included several members of the defunct Kids These Days and keyboardist-producer Peter Cottontale) and set his sights higher.
Horns brought a ragged but soulful New Orleans street vibe to the reassuring, hand-waving chorus of “Everybody’s Something.” Chance even tried to croon a bit, and that carried over to the vulnerable plea in “Lost”: “Hug me when I’m ugly.” He drifted into the second half of his “Pusha Man” suite, “Paranoia,” in which the drug dealer’s cold sweat was mirrored by fluttering trumpets, flickering lights, and spastic bursts of drumming. Then the perspective shifted to a kid, perhaps much like Chance himself, in a gang-infested South Side neighborhood: “Down here it's easier to find a gun than it is to find a … parking spot.”
A new song punched some light through the darkness, with the evangelical zeal of gospel. “Devil’s a liar,” Chance spat. A more subdued prayer followed: a shaky version of Coldplay’s “Fix You,” so fragile it sounded like it would break. For a rapper who once didn’t know how to slow down when he hit the stage, it was an effective change of pace, bringing the room to a hush as he whispered the final words.
There was one last celebration with high school friend Vic Mensa and ‘90s hitmaker Twista on “Cocoa Butter Kisses.” Here were two generations of Chicago hip-hop blasting rhymes in unison, and once again Chance the Rapper was dancing like he had something to prove.
Chance the Rapper set list Wednesday at the Riviera:
1 Good Ass Intro
2 Brain Cells
4 Pusha Man
5 Everybody's Something