Artists of 2014: Chance The Rapper

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“She’s super-cute. I want you to put that in there in case she reads this!” Chance The Rapper laughs as he remembers one of the most surreal moments he had in 2013, a year that wasn’t short on surreal moments. He was playing a show in LA in November when Madonna came to check him out and hang out backstage. “It was cool,” he says, gathering his composure. “Madonna’s like Michael Jackson and Prince. She’s in that category. Meeting her was exactly how you’d imagine it would be. She’s flirty too, and sexy A F. Do you guys say ‘A F’? It means ‘as fuck’. She was sexy as fuck.”

Madonna isn’t the only person who’s ear Chance caught last year. He turned 20 on April 16th 2013 and then, two weeks later, Chancellor Bennett dropped his second mixtape, ‘Acid Rap’, as a free download. A wildly inventive mix of soul, acid jazz and his idiosyncratic rhymes, it wasn’t long before it had been downloaded 300,000 times. It even ended up making the Billboard charts because so many people were buying bootlegs of it by mistake. The success of ‘Acid Rap’ opened the door for him to travel the world, touring America and coming to Europe twice. He did the whole thing as a fully independent artist, typically just travelling as a trio with DJ Oreo and Pat, his manager, who everybody obviously calls Pat The Manager.

The excitement caused by ‘Acid Rap’ tells us a lot about where hip-hop is heading in 2014, and what Chance’s place in it is. Everyone’s been looking for people to challenge rap’s entrenched norms, and last year it was Kendrick Lamar who made the leap from an acclaimed mixtape to seriously challenging for a place among the pantheon of great rappers. Chance has the potential to go even further. He’s different. Chance has Kendrick’s knack for turning a finely-tuned phrase, but he also has Eminem’s delivery and Kanye’s ear for production – oh, and he’s funny as hell too.

When ‘Acid Rap’ dropped it passed the acid test: people wanted in to the world that Chance was creating. From that moment on, his life changed forever. What followed was eight months of solid touring, and now, back at his parents’ house in Chicago, he finally has a minute to sit and reflect on what’s happened. “I’ve seen some dope shit,” he tells me. “Before this year I hadn’t really been anywhere other than a few States in America. Americans don’t travel that much. I mean, some people do. White people do, but not everybody. This year I went to Europe twice, once with Eminem and once with Macklemore. I’ve seen a lot of shit, but I’m burning my body up. I had this belief that I had this unlimited amount of energy, but that shit ain’t true. I need a break!”

Chance’s New Year’s resolutions are to take things a little easier. He’s moving into a new place in LA with his mates – except in Chance’s world, those mates include last year’s Mercury Prize winner James Blake. “I’ve never lived anywhere else other than this house, the one I grew up in in Chicago,” he explains. “I’m leaving home finally, so it will probably be like being on vacation for the first couple of months. Then I’ll start figuring out what kind of music I’ll be making.”

Blake and Chance have become friends, collaborators and co-conspirators since first meeting at SXSW last year, and their plan for 2014 is simply to start working together and see who else the wind blows in: “We’re probably going to make a bunch of shit every day,” Chance explains. “I don’t know what we’re going to do with it. We might give some shit to other artists. We’re getting a compound, so we figure we might invite people round to the crib and make some music in the house, then kick them out and bring in some new people.”

Right now, though, there’s something more important to Chance than locking himself in a studio to finish an album, and that’s living his life. He spent so long touring ‘Acid Rap’ that it left him philosophical about the way art has swallowed up his young life whole. “This kid told me that: ‘Art is the articulation of existence’,” he says thoughtfully, then pauses as waits for this to sink in. “It’s like a regurgitation of what the world is and what living is. Art is like… did you ever see a slug move? And it leaves that filmy shit behind? That’s what art is. Even when you’re surrounded by art, and all these people are coming to my concerts to see me rap, you’ve got to remember that existence is the most beautiful thing. I want to go and see some concerts. I want to go surfboarding. Real life is awesome. I’m eventually going to go back to making my art and doing all that shit, but I want to just exist for a second. I want to clear my head.”

It’s no surprise that Chance feels the need to take some time out at the start of the year. What do you do next after all your dreams have come true? “It’s been very overwhelming,” he says. “I grew up trying to convince my parents that I was a rapper, or trying to convince my friends that I was a rapper, and no matter how talent shows I played, it was never too real. Now, every time I sell out a show or I’m in a magazine that people can hold and touch, it gets more real to everyone else. I don’t really know what my endgame is anymore.”

Chance’s options remain wide open to him because he still hasn’t signed any sort of record deal. This must make him easily the most famous unsigned artist on the planet, but it also means he doesn’t have the buffer of having a record label around him for support. “When I started touring it was just me, Pat The Manager and DJ Oreo going from country to country and city to city,” he explains. “Now it’s 18 people and all of them are on salary. It’s becoming more and more of a tangible thing. Everybody wants a picture for their friend, or wants to get their friend into the show, or their homie that makes music wants to get my email. It’s not the end of the world.”

Every so often his thoughts return to taking time off: “I’m having hella fun, I just know that I’ve got to get away. I need like two months to just sit down on the beach and throw rocks into the water… and fuck some bitches! And do some drugs! Or not do some drugs! Just do whatever the fuck I want. I feel like now everybody’s making me do something everyday, and I need some space so I can make a way hotter next project.”

The multi-million dollar question, at this point, is whether his life would become instantly easier if he signed a deal or if that would mean signing away his individuality. When I ask him whether he thinks his problems would go away if he signed, he doesn’t miss a beat: “I think about it all the time, man.” He pauses, still not sure of the answer. “I can think of a million different things that would have been easier if I had that money. Do you know how many of my friends have signed? Like… everybody. Everybody I know has some sort of deal, whether it’s a record deal, a publishing deal or a distribution deal. Motherfuckers got money. I ain’t got no money. All the money I make comes straight from rapping, plus a little merch money.”

On the other hand, he doesn’t believe he’d be even close to where he’s got himself today if he were tied to a conventional deal. “Do you think any label would have let me go on a headlining tour across the nation, playing 2,000-capacity rooms, without dropping an album or even releasing the name of an album?” he asks. “I was supposed to sign last year, in December. I had a deal on the table that I was so ready to go for. I was playing them ‘Acid Rap’ and they were talking about putting it out as an EP, but the truth is nobody would have heard it! They would have been telling me to do featured appearances with other artists, making me work on this and that and definitely not letting me tour! I’d have been in the studio every day until the album was done.”

The point is, Chance is reinventing being a rapper just like ‘Acid Rap’ reinvented the art of the mixtape. “Everything that I’m doing hasn’t been done before! Everything we do, we’re the architects of it. We’re the new architects. We’re what motherfuckers are going to start modeling their shit after, but it hasn’t been done before. That’s what makes it so scary.”

He’s got a lot of options ahead of him. He could release a major label debut of ‘pop smashs’. He could release a record of weird experimental acid jazz on an indie. As he puts it: “I’ve been anti-label for so long, but I could sign in 2014! Or I might not sign in 2014! I might quit making music in 2014 and go to college! Who fucking knows?.”

If he chooses right, he’s gonna be a seriously big deal in 2014. Chance The Rapper is gonna be big A F.

Cover story for NME, 11 January 2014.

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