On a fall evening in 2013, I walked into Neon Deli in Middletown, CT, which is my favorite deli in Middletown, CT named after a John Mayer song.
Fran–the generous, boisterous, Eagles fan owner–was gone for the evening, leaving the counter to three Wesleyan University undergrads, as Fran usually does when he’s gone for the evening. I was the lone customer, and ordered a quesadilla from a tall boy with a patchy beard, who looked strikingly like Abraham Lincoln, if Abraham Lincoln was 20 and showed up high to work. Then I waited.
Without adult supervision, Abe, aka Tall-Beardy, took to the iPod dock, and played music that Fran probably doesn’t sanction during the day–you know, “the type of shit you play at Ambercrombie when your work is finished/that your mom won’t play in the car cause it’s got cursing in it.” A smooth cigarette croon emerged from the speakers, delivering words, rhymes, and turns of phrase in rapid succession over a bouncing, beachfront beat. It flowed irreverently free, with lyrics spinning off the track, but grounded by ease of expression. It was authentically energetic, demanding to be heard; I was immediately enticed, despite my lack of familiarity with the voice on the track.
That voice, however, was innately familiar to those behind the counter, and the whole moment brought into sharp focus how out of touch I’d become since finishing my own undergrad, how much more out of touch I’ll get in the years to come.
“Excuse me,” I said, skittishly. “Who is this?”
One of them turned, and said, “Go die in a hole, old man,” or something like that.
But the real answer: Chance, acid rapper, soccer hacky sacker, cocky khaki jacket jacker…Iraqi rocket launcher, shake that laffy taffy, jolly raunchy rapper.
The album: Acid Rap.
The song: “Favorite Song.” (Which it was.)
I don’t profess to be an expert in hip-hop, beyond the fact that I am the self-proclaimed Drake of English teachers: since my DJ roommate moved out in 2008, the only rap albums I’ve known from start to finish are Graduation, Tha Carter III, and Take Care. (But I know those motherfuckers cold.) Mostly everything else in my hip-hop purview is Top 40, or crossovers, or throwbacks–whatever catches my ear, really, or whatever I pick up through osmosis.
In every sense, I am hip-hop’s causal fan, because there is no level of fandom more casual than happening upon mixtapes in delis next to small, Connecticut liberal arts colleges.
Acidrap fell into my lap, but struck a chord.
The avenue into the album is that it’s catchy in excess, with hooks that stick in your ear and won’t leave you alone. For proof of that, we need not go any further than Neon Deli’s soundtrack on a fall evening in 2013, and my Chance 101 course.
On “Favorite Song,” Chance is at his Chance-iest, where hearing him rap is like watching Paul Pierce play basketball: the style is herky-jerky, with stops and starts and changes of pace. But in the same breath, it’s as smooth and technical as anything else out there, with this sort of “how does he do that?” effortlessness. It’s Chance’s calling card, what makes him unique, and allows him to produce a track (elevated by the entrance of Childish Gambino) that has pop’s infectiousness with a mixtape’s swagger: it’s the type of song that plays at a party, and if you don’t know it, you feel like you’re supposed to.
That’s the same note the album opens on, with “Good Ass Intro,” which is as aptly named as “Favorite Song”: it is, simply put, a good ass intro, with a soulful, choral opening, juxtaposed by Chance’s lightspeed-wit, and a beat that builds to a fever pitch. The verse spins into Chance using ”fuck” with an erratic poet’s diversity, and throughout Acidrap, he appears to play with rap’s freedom from political correctness, making a caricature of the way the genre’s buzzwords are often used. That instantly appealing catchiness drives Acid Rap forward, allows it to be played without interruption, its vibe flowing through songs like “Pusha Man” (Gambino’s first appearance), “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” “Juice,” “Na, Na” and “Chain Smoker.” The then-21-year-old Chance (alongside primary producer Nate Fox) has an acumen that should escape his age, but that he displays total control over: he takes a soulful approach to hip-hop, pulling on funk and gospel and jazz, all wrapped in the timeless sound of his native Chicago (“I got the Chicago blues/we invented rock before the Stones got through). He plays with genres, puts his own stamp on them, and hints at songs–”Sunday Candy,” “Somewhere in Paradise”–that are yet to come.
But while Acidrap welcomes you in with its hits, its energy, and its pure listenability, the album boasts substance beyond the expectation of a strained-voiced stoner. Below the surface, Chance mixes Kid Cudi’s vulnerability with Kanye’s charisma and left-of-center approach. The results are potent, and Acid Rap plays out as a skillfully constructed whole, balancing jams with a freewheeling intellect. It’s the work of someone with musical gifts and a nonconformist’s perspective that “did a ton of drugs and did better than all [his] Alma mater.”
Hip-hop has always been its own counter-culture, and Acid Rap is part of that progression. But if the 60’s featured hip-hop, Chance would’ve been at the heart of San Francisco, in the Haight-Ashbury before it was played out, spinning Acid Rap as the soundtrack to the summer of 1967.
Of course, part of that is the album’s titular reference to LSD, a drug that Chance has called “an epiphany drug, a self-realization drug,” a drug that forces one to ask themself big questions–and Acid Rap is someone asking themself big questions. So yes, because of his open fondness for recreationally drug use, I can picture Chance at a Human Be-In, and I imagine he drops acid and talks about “seeing the music,” and I’m sure he would’ve been welcome in Jefferson Airplane’s living room-turned-commune. And if I wasn’t bad at drugs, I would let Chance be my spirit guide through a mind-expanding chemical journey. But I am bad at drugs, which is well-established, so Chance and I will just have to go to Neon Deli for quesadillas, my treat.
Moreover, though, Acid Rap pulls on the best parts of ‘60’s San Francisco, the most lasting effects of that counterculture: the album has an indie, DIY ethos–never the sellout–and Chance had often talked about creative control, above all else. With that artistic independence, he gets at self-investigation, invests in social-justice, and lines the collection with an affect of love.
“Cocoa Butter Kisses” is Chance’s instant listenability meeting his precariousness: the song covers the maturation process of a man in his early 20’s, its sing-a-long hook–“Cigarettes on cigarettes, my momma thinks I stink/I got burn hole in hoodies, all my homies think it’s dank/I miss my cocoa butter kisses”–setting the stage for an investigation into the loss of innocence, punctuated by Chance’s signature irreverence and honesty: “Used to like orange cassette tapes with Timmy, Tommy, and Chuckie/And Chuck E. Cheese’s pizza, Jesus pieces, sing Jesus love me/Put Visine inside my eyes so my grandma will fucking hug me.” Chance often strips away bravado in this way, and is poignant and human in a way that hip-hop has often gets away from. He’s accessible, admitting that he “misses triangle grilled cheeses, back when Mike Jackson was still Jesus,” and owns a lack of self-assurance, most fully on “Acid Rain,” where he admits to seeing demons in hallways, having words only mean controversy, and asking God to show his face. It’s what makes Chance three-dimensional, real, as he doesn’t shy from questions about self or faith. On “Everybody’s Something,” he asks, “Why God’s phone die every time I call on Him?/If his son had a Twitter, wonder if I would follow him?” There’s spirituality here–about the drug, or the journey, or religious faith–and the questions are refreshing when they’re asked at different pitches.
On that same track, Chance does self-realize, presenting personal value in the simplest of terms: that “everybody’s somebody, nobody’s nothing.” It’s an oddly beautiful sentiment, which he repeats autobiographically, talk-singing, “I know somebody, somebody love my ass/’cause they help me beat my demon’s ass.” It’s engaging, set over a laid back beat that leads into the organ and climbing piano of “Interlude (That’s Love),” where Chance most forwardly enters into the flower child generation, raising the banner of love, and placing a premium on that above all else: “What’s better than tripping is falling in love/what’s better than Letterman, Leno, Fallon, and all the above/What’s better than popping bottle trying to ball in the club…is dialing up your darling just for calling her up/there ain’t nothing better than falling in love.”
That sense permeates the album, and that feeling of love and positivity stretches outward, through “Chain Smoker” and “Everything’s Good (Good Ass Outro).”
But Chance refuses to live in a fool’s paradise, as some of his hippy forefathers have been accused of. Rather, he balances that optimism with the way things are, “yelling ‘Fuck Fox News!’” and “Making all this money, hoping [he] don’t get rich/cause n****s still getting bodied for Foams.”
On “Paranoia,” he gives a heartbreaking impression of inner-city Chicago, sounding like a helpless man, out of sadness, on the outro: “Everybody dies in the summer/wanna say ya goodbyes, tell them while it’s spring/I heard everybody’s dying in the summer, so pray to God for a little more spring.” Still, there’s defiance in him, and one of Acid Rap’s most memorable verses is when Chance favors anger over animaton:
They merking kids, they murder kids here
Why you think they don’t talk about it? They deserted us here
Where the fuck is Matt Lauer at? Somebody get Katie Couric in here
Probably scared of all the refugees, look like we had a fucking hurricane here
They be shooting whether it’s dark or not, I mean the days is pretty dark a lot
Down here it’s easier to find a gun than it is to find a fucking parking spot
No love for the opposition, specifically a cop position,
Cause they’ve never been in our position
Getting violations for the nation, correlating, you dry snitchin’.
“Paranoia” is only the third track on the album, but the earliest point where the expectation of what Acid Rap will be is defied. Chance plays with that a lot, and his ability to zig and zag, to balance hits with love songs and narratives and truth and optimism, is one of his great strengths as an artist. The album is an indication that this is the beginning, the point he will grow out of, rather than his pinnacle, or a static identity.
Thus, Acid Rap is a triumph, something worthy of infinite pride–if you’re Chance, that is.
If you’re me (self-proclaimed Drake of English teacher, made to feel foolish at deli’s) it’s a crushing blow: when I was 21, I could scarcely craft a college essay, nevermind something as succinct and well-rounded as Acid Rap. But we all have our journeys: some of us ascend to hip-hop stardom, others are burdened by student loan and left wishing they “did a ton of drugs and did better than all [their] Alma Mater.”
Billy is a feature writer and content workhorse, fluent in English. His career highlights include a Twitter favorite from Matt Nathanson, and sitting a few rows behind John Kerry’s hair at a Bruce Springsteen concert. Recently, Billy has played with the idea of getting a dog, but realized that might be too much responsibility. Check out more from Billy on Twitter and at billyrosenbeck.com.