Acid Rap: Levity and gravity when we need both

It’s been a rough few weeks for everyone. Besides the ongoing protests against police brutality and racism, not to mention further killing of black people at the hands of police there’s also a pandemic not yet in the rearview, not to mention a massive oil spill in Russia to cap it all off. I can’t personally remember a time where there has been such a confluence of apocalyptic-like events (although this has all been roiling under the surface for some time). Now, music has always been a method of escape in times of turmoil, temporarily melting problems and conflicts away in exchange for a brief period of respite. But sometimes, it feels a bit silly to listen to something that’s completely removed from reality, all bright and shiny when everything outside is so sombre. I want a break from some of the goings-on, sure, but while one eye looks skyward I’d like the other fixated on the ground.

There’s certainly lots of music out there that fits this bill in various ways, but there’s one in particular that stands out as something for This Moment, one that I’ve listening to on repeat recently even though it came out seven years ago. It’s psychedelic and elastic, full of vibrant production and clever turns of phrase; it’s dumb and adolescent, with come-ons and taunts and jokes that feel beamed from a high school hallway; it’s also meditative and melancholy, tackling Big Ideas through anecdotes and aphorisms, haunted by ghosts both figurative and literal. It’s star-making music made by someone who was just on the cusp of becoming a star. It’s Acid Rap, the mixtape released on April 30th, 2013 by Chicago phenom Chance the Rapper.

Chance the Rapper (aka Chancellor Bennett) was already a rising star in his native Chicago prior to the release of Acid Rap. His previous mixtape, 10 Day, made the rounds in that city and was especially popular amongst the high school set (unsurprisingly, as Chance released the mixtape while suspended from high school). He got placed on some Rappers to Watch lists, he got a bit of buzz from trendsetting publications, but I don’t think anyone expected the leap he would make when he released Acid Rap.

The first thing you’ll notice when you put on the album is Chance’s voice – it’s a nasally bleat, existing somewhere on the spectrum between Lil Wayne and, like, Tom DeLonge. He’s able to stretch and manipulate it in many ways, moving from staccato bursts of rap to freewheeling singing to conversational sprechgesang, all in the same song or sometimes even the same verse. He punctuates every song with his trademark ad-lib, which I’d spell as “IGH” although “AYE” or “ITE” are equally acceptable, literally a throat-tightening blurt of noise. It’s a lot to take in at first. But if you’re like me and actively enjoy the voice, or even if you can just get used to it, there’s a ton to love about Acid Rap. Chance’s adoration of language is evident all across the tape; he fires out words in all directions, masterfully mixing drug vernacular with encyclopaedic verbiage and current event references (Matt Lauer pre-evidence he trapped women in his office, Trayvon Martin). Not since peak-era Lil Wayne have we seen a rapper push the English language in all directions like this — wordplay, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and internal rhyming are all used to great effect. The production is just as all-encompassing, drawing huge inspiration from soul-sample era Kanye and the canned brass of Just Blaze but also incorporating the regional styles of drill and footwork music as well as jazz, psych, and pop sheen.

From the opening chant of ‘and we back,’ it’s clear that Chance (and his many producers and collaborators, including BJ the Chicago Kid, Brandun DeShay, Noname, Nate Fox and Vic Mensa) has lots to say. Adding the syncopated drums of Chicago juke to choral backing vocals and horn blurts, opener “Good Ass Intro” sees Chance rapid-firing streams of consciousness on drugs (“them squares just made me looser, that wax just made me lazy”), fame and riches (“get a watch with all that glitters, come in clutters, different colors”), and, hilariously, nominative determinism (“call me Chancellor the Rapper, please say ‘the rapper’”). It’s a kaleidoscopic introduction to the album and the personality of Chance.

As I alluded to above, Acid Rap contains multitudes of different emotions, a safari through one man’s drugged-out mind (Chance has said in interviews that LSD helped make the album). A lot of the songs here are lighthearted and fun, especially when guests decide to drop in. On “Favorite Song,” Childish Gambino stops by to deliver a high-stepping verse about discovering a song you love, complete with Gambino-approved cringe lyrics like “two-step, white dude’s Harlem Shake.” Chance, meanwhile, leans back for some acrobatic drug and alcohol talk (“fuck all the faculty, tobacco packing acrobat”). Leaving aside the embarrassing slur Chance utters in the first verse, it’s breezy fun all around. Elsewhere, Action Bronson brings his Brooklyn boom-bap to shout stupid brags (“with my hair slicked back, I look like Rick Pitino”) and talk about his two favourite things, women and food, on the chilled-out “NaNa.” On “Smoke Again” Chance himself finds a zone sing-rapping about junk food and (what else) drugs while marching band snares and horns lend the song some grandeur. Ab-Soul shows up to give a truly awful, yet hilarious, verse replete with dumbass sex jokes and sports metaphors. Meanwhile, in the middle of it all, as little more than a throwaway line, Chance delivers one of the best pieces of wordplay I’ve heard in a rap song: “lean all on a square, that’s a fuckin’ rhombus.” These songs sound like a bunch of kids shooting the shit with each other in a basement, except these kids are really smart and excellent at rapping. It’s dumb, pure fun.

But where the album really picks up is when Chance gets up close and personal. The batch of love songs on the album are universally tender, clear-eyed, and beautiful. Chance has an uncanny ability to cut the shit-talking and speak plain truths at the exact moment they provide maximum emotional heft. “Lost” is a gorgeous duet about drugs as romantic fuel, bookended by a crushingly plainspoken verse on co-dependence and self-medication from Noname that acts as a harsh comedown from Chance’s lovesick metaphors. “Cocoa Butter Kisses” is rose-tinted nostalgia tempered by the constant reminder that to grow up is to disobey and grow apart (“put visine inside my eyes so my grandma will fuckin’ hug me”) — plus Twista, rapping fast! “Everything’s Good (Good Ass Outro)” is a big thank-you to his parents for making what he does possible, complete with a tear-jerking phone call from his father that was apparently fully unscripted. And finally, “Chain Smoker,” though not exactly a love song, is an obvious album highlight and a showcase of all of Chance’s talents: singing, rapping, drug references, music references, scatting, unrelenting positivity. “Chain Smoker” is a cipher of Chance’s modus operandi — be kind, be happy, have fun, and love each other.

But happiness cannot last forever, and this Chance knows firsthand. “Acid Rain” is a devastating recollection of Chance’s experience with death — his friend Rodney Kyles Jr. was stabbed on the street in Chicago while Chance was with him, and Chance is publicly grappling with those demons. It’s also a rundown of the myriad stresses in Chance’s life that are otherwise hidden from his songs: loss of innocence (“I miss my diagonal grilled cheeses / and back when Mike Jackson was still Jesus”), risking failure (“Mom thinks I should go back to school”), and the danger of drugs and fame (“All this medicine in me, hoping I don’t get sick / making all this money, hoping I don’t get rich”). It’s earnest and unshowy and soul-bearing in stark contrast to the goofiness elsewhere on the album.

Most stark, though, is “Paranoia.” On the Spotify album (which also doesn’t include the jaunty “Juice” due to sample issues), Paranoia is its own track. But on the original version of Acid Rap that I heard on DatPiff, “Paranoia” started after twenty full seconds of complete silence following “Pusha Man,” with no track listing or indication of what was coming. I understand the reasoning for changing that, but listening to “Paranoia” for the first time, hearing those opening shimmery synth hits under those circumstances, gave it gravity that complemented and heightened the song’s themes.

“Paranoia” is a study in contrasts — the contrast between ennui and the altering effects of drugs, between the safety of your home and the uncaring outside, and, most of all, between the beauty of the world and the danger in it. “It just got warm out, that’s the shit I been warned ‘bout / I hope that it storm in the morning, I hope that it’s pouring out,” Chance intones. His reasoning becomes clear right after — the with the warm weather come the murders, and with the murders comes no response from the outside world. “They deserted us here, where the fuck is Matt Lauer at?,” he asks incredulously. “I know you scared, you should ask us if we scared too.” Chance is acutely aware of the pain hidden just under the surface, in his neighbourhood in Chicago but also in so many communities of colour, or underserved or low-income communities all over the continent. In a time where this pain has rightfully bubbled to the surface, “Paranoia” feels like a warning, a missive on why being cast aside and forgotten is a root for all of the anger we’re seeing.

Acid Rap runs the gamut from teenage silliness to adult worries, and handles it all with grace and ease. It’s searching, warm, funny, and poignant at a time when we could all use a bit of that in our lives. Chancellor Bennett, by all accounts, lives the ideals found in his albums in his real life and is someone you should definitely support in all his artistic endeavours. Go check out Acid Rap.

Postscript

I’ve been a fan of country-rap far before Lil Nas X took the Billboard Hot 100 by storm last year (Deliverance will be getting its moment to shine here soon) so I was delighted when I recently found RMR (late, I know), a ski-masked, gold-fronted enigma who sounds, uh, way more like the singer from Rascal Flatts than you’d expect, just with more range and fewer finger guns (less? finger guns are not countable actions as much as a lifestyle, in my opinion). That comparison isn’t random – RMR’s first single is “Rascal” which flips Rascal Flatts’ #1 piano-driven hit “Bless the Broken Road” into an anthem about making it big.

The insane music video for ‘Rascal’ which you should watch immediately

The song’s melody hues so closely to the original song that I would almost consider it a parody, or at least a quasi-cover in the vein of Jojo’s “Marvin’s Room.” The original’s milquetoast lovesong tropes are exchanged for a whiplash inducing mix of self-help sloganeering (“I came up and so could you”), kiss-offs to romances ended (“Bitches that broke my heart / they became hoes I scam” — perhaps not the most elegant line, but sung so beautifully it’s bounced around my head endlessly ever since), and anti-police sentiment (recorded and released prior to these protests, as well) — RMR vocalizing while singing “Fuck 12, fuck 12” is one of the most discordant things I’ve heard in a while, and genuinely funny. But the lyrics aren’t really the draw for RMR — the keys on this song interplaying with his silken voice are what keeps me coming back. RMR has other songs too, the Timbaland assisted ‘I’m Not Over You’ and the Future & Lil Baby remixed ‘Dealer,’ both good tracks cut from the same country trap cloth as ‘Rascal.’ But ‘Rascal’ is what I’ve come back to probably 50 times in the last week — it’s an endlessly catchy slice of country-R&B, and I’m excited to see what RMR does next.

writin about music mostly | contact me alex.ml.toth@gmail.com

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