Hip-hop has reached peak ego. Kanye West’s onstage meltdowns during his US tour last week mark the tipping point, boos ringing out as he declared his support for Donald Trump amid rambling speeches, with one show curtailed after three songs.
On the night he cancelled a concert in Los Angeles, a prelude to the cancellation of the entire tour, a younger act from West’s home city of Chicago pointed a way forward. Chance the Rapper, 23, may revere Kanye as a mentor (the pair have spoken of making an album together) but he does not share the older man’s rampant narcissism. The thousands chanting along to every word of his verses in a sold-out Brixton Academy underlined the shift in emphasis.
Chance, real name Chancellor Bennett, was backed by drummer Greg Landfair Jr, trumpeter Nico Segal and keyboardist Peter Cottontale; the four call themselves the Social Experiment. In contrast to the focus on the individual star at most rap gigs, here the performance had an organic, collaborative quality.
Cottontale’s organ licks and Segal’s trumpet solos provided a mellow, jazzy backdrop for lyrics that went from addressing Chicago’s gun violence (“Angels”) to jokey nonsense rhymes (“Brain Cells”). Landfair Jr’s drumming and laptop-generated beats triggered by Cottontale came to the fore in livelier tracks such as “All Night” or “Juke Jam”, beefed up tonight from sultry R&B to party tune.
Despite a gruff edge to his voice, Chance’s rapping flowed easily, varying in volume with the swells and ebbs of his bandmates’ work. An anti-Trump speech — his father is a Chicago Democrat who once worked for Barack Obama — ended with him claiming music as vital sustenance in black US culture. The sentiment was made literal by the gospel influences in his own songs, a strain of religiosity neatly worked into the secular rap setting.
“Sunday Candy” was a warm, soulful tribute to family churchgoing. “Finish Line/Drown” had the sampled backing voices of a gospel choir, while the final number, “Blessings”, found him entering testifying mode with arms raised, chanting about being transported to the promised land. Post-peak-ego rap is about summoning a greater force, not becoming it.