Chance the Rapper claims to have recorded a substantial part of his Acid Rap mixtape while on acid. Rapping on hallucinogens? Sounds like a recipe for disaster: some neurologically melted-down rapper uttering verses that strike him as the most profoundly insightful ever while the rest of the world wonders what on earth he’s on about.
But Chance, 21, has proved otherwise. When Acid Rap came last year as a free download it won acclaim as one of the year’s best releases. The rapper, real name Chancelor Bennett, was praised as the most exciting MC to come from Chicago since Kanye West, with whom he shares not only a taste for bold music but also a background in the city’s black professional classes: Chance’s father is an ex-Barack Obama aide who currently works as deputy chief of staff for Chicago’s mayor.
His show at the Forum, played before an animated audience, was messy but vibrant. A backing quartet, the Social Experiment, turned his songs into an unpredictable squall of soul, rock, R&B and jazz, all underpinned by the booming bass of modern hip-hop. Chance circled the stage singing and rapping abrasively, like a spitter of the old school transported to a strange new psychedelic dimension.
“Here’s a tab of acid for your ear,” he rapped in “Brain Cells” before uttering something about the “labyrinth of Pan’s Lab” being “adamantly here”. Er, right. But the feared torrent of nonsense was checked. “Everybody’s Something” found him tackling the tricky subject of intra-racial skin-shade prejudice (“Dark is the new black” read his T-shirt). “Paranoia” was a dreamlike jazzy number about gang violence in Chicago’s South Side, where it’s “easier to find a gun than a parking spot”. Two shrieking trumpet solos gave it a nightmarish edge.
“I’m trying to figure out what direction to go in,” he said at one point. The atmosphere was improvisatory, with the guitarist switching from psychedelic rock licks to blues and jazz at will and the keyboardist going from warm organ tones to stripped-down electronics. But the Social Experiment were as much a revue band as a jam band, laying down structured rhythms for the rapper to follow, which he did: there was nothing sloppy about his performance.
Even his decision to light up a cigarette (or “cigarette”) at the end had a degree of calculation: the last song was called “Chain Smoker”.