A Light In The Void: Chance’s Social Experiment

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“We ain’t supposed to be doing this yet.”  Chance The Rapper laughs as he stands on stage between two massive speakers in front of a sold out crowd at the El Ray Theater in Los Angeles.  Two years out of High School, Chance is headlining his own national tour, complete with a live band and a light show.  He’s not supposed to be here yet, even Chance is baffled by his own success.  His meteoric rise would be disorienting for anyone.  Chance was virtually a nobody in 2013.  He didn’t come out of nowhere; his mixtape #10Day from last year garnered some press due to all the attention on Chicago and he opened for Childish Gambino’s tour back when people still knew Donald Glover from Community rather than his rap career.  But at the start of this year, Chance was still a random internet rapper who was riding the coattails of the new focus on Chi City.  And thanks to his rocket to success this year, Chance The Rapper gets the #hungryhippopotamus Rookie Of The Year award.

Chance first blew up earlier in the year thanks to an outstanding lead single and some key guest verses.  By the time Acid Rap finally arrived, the hype was so huge that Chicago hip hop website Fake Shore Drive crashed because so many people tried to download it.  It has become so popular that even though it’s a free mixtape, bootleggers have sold enough fake copies in record stores that it has actually ended up on the Billboard Charts.  Acid Rap immediately made an impact on the rap game even without any radio play.  Chance earned cosigns from superstar rappers and R&B crooners.  He graduated from opening for Mac Miller on the Space Migration Tour to palling around in Europe with Eminem, Kendrick, and Macklemore.  Now he’s just wrapped up his first headlining tour “The Social Experiment” to put a beautiful cap on an outstanding year.

When I saw Chance open on the Space Migration Tour, his age showed.  He was drowned out by his DJ, didn’t finish his songs, pandered to the crowd, and even closed by playing a Drake song.  It was disappointing to say the least.  But on the Social Experiment Tour, Chance has fixed nearly all of these mistakes and delivered one of the best live shows of the year.  The concert was a painstaking ode to his album, imbuing it with all the energy and thoughtfulness that made Acid Rap such a remarkable tape.  Rather than centralizing his set around himself, Chance has brought in collaborators to flesh out the startling range of his work.  Led by ex-Kid These Days trumpeter Nico Segal, his backing band careened from taut funk to psychedelic jams to wide eyed stadium rock.  “Everybody’s Somebody,” one of the hardest songs off Acid Rap was turned into a slow soulful exploration, with Nico noodling his trumpet as if it was an electric guitar.  Openers DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn, two footwork producers from Chicago, showcased their city’s sound and dance before the show and during the raucous finale.  Even the crowd got involved, chiming in a gospel hum that Chance recorded and then looped for his song with Lil Wayne, “You Song.”  He followed that with a completely heartfelt, unironic cover of Coldplay’s “Fix You,” with the lyrics shown on stage so everyone could sing along.  The different sounds and genres make Chance and Acid Rap a very millennial record, but the concert showed how instead of simplifying them down into one monogenre, Chance is layering his sound so it’s bursting with ideas.  In the year of the minimalistic void, Chance remains bright, shining with musical optimism.

The end of the year shows how far Chance has traveled.  He went into the studio with Justin Bieber and the two released a song that went to number one on iTunes.  He followed that up with his first nationally televised appearance on Arsenio Hall.  There’s no doubt about it.  Chance has the charisma and the talent, hopefully he can find a pathway to even greater success without sacrificing his own creativity and ambition.  In 2014, everyone is gonna start tripping.

The Last Living Rock Star: The Yeezus Tour

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Lou Reed died this last October.  The founder of The Velvet Underground is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, challenging all musical conventions of pop music and basically created the alternative genre. We’re at an age where classic rock practically seems like antiquity, with more obituaries coming every year.  But Lou Reed’s death seemed particularly poignant.  Although I’ve never truly cared for him, his death sent me into a strange existential crisis.  Lou Reed was a rock star in every sense of the word.  He was rude and confrontational, enigmatic and charismatic.  He challenged gender and societal norms, rewrote the rock and pop songbook and redefined what it meant to be cool.  Rock stars don’t look like that anymore.  Rock stars don’t act like that anymore.  Yet a week after Reed’s death, I watched Kanye West climb a mountain, fight off a demon, get blessed by Jesus and proclaim himself a God.  Yeezus is a rock star and maybe the country’s last one.

Yeezus arrived with seismic impact.  2013 was the year of the high profile album, with every major rap and pop star dropping off their record in the most elaborate way possible.  But Yeezus remained distinct from the masses, an iconoclastic statement of power in an age where shocking means dancing at the VMAs.  More than any other album, rap or otherwise, Yeezus had the strongest impact upon first listen.  You can read about my reaction here. What struck me then was its “minimalistic” Rick Rubin infused production and sexual rage, combining on the centerpiece “Blood On The Leaves.”  Yeezus seemed like an album about his impending fatherhood, a last chance romp through his Freudian Id before returning to himself.  As incredible as it was, a lot of the album seemed designed for an immediate “wtf” factor rather than multiple listens.  The Yeezus Tour was an opportunity to see how well this work has aged and if it still holds as much merit as critics gave it when it first dropped.

You already know several things about the tour.  He brought out Jesus and there was a giant mountain on stage.  It was spectacle worthy of a man who calls himself a genius and the next Steve Jobs (or Walt Disney…or Andy Warhol).  The tour was half concert/half performance art, divided into five sections that allowed Kanye to take the audience on the journey that was Yeezus.  Fighting, Rising, Falling, Searching, Finding.  The show was focused on late-period Kanye, serving as a funereal procession for the old Ye.  So long to the the backpack wearing college dropout of yore.  Mr. West is now a volcanic controversial lightning rod, creating epic stadium mosaics that are meant to purge you rather than please you.  I was stunned by how well the sparse arrangements of Yeezus worked with the maximalist production of his recent work.  “On Sight” and “Send It Up” meshed perfectly with big hits like “Mercy” and “Power.”

Going into the concert, I wasn’t sure what the emphasis was going to be on Yeezus (other than the name).  While it was adored by critics, Yeezus was Ye’s least successful album.  But not only did he play every song on the album, the rest of his work was pulled into the same black whole.  “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” turned from underdog anthem to snarling resentment, “Runaway” changed from iconic apology to self-righteousness.  The recesses of pain from 808 & Heartbreaks laid bare next to the sexual howl of Yeezus.  

But the strangest, most in your face moment of the new Kanye, was when he stripped away his Daft Punk sampling stadium smash “Stronger” of all the anthemic value it has as a hit.  Suddenly “now that that don’t kill me, can only make me stronger” became an epitaph rather than a hook.  It came towards the end of the concert, after “Coldest Winter” had covered the mountain in snow and “Blood On The Leaves” created a volcanic eruption.  He had segued into what seemed to be an hour rant/monologue in the middle of “Runaway.”  And when he launched into “Stronger,” my favorite moment of the night might have been the crowd’s huge cheer at finally hearing a Top 40 friendly song and then that cheer slowly, awkwardly, dying as Kanye proceeded to ground that song into the dirt.  As soon as they like you, make them unlike you.  

For all the complaints about the mechanical kinks of the tour, I found no problem with it.  The scenes were majestic.  The mountain turned into an active volcano right when the TNGHT riff hit in “Blood On The Leaves,” which is the only possible way you could visualize such an astounding musical moment.  And after “Stronger,” the mountain split in twain to reveal Jesus.  Now Kanye wore a mask for the whole show, changing it every so often, and that bugged a lot of people.  Who knew his expressions were so important to his music?  How do we know it’s even him?  So when Jesus came out, ‘Ye took off his mask, revealed he was still human and ended the show with a sequence of hits: “Jesus Walks,” “Flashing Lights,” “All Of The Lights,” “Good Life,” and the Yeezus closer “Bound 2.”  Even though the ending was superb, the mask and the theatricality didn’t bug me.  The show was so unmistakably Kanye, from his vocal inflection, his impassioned screams, to his jerky dance moves.  It was impressive how he kept up the energy for such a long show.  He gave his all to every song and even bicycle kicked across the stage during “Cold.”  So the ending was a sweet catharsis from the anger and pain of the whole concert.  It re-contextualized his earlier work as idyllic and something to be earned rather than the starting point.  Hopefully it made everyone at that concert think a bit harder about Mr. West.

The Yeezus Tour proved a lot about the staying power of Kanye’s new album, but the meaning has changed a bit.  Kanye has blitzed through one of the most intriguing press runs on the 21st century, making bloated claims and always seeming on the verge of a meltdown.  But to me it seems like he’s broken through the matrix.  ‘Ye has been making some great points and his erratic nature has allowed people to marginalize all the political and racial statements that he’s made, things that people are afraid to say or even think in the Obama/Trayvon era.  When Lou Reed died, one of the things that was most mourned was his fuck off attitude.  Chuck Klosterman wrote “you were allowed to think whatever you wanted about who [Lou Reed] was as a person…but there was never any argument over the veracity of his genius.”  Sound familiar?  How does one man become a beloved rock star and the other an egocentric asshole?  Now, close to the end of the year, Yeezus feels like a gigantic middle finger at everyone who tries to put Kanye in a box, musically, socially, or culturally.  After the concert, someone I went to the show with said he liked Kanye’s earlier stuff more, that it was “real hip hop.”  Even though the show seemed to be an entire mission statement against thoughts like that, maybe he’s right.  Yeezy has changed the rules so many times that those definitions don’t even matter anymore.  But one thing is true, Kanye West is a rock star in a land filled with sweet pop stars.  And we should cherish that quality rather than tear it down.