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Chance The Rapper Isn't the Underdog Anymore

His debut album 'The Big Day' is massive and messy, but the Chicago standard-bearer is still having fun.
Chicago, US
July 29, 2019, 6:48pm

Few artists have been easier to root for than Chance The Rapper. His first two mixtapes, 2012’s 10 Day and 2013’s Acid Rap, positioned him as a local Chicago kid done good. He’s a once-in-a-generation talent who has reached a level of success without any major label backing, and until now, he's almost always released his music for free. Watching his ascent from a scrappy teen rapper to a full-fledged artist and celebrity has been especially rewarding given his obvious charm and heart. He’s been running an ongoing “Open Mike” for highschoolers, donated millions to public schools, given out coats to the homeless, and stayed involved in city politics. When 2016’s Coloring Book earned him a historic three Grammys, it was a citywide celebration. But what happens when one of the most promising artists is no longer the underdog?


Navigating his successes in both his career and personal life is the tension at the heart of The Big Day, Chance’s first official studio album. (Though his three previous full-lengths are fully-formed, the difference is he’s actually selling this one.) It’s an ambitious, sprawling 22-track LP that tries to grapple with everything that comes after the blessings keep falling in your lap. For the 26-year-old artist born Chancelor Bennett, the last few years have likely been the best of his life. Following his Grammy wins, he starred in a feature-length film, hosted and performed on Saturday Night Live, landed several high profile TV commercials for Doritos and Kit-Kat, released an excellent batch of songs in 2018, and bought the defunct media company Chicagoist (his full plans for the site are still TBD). Most importantly, he married his daughter’s mother, with whom he has another child on the way. According to Forbes, he made $21.5 million last year, placing him among the highest-paid hip-hop musicians of 2018. He’s come a long way from literally passing out burned CDs of his mixtapes in downtown Chicago.

Chance's fame now requires the once-very public and accessible artist to travel with security. He’s also had a sometimes contentious relationship with the press, mentioning conflicts with local outlets on his 2018 single “I Might Need Security,” “I missed a Crain's interview, they tried leaking my addy / I donate to the schools next, they call me a deadbeat daddy / The Sun-Times gettin' that Rauner business.” He also experienced his first wave of critical pushback when a 2017 Spin investigation revealed his team threatened to cease working with MTV after it ran a somewhat negative article ( MTV News promptly yanked the essay from their site). This year, he also apologized for working with R. Kelly in an appearance on the Lifetime expose series Surviving R. Kelly. Chance’s values and charity work around Chicago are commendable but they don’t exempt him from criticism as a public figure.

The Big Day kicks off on a note of defiance with “All Day Long.” It’s a one of Bennett’s signature “and we back” project openers that’s confident and breezy, with chorus that finds guest John Legend crooning, “We can't be out here pleasin' everybody. We know who we are.” One of the album’s strongest tracks, it’s an invitation to his fans and friends who have been there since day one. The next song “Do You Remember” is a nostalgic follow-up to one of his best songs “Summer Friends,” and features Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard yearningly singing about youthful times out in the sun. The highs continue on the funky “Eternal” where Smino guests with a silky and soulful verse complimenting Chance’s raspy bars.

On The Big Day, Chance tackles his rise and success with gratitude and vulnerability. Though not as overtly spiritual as Coloring Book there are liberal references to God. But really, this is his "Wife Guy" LP. He spends much of the album being thankful for their relationship and bond, from the raw lows of “We Go High” to the joyful, footwork-inspired “I Found A Good One (Single No More),” it’s a send up of the hard-work and responsibility that comes with commitment. While the subject matter may not be the most relatable thing to his younger, nonreligious, and single fans, it’s delivered with unequivocal and infectious feeling. There’s still the same joy throughout as “Sunday Candy,” an ode to Chance’s grandma that remains one of his best songs.

The album is also massive: it’s 22 tracks and almost 80 minutes that are filled with marquee collaborations featuring artists like Nicki Minaj and Justin Vernon. There are many welcome moments like Randy Newman’s guest appearance, the James Taylor flip by producer Lido on “Get A Bag,” and especially the features from Minaj (“Slide Around,” “Zanies & Fools”), Gucci Mane (“Big Fish”), and Megan Thee Stallion (“Handsome”). Chance’s wordplay is at its peak, with impressive lines like “Used to have obsession with the 27 club / Now I'm turning 27, wanna make it to the 2070 club / Put the 27s down, Lord, give me a clean lung” on “Do You Remember.”

But like Chance’s peers Future, Drake, Migos, and several more who have been stuffing as many songs into LPs and ending up with bloated work, The Big Day also suffers from its exceedingly long runtime. While it’s chock-full of strong songs, there's a sense that it could’ve been condensed to add cohesion. Tracks like club banger “Hot Shower” evoke Valee’s flow on “Womp Womp” too closely while the title track features a disorienting profanity-laced breakdown that doesn’t quite land. Though Chance should not be expected to occupy the same headspace as any of his previous efforts, both Acid Rap and Coloring Book feel more like self-contained worlds than what’s billed as his first official “owbum.”

Given the LP’s July release was announced well before the bulk of its recording even occurred, it’s not hard to imagine more time and a more streamlined tracklist might have made it a more seamless listening experience. However, Chance’s production team The Social Experiment, aka Peter Cottontale, Nico Segal, Nate Fox, and Greg “Stix” Landfair shine throughout. They prove why they’re the millennial Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as they collaborate with other producers like Timbaland, Pi’erre Bourne, and many more. Their arrangements and melodic sensibilities are ebullient, malleable, and match Chance’s adventurous musical moods. Songs like “I Got You (Always And Forever)” find Ari Lennox sounding like a classic sample in a tribute to ‘90s and early 2000s hip-hop, “Ballin’ Flossing” is a rave-up that evokes Chicago House, while the Knox Fortune-assisted “Let’s Go On The Run” is so fun it’s basically Chance’s “Steal My Sunshine.”

The Big Day feels more like a portrait of an artist in transition than anything else. Since Coloring Book, Chance’s life has changed so dramatically that there’s no way he’d return to material that sounds like Acid Rap. He’s no longer the “chain-smoking, name-dropping” long shot; he’s achieved more than he could have imagined and dove headfirst into being a husband and father. But it still feels like he’s growing. The Big Day feels like the beginning of a new chapter. But it probably won’t be the release that launches him to the mainstream echelons of Drake and his mentor Kanye West. That’s fine, because he’s built his entire career on subverting expectations.