"Don't Forget the Happy Thoughts": On Seeing Chance the Rapper, Surrounded By America

He's never been more optimistic and that's never been more important.
September 6, 2016, 7:57pm

Photo via Getty Images for Anheuser-Busch

“Hi, my name is Chance the Rapper, and I’m here to play you some songs off of my mixtape, Acid Rap.” Standing in the middle of a sparse stage populated only by a pared-down Social Experiment, that black snapback with a giant “3” stitched onto it pulled down over his forehead, Chance the Rapper is doing a bit for 50,000 people.

This little dash of charming false modesty, three songs into the penultimate set of a major festival weekend at Philadelphia’s Made in America, is what we expect from Chance now. He’s the guy who freaks out when Beyoncé sneaks up on him at the VMAs; he wants his ex-girlfriend to find another guy, as long as he loves her. The young rapper, who was told by critics (despite his rebukes) that he was the good guy to Cheef Keef’s bad, has taken the kernels of optimism he used to build into his tapes and stretched them out into an all-encompassing philosophy: hope, joy, and, yeah, God.

Which, at Made in America, stretches itself further into something defiant. In the same week that America melts down over a football quarterback taking a knee during “The Star Spangled Banner,” in the middle of a park where everyone (except this British writer) wears at least one piece of clothing with that banner dyed onto it, Chance’s optimism seems not just novel but defiant. For an hour or so, he transcends the terrifying chaos of America Right Now.

Photo via Getty Images for Anheuser-Busch

Take opener “Everybody’s Something,” the first in a string of those promised Acid Rap cuts. From the moment that the beat drops in, he trips across the stage, exaggerating every ecstatic expression, kicking his knees up in time with each syncopated fill, flashing his arms out at right angles every time Donnie Trumpet’s horn flies up into the beat. Straight away, he talks to God in public; or, at least, he wonders why He won’t pick up Chance’s calls.

His verses are delivered with the same nasal, half-paranoid lucidity that they are on Acid Rap, too, making sure the fear and frustration of aiming guns at cops and “yelling fuck Fox News” doesn’t get lost. But the chorus is sweeter and bolder than it was on the tape, bolstered by Greg Landfair Jr’s open fills. Chance swings his arms from side to side above his head, pouts, and furrows his brow.

There’s the same bubbling joy through his whole opening sequence. “Favorite Song” and “Chain Smoker” are both delivered with an impossible amount of energy, Chance throwing his throat into every build-up and then cutting straight back to the rich melodies when the chorus opens up. He sings “Happy Birthday” to Beyoncé to the tune of “Happy Birthday Lisa” from The Simpsons. Pictures of Chance, Meredith Graves, and Beyoncé move on the screen behind him, blending into each other like a late-90s teen movie montage.

Photo via Getty Images for Anheuser-Busch

His whole set tonight reinforces this optimism at every opportunity. He rolls out that verse from “Ultralight Beam,” rising to a rapturous groan as it rises. The tension and release behind “I’m just having fun with it” is as flawless here as on The Life of Pablo.

By the time he gets to Coloring Book—a dozen tracks in—it’s clear that he’s not going to run through tracks like “Same Drugs,” that he’s not going to bring Jay Electronica out for “How Great.” The former is too wistful and pensive, the latter too heartbreaking. “Great is its faithfulness,” Craig Jenkins wrote for Noisey after the album’s release, “but Coloring Book isn’t all hosannas.”

So here, save for the quiet nostalgia of “Summer Friends,” Chance goes for spiritual hedonism. “All We Got” has the quotably braggadocious holiness—“I do not talk to the serpent / That’s a holistic discernment”—and “Blessings” drips out of the speakers with all the warmth that he talked it through on record.

In the end, it comes down to the moments within those moments. He brings out Lil Yachty for “Mixtape” and watches the King of the Teens run around the stage, red dreads bouncing with him, yelping “LIL BOAT” at the end of most bars. Yachty is the Rapper Who’s Having The Most Fun Right Now, the analogue of Chance, his less spiritually-inclined, less wizened junior. Yachty is funny, colorful, and enjoying everything all the time. It’s what we need right now, or at least what we think we need, this reassurance not only that things will be alright for us—that “Everybody’s somebody’s everything”—but that there’s somebody there, onstage, unaffected for a moment by a country that’s pulling itself apart.

Photo via Getty Images for Anheuser-Busch

At 8:15 PM, around the time that Chance was segueing from Acid Rap to Coloring Book, SZA, who’d performed the night before, tweeted that she’d been “roughed up” by a Philadelphia police officer. “Why do we have to dehumanize each other to get a point across?” she asked. “It's so sad... I know for a fact people are better than this.” A few minutes later, she followed up: “This @chancetherapper set is filled w[ith] positivity and flawlessness.”

That’s a statement enough on what Chance can do, what he’s done all year—shit, he’s been doing it since 10 Day really. He’s not ignoring his pain; he’ll stare it down if he has to, but he’s sure as Hell not succumbing to it. For an hour or so, nobody here does either.

Alex Robert Ross cannot mess with the light. Follow him on Twitter.