Who: Chance the Rapper (government name Chancellor Bennett) is the latest Chicago MC to take hip-hop by storm, and his newest mixtape, Acid Rap , has immediately turned the 20-year-old into the genre's out-of-nowhere, emergent voice. His influences are easy to discern: warm, soulful beats and a sense of humor that's straight Kanye West; meditative philosophizing filtered down from Kendrick Lamar; and a refracted, pinballing flow that recalls Eminem's heyday; but the mixtape stuns because of its undeniable singularity. Bennett first laid the groundwork on last year's debut #10Day; recorded while on suspension from Jones College Prep High School for smoking weed off-campus; and has honed his vision into rap's most accomplished full-length since Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city.
Born Star: Unlike many kids on Chicago's South Side, Bennett grew up in a strong two-parent home. "Both of my parents graduated from high school, both attended college, both have government jobs now," he says. "They've always been very adamant about me finishing high school and finishing college." But he also had a feeling from an early age that he wanted to be on a stage in front of crowds. "I've known I wanted to rap since I was in grade school. When I first got my first CD, I just knew that was my career path and I was pretty adamant about it," he says. "I think even before I knew I wanted to be a rapper, I wanted to be an entertainer. I was really into Michael Jackson as a kid." One album in particular locked everything into focus. "When I heard College Dropout it was life-affirming. I was like, 'This is what I'm supposed to be.'"
Rock the Open Mic: While file-sharing and YouTube have made it easy to become an amateur rapper, Bennett honed his voice in a scene that that now seems antique: open-mic and poetry nights. As a teenager, he frequented YOUmedia, a youth center in Chicago's downtown Harold Washington Library. There he was able to perform in front of hundreds of kids before anyone in the outside world knew his name. "It built me up to be comfortable doing public speaking and standing in front of an audience and telling a story," he says of those nights. "Any time you're standing up there in front of a group of people saying shit; whether you're a politician or a rapper or selling insurance; it's all relative. It's all attention. For me, performing is the biggest part of being a rapper. There's nothing like the feeling of screaming your story to people."
Streets Is Watching: In a post-Kanye world where rappers like Drake and Kendrick Lamar are two of the genre's true superstars, Bennett's approachability could make him a star in the suburbs. But he rose to the top of the food chain in Chicago because he also had the dope boys behind him, and Bennett's music is grounded in having grown up near some of America's worst projects. "Depending on the story that you're telling, you can be relatable to everybody or nobody. I try and tell everybody's story," he says. "I've been a lot of places and been through a lot of shit with a lot of different people that I can relate to." On the single "Juice," he mentions embattled Windy City rapper Chief Keef, who was in Chance's spot just a year ago. "I shout out Keef because Keef put Chicago on and that's just something I respect, being a part of the music scene and being a kid from the South Side," Bennett explains. "I'm going on a journey that's very similar to Keef's, so that's something I have to shout him out for and thank him for."
Acid Tested: MDMA has been the drug of choice in hip-hop for a few years running, but the process of writing and recording Acid Rap was filtered through hallucinogens that have stayed on the fringes of rap throughout the genre's history. "I'd do hella LSD before a lot of the sessions," Bennett says. "It just allowed me to open my mind and ask more questions. That's really what the album is, a lot of really good questions. And out of all the questions, none of the questions are, 'Is this rapper good?' or 'Is this a good mixtape?' It's way more important shit. It's a lot of great questions in terms of socioeconomic status or Black Panthers in Chicago and racial identity and love and life and death."
The Worth of Things: Bennett likely can sign with the major label of his choosing, but he's insistent on protecting his music and recording process. #10Day was made simply by rapping over mp3s pulled from his inbox, but Acid Rapcame more conventionally, with Bennett tinkering and polishing his music in traditional studio sessions with producers. It's an ethos that the economics of the modern rap game have eroded, but Chance is adamant about keeping it that way. "It's super important to me to make music the way I want to make it, that's the main reason why we're still independent right now," he says. "I can do literally whatever the fuck I want. I don't have to make music a certain way and I don't have any A&Rs telling me how my shit should sound. I don't have a turn-in date for my mixtape. I didn't have anyone to turn it into. I could take as long as I want to. If I didn't want to release it, I could've just scrapped it. So whenever I get to a point where my worth is worth having all the freedoms that I ask for, then I'll be at a point where I sign. Until then I'm just making music to make music."