Release Date: August 05, 2015
The main thing about Free, Chance the Rapper’s surprise collaboration with the B*s*d G*d himself, Lil B, is it’s named after — and quietly a celebration of — what they are. Counting the mysterious Surf, we’re now four entries into Chancelor Bennett’s career, and about nine f—kbillion into Brandon McCartney’s, but you can obtain everything either rapper has released for a grand total of $0.00. (“They thought after Surf this s—t would just stop,” raps Chance on “Last Dance.”)
Despite colorful album art, they’ve kept the costs down by making none of their work physically available. Nothing to recoup, nothing to lose. And they’ve lost nothing; former SPIN Rapper of the Year Chance headlined his very own festival in June, while Lil B was consulted by none other than CNN when he switched presidential candidate endorsements from Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders. They’re both icons, and neither of them has a record deal. Guess what kind of agents they are?
But the similarities run deeper than that: These two rappers have managed some kind of reverse-Fugazi effect where their DIY ethic is the result of leading by hyper-inclusive example rather than any kind of self-righteous gauntlet thrown. (Guess how much Chance charged for that festival’s admission?) In short, they’re doing the never-thought-possible: giving everything away free made them the superstars of the future. If anyone deserves the oft-abused term “victory lap” it’s these two. Lars Ulrich couldn’t have imagined it. Hell, Ian MacKaye couldn’t have either.
It doesn’t ever feel good to engage their catalogs critically; not just because they’re the two nicest people in rap but because you might as well be reviewing Christmas gifts. But Free is just as proud a moment for the rappers’ musical timelines as any of the achievements mentioned above. Based God is proven to be of this earth because, like any artist working, his shorter moments (2014’s tear-inducing standalone “No Black Person Is Ugly”) are better than his sprawling ones (855-song mixtape anyone?), and this six-freestyles-in-35-minutes “mixtape” is his best-ever collection (unless you wanna throw down for his “classical” album that crashed Billboard’s New Age chart). It’s easily Chance’s most concise as well, and holds its own against the Social Experiment’s guest-stuffed opus. It’s also probably Lil B’s biggest-budget release while simultaneously being Chance’s most lo-fi.
The beats are gorgeous and time-jumping, with Legend of Zelda flute throughout “First Mixtape” and a preschool synth melody on the nine-minute centerpiece “Amen” that sounds like the pair sampled both the Postal Service and Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James Album. “Do My Dance” and “Last Dance” compress swirling bombast worthy of Jay Z’s retirement album. And “We Rare” ranks somewhere between “U Guessed It” and If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late on the Ominous Vine Rap scale.
Lyrically they take the ribald, rec-room camaraderie of Young Thug and Bloody Jay’s Black Portland out to the ball game: “I tell the homies that I love them / But I still f—k their bitches,” goes one of Lil B’s cracks on “Do My Dance.” But from the same song, the key line might be “I might say some nouns/ But that’s not the words I really care about.” The duo trade lines almost tit-for-tat on “First Mixtape,” culminating in a hot Chance line about needing a gas mask to rap like peak Eminem and then nearly four minutes of just shout-outs in the middle of the record. But “Amen” is the best thing here, with them singing, trading lines, and echoing each other’s off-the-cuff sentiments. It’s like if Run-DMC made dream-pop.
All told, Free is a modest release that exceeds whatever expectations you were foolish enough to have for it. It shouldn’t be nearly as well-edited as it is. Or melodically well-rounded. Or mature. But these two have succeeded at everything by following none of the rules. Amen.