Chance the Rapper was never a conventional hip hop darling. His high-pitched voice, a shrill shriek with enough wacky adlibs to resemble an unhinged cartoon character, scared some music fans away. His verses had little structure and his stream-of-conscious flow, sometimes featuring random jumbles of syllables loosely woven together, gave “old heads” fits. He took uncomfortable creative risks and wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries of what his sound could become.
It’s no secret that first-time listeners of Chancelor Jonathan Bennett found he was a tough pill to swallow, but that’s exactly what made the eccentric musician such a unique talent. The Chicago rapper took the image of how a traditional hip hop artist is “supposed” to sound and flipped it completely on its head, owning each bizarre vocal inflection and otherworldly ramble of rhymes with the gusto of a rap veteran. Chance was unapologetically himself and the confidence he carried pushed his potential to new heights.
Acid Rap sounds exactly what its title would suggest, a hallucinogenic blend of bouncy tracks with infectious hooks and lush ballads with somber stories about the harsh environment that raised Chance the Rapper and his peers. Drugs play a prominent role in this coming-of-age narrative, as scatter-brained Chance attempts to navigate the difficult transition from adolescence to adulthood by interrupting some harsh truths with fleeting moments of chemically-induced euphoria. These feelings are fully captured on tracks like “Pusha Man” and “Juice,” where Chance’s playfulness and rebellious energy give listeners a perception that he is a stressfree, boastful teenager who is fully comfortable in his own skin.
As the project progresses, however, the drug-fueled nights turn into less of a celebration, and more of a need for comfort. “Paranoia” is one of those examples, dragging the listener into the heart of Chicago, where “it’s easier to find a gun than it is to find a f****** parking spot” and the fear of watching your loved ones gunned down in the street is a daily occurrence. The constant threat of violence turns ordinary situations into bone-chilling moments as PTSD results in its residents hating crowded beaches and the sound of fireworks. Summer in Chicago is a season where the murder rate shoots up faster than the temperature, and all Chance wants is a little more time for peace of mind. “I heard everybody’s dying in the summer / So pray to God for a little more spring.”
Unfortunately, no amount of drugs can allow Chance the Rapper to escape the demons he describes on the introspective track “Acid Rain.” Chance was 18 when his close friend, Rodney Kyles Jr., was stabbed to death at Lincoln Park, Chicago, a moment that is etched in the rapper’s mind for eternity. “My big homie died young, just turned older than him / I seen it happen, I seen it happen, I see it always / He still be screaming, I see his demons in empty hallways.” The emotional outpour showcases Chance at his most vulnerable in what has become the signature verse of his career. The track even finishes with Chance repeatedly questioning his faith in the fallout of his fallen brothers and merciless depression, hopelessly pleading “I still be asking God to show his face.”
Up until the release of Acid Rap, the Chicago rapper goldmine was mostly untapped. Kanye West remained the sole savior after a legendary streak of classic albums, but the city was yearning for fresh faces to step up and challenge the throne. Fortunately, Chance the Rapper’s budding stardom acted as a catalyst and Acid Rap became the platform for these artists to finally have their voices be heard. “Cocoa Butter Kisses” is a tale of nostalgia, lost innocence and putting “Visine in my eyes so my grandma would f****** hug me,” as Chance eloquently puts it. The track houses a stellar feature from Chicago legend Twista, but it’s Chance’s childhood friend Vic Mensa who ultimately steals the show. The Save Money Collective founder slays his verse with an unorthodox stop-go flow that resembles a game of “Red Light, Green Light,” and wraps his performance off by taking the reins of the chorus and putting his own twist on it. “I got burn holes in my memories, my homies think it’s dank.” Vic’s appearance is sandwiched between a beloved icon and an emerging superstar, but his contribution somehow shines the brightest.
Vic wasn’t the only artist who took advantage of their time in the spotlight. “Lost” became the introduction of Noname, a Chicago lyricist whose cotton candy voice and poignant bars helped spark a cult following. Saba’s music career was elevated to a new level after his placement on “Everybody’s Something,” a verse he ended up rewriting three or four times to make sure his feature became timeless. All three Chicago-bred artists used their brief stint on the project as a springboard for future musical endeavors, building their own followings and remaining an integral part of hip hop culture to this day.
Acid Rap’s ground-breaking impact extended even further than just rappers, with producers and engineers singing the project’s praises — marking it as a pivotal turning point in their journey to relevance. Chance’s mastering engineer Elton Chueng was very honest with his assessment of the mixtape’s resonance within the community, saying “When the project started receiving all the accolades and people started connecting with the album, it hit me like, ‘Man, I helped create that.’ I couldn’t have felt more proud because it’s a huge bookmark in so many peoples’ lives, including mine.” Chicago producer Monte Booker went one step further, stating “Acid Rap is the reason I’m where I am today. Chance opened the door for everyone in Chicago that wasn’t making drill music.”
Perhaps the most everlasting quality of Acid Rap is its image as a beacon of hope for independent artists worldwide. While success in the music industry may have seemed like a far-fetched fairytale for those without the perks of a record deal, Acid Rap’s legacy proved the feat was attainable for those who dared to craft and release projects on their own terms. Chance wore this label of independence as a badge of honor, constantly reinforcing the idea that there’s more than one path that can be forged in the industry — one that avoided the suffocating limitations of a record deal. Chance represented creative freedom and prosperity in the face of overwhelming odds, and Acid Rap’s artistic achievements inspired an entire generation of young musicians to bet on themselves and reach for the stars.
Acid Rap was more than just a critically acclaimed mixtape that shot Chance the Rapper into superstardom. It was the bridge that linked South Side Chicago with the outside world — a diary of musings and memories from an artist who embodied the entire spirit of what the Windy City had to offer. There’s no Coloring Book, The Big Day or countless offerings from other inspired musicians without Chance and his “cigarette-stained smile” reflecting on his insecurities and the dangerous environment surrounding him. The project marked a true turning point in music culture and became one of the defining moments of the decade.