Wednesday, August 26, 2015
Chance the Rapper – “Chain Smoker” (2013 self-released)


Chance the Rapper might well be one of the most refreshing things to happen to hip-hop in a long time, which is maybe why the free mixtape that features this song has been downloaded over a million times. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to call it a reimagining of what hip-hop could sound like, or to suggest that perhaps we can hear echoes of Chance’s influences on subsequent releases that shade towards the more conceptual (I’m thinking of Kendrick Lamar and Toki Wright for starters, but that could just be me). Given that Chance was twenty when the mixtrape dropped, I’d say that’s pretty impressive.

Musically the landscape here is more Frank Ocean than Jay-Z (he references Ocean in a clever lyric about name-dropping). Still, even with that incredible R&B/neo soul influence, he’s Chance the Rapper, and it’s the blending of those two worlds that works so well here (incidentally, it’s heartening to hear a rapper who would become so mainstream as Chance claiming Ocean, who came out as gay the year before this mixtape dropped).

“Chain Smoker” begins with the smoothest atmospherics that an electric piano and some thoughtful production can provide (we can even hear Chance say “this sound like a Prince song”), crescendoing with each verse. The lyrics crescendo as well, into a requiem for Chicago’s fallen youth:

Rappin’ trappin’ trippin’ ‘cid
And sniffing glue and chewing Vicodin
Shoulda died — yelling YOLO was a lie
And you a liar wondering why you wanna die so young
You and I look just alike
And I’m afraid that this one right here
Might be [the] last time that I write a song

If it sounds like he’s passing judgement on the choices of his peers, it’s instructive to note that he refers to his own perspective as “an introspective drugged out standpoint.” In other words, to my white privileged eyes, he seems to be saying, look, all these drugs are scary and can bring a bad end, but on the other hand, can you even imagine what it’s like to live here and be young and black? 

And of course I can’t. I can think of what it’s like to go to a happy hour after a long and terrible day at work, though, and extrapolate from there, and I can be grateful for Chance and his truth-telling, and I can join him in feeling conflicted by everthing that I see around me: “The same shit that kills us / always tastes so right.” Indeed.

Oh, one more thing: I’m not sure what I really have to say about it one way or the other, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that Chance squawks in each song on this mixtape.


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