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Chance The Rapper, The Fresh Prince & the Madness of Summertime

Summer is known as a time of bliss, but the reality is that when it gets hot, it gets violent.
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When the winds no longer howled the language of winter, relief would exhale from my chest. As a child who loathed the colder months, the first kiss of warmth from the season change was nothing short of a hug from heaven. Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas are why weather fit for snowmen and penguins, igloos and Coca-Cola bears is endured. When the holidays end, to be warm again is all that’s desired.

Spring’s arrival is the brief interlude that leads up to summer’s dawn, the foreword that you read before diving into your favorite novel. I thought everyone viewed spring through the temporary lens—a transitional period—until I heard Chance The Rapper say, “I heard everybody's dying in the summer, so pray to God for a little more spring.”

Death, God and hope for an extended spring aren’t words you will find rapped in Will Smith’s “Summertime.” In its three immortal verses, the successful 1991 single paints the imagery of post-spring perfection―the kind of fun, thrilling adventures that can only be had underneath the sun of late May, June and July. “Summertime” was released the year and month of my birth, and every year that followed ushered in my favorite season. I associated that first “drums please” with moon bounce birthday parties and Happy Meal afternoons, long days roller skating and long nights spent shooting a basketball. It was the best of times being soundtracked by a song that encouraged maxing and relaxing.

Will’s rap personified what you want to see when you step outside, what you wish every day would resemble when you wake up and school is out. By capturing what it’s like being back home in Philadelphia and how it feels once spring takes her very last breath, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince gave the season a voice, they gave summer a song. It’s a musical Kodak moment, but "Summertime" excludes summer’s true madness despite the Kool & The Gang sample.

Hailing from Chicago, Chance has a vastly different relationship with the hottest season of the calendar year.

You can almost smell the stench of gun smoke, the decay of bodies, and the overwhelming fear that radiates from “Paranoia,” Chance’s most throat-gripping, soul-grabbing song. There’s a blunt in his mouth, a gun on his hip, and the looming grim reaper on his mind. Death isn’t around the corner, it’s all around and his presence is suffocating. Kids are being buried, help is being cried for, and even the sounds of fireworks on the 4th of July can’t be enjoyed without the traumatic connection to gunfire. If Will’s summer was heaven, Chance’s summer was hell.

'Cause everybody dies in the summer/ Wanna say your goodbyes, tell them while it's spring / I heard everybody's dying in the summer / So pray to God for a little more spring

Chance once compared heaven to a prison, seeing the gates as a cage keeping loved ones in and not a paradise for souls. The comparison shows a resentment of loss, a pill that never gets any easier to swallow. The above lyric is from “Windows,” a song that can be found on Chance's 10 Day mixtape. A few bars prior, he raps, “Some of us is seeing summer, some of us have passed, Some of us ain't seeing summer, some of us have passed,” an interesting juxtaposition of passing school classes and friends passing to the other side. This is someone in high school, an adolescent who is celebrating escaping summer school while musing on the kids who couldn’t make to the school year’s end.

In an interview with Chicago Magazine sometime after the birth of his child, Chance said this about life and death in the city that raised him:

“Anywhere past age 13—10 if you live in Chicago—you have a relationship with death as you’ve seen it depicted in media, or around you, if you’ve watched somebody die.”

“Summer Friends” from Coloring Book touches upon how summer is a season of loss in a subtle manner, much brighter than “Paranoia." Sonically, it sounds like a game of hopscotch in the candy store, but the pain of loss in the summer is still a prevalent theme. Nostalgia is an easy feeling to connect with—and nostalgia is a big part of Chance’s artistry—but every memory of summer has to contrast mowing lawns with having to be home early; the first day of camp is followed by the first shooting; friends without fathers and CPD recruiting new officers to handle the impending heat wave. “Our summer don't get no shine no more, our summer die, our summer time don't got no time no more,” says it all.

When it gets hot, it gets violent, and often deadly. While the murder rate in Chicago has decreased, history says shootings will increase throughout the summer season. This isn’t exclusive to Chicago, though. The heat boils the blood of men and women everywhere. When I interviewed GoldLink earlier this year, collaborator Obii Say explained how the summertime is beautiful, but that it's also when murders and shootings escalate. GoldLink’s At What Cost is sonically gorgeous, filled with fun and summer anthems, but it’s still a story revolving around how quickly things can turn deadly even when you’re having the time of your life.

Link’s “Meditation” is a summer song that ends with gunshots. One act of violence is all it takes before the entire summer is engulfed in a string of unfortunate acts that can change lives. Vince Staple’s debut Summertime ‘06 is an album influenced by his adolescence when he was no older than 13. The same year that Young Dro had the world shoulder leaning, Vince was out getting active. The intro starts off with the sound of waves and seagulls, you can close your eyes and envision the beach. At the last second, right before the song ends, a blast shoots through the comfort―summer isn’t a time to be comfortable. That’s just how the album begins, the rest is a journey through the unforgiving jungle that Vince called home.

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Both Vince and GoldLink have friends who didn’t survive that summer, and they haven't forgotten. You never forget. 

Pop culture has an interesting way of feeding our concept of summer. Movies aren’t capturing Chance's paranoia and pain in cinema, summer is still more about lustful flings and careless afternoons, more Sandlot than Hardball. Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing was a film that unapologetically painted the most gruesome picture of how an excruciating heat wave can cause spirits to burn with a vehement fire. On a cooler day maybe Radio Raheem and Sal are calmer, without their minor argument the police don’t arrive and choke the very life from Raheem’s body. Raheem lives and Mookie doesn’t throw that trash can through the window, inciting the riot. Do The Right Thing is really a movie that revolves around the hottest day in Brooklyn and how the simmering heat can spiral racial tension to a place of unforgettable proportions.

Raheem was just another summer friend who didn’t make it to the fall. 

The first episode from The Wire’s fourth season is called Boys Of The Summer and introduces Dukie, Randy, Michael and Namond—four Baltimore students from different backgrounds who we watch walk through their own personal purgatories. One of the most intriguing scenes happens after Dukie is beaten up by a local gang. Of course, boys being boys, they want to react. Michael inquires whether they should get guns, an idea that’s not uncommon where they’re from. Instead, the boys fill water balloons with piss to throw at their advisories. Plans fail, they fight, and ice cream is there to cool their bruises. They’re young, boyish, and still in that stage where the hellfire on their heels hasn’t engulfed their entire beings. I’m pretty sure Chance would relate to Dukie, Randy, Michael and Namond over Will, Carlton, Ashley and Hilary. 

The show is full of characters who, with few other options, have traveled down self-destructive paths. The audience doesn’t often get to see all the factors — internal and external — that have led them astray. But in the fourth season, we’re introduced to four black adolescents whose futures are uncertain. The arc unfolds over a semester at a junior high. It’s painfully affecting. "You’re seeing the lives of kids at stake," Burns said, "and that’s powerful drama." The Wire was never better than when it was telling their stories. — The Best of 'The Wire' Was Season 4 

The Wire doesn’t allow the boys' summer to last in languorous, innocent bliss. Viewers watch as they slowly get pushed deeper into the fire; the summer friends are thrown into drugs and murder. They aren’t product of their environments, they’re kids just trying to survive the circumstances they were born into. There’s no mercy for the babies, the madness is a hungry hippo and they all are in the belly of the beast. It’s why the fourth season of The Wire is acclaimed as the series' best, the portrayal of these children and the overall school system is heart-wrenching, yet eye-grabbing. Because you know, deep down, this is reality.

Summer’s bliss and summer’s madness are two sides of the spectrum, two sides of life. It's what’s makes all of Chance’s songs about summer and death so harrowing; they’re all based in reality.

GoldLink’s reality.

Vince’s reality.

Will wrote "Summertime" from how he remembered summer in Philly but it also feels a bit like a fantasy, like what we long for. Maybe that's why it continues to resonate; we're still dreaming of living that summer. 

I’ve watched countless jaws collide with fists while “Knuck If You Buck” played in the background. I’ve sat in classrooms in the middle of lessons that abruptly turned into books being thrown and hair being pulled. Watching as teachers stormed out of rooms to get security or assistance wasn’t abnormal. My school couldn’t have pep rallies because rival schools would sneak over and start fights in the gymnasium. Knives would be brought to homeroom, guns would sit next to books inside backpacks. House parties were shot up so frequently that the news reports became normal.

One of the wildest days of my youth occurred when someone called in a bomb threat to my parents skating rink, and I can still feel the frantic fear and pulsing panic in the air. But never death. Unlike Lil Uzi Vert, all my friends are alive. Sometimes it would come close, as a reminder not to get comfortable, not to forget any second could be the last. I can’t imagine knowing death at the age when I’m still trying to know myself, trying to figure out my place in this whirling world. My reality has been a blessed one. 

As the heat rises, barbecue fills the nostrils and fewer clothes are worn, I pray that we all get to live within our own personal “Summertime,” but I know real life isn’t that pleasant. So I pray for our safety, I pray for our coolheadedness, and I pray for all our friends. I pray for more parties than funerals, more selfies by the pool and fewer selfies in a hospital bed. I pray that we all survive summer and get to greet fall with open arms.

Still, I know that’s not enough. I know somewhere someone is still praying for a little more spring.

By Yoh, aka Radio Yoheem, aka @Yoh31



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