5 Years Later, Chance The Rapper’s ‘Acid Rap’ Showed Us What a Little Happiness Can Do

Five years on, ‘Acid Rap’ is proof that happiness is a potent form of resistance.
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Chance The Rapper 'Acid Rap' Album Review

If you look in the mirror and say Acid Rap three times fast, a whirlwind of Flamin' Hot Cheetos and Mistic Kiwi Strawberry juice will whisk you into the Chicago summer. Or, you’ll just be that guy at that party talking to himself in the bathroom. Either way, when someone brings up Chance The Rapper's breakthrough project, Acid Rap, released on April 30, 2013, you're likely to flashback to your sweetest summer memories—depending on your age, of course. 

Acid Rap marked a new chapter in Chicago and within the broader hip-hop landscape, showcasing a young man borrowing as much from Kanye West as he was from Lil Wayne, as he was inventing flows all his own. Over a grip of immaculate choirs and soul samples, Chance’s cigarette-stained cadence and off-kilter delivery brought to life fresh, endearing, and spry lyricism. He balanced his years of poetic training and open mics with his boyish charm. Chance The Rapper stole hip-hop’s heart.

In many ways, too, the tape marked a changing of the hip-hop guard. Where 10 years ago aspiring artists who would have experienced a “rap like Lil Wayne” phase, kids are now growing into—and hopefully out of—their “rap like Chance The Rapper” phase. Fans and adjacent artists found Chance’s acid-washed vocals to be either grating or addictive, but they all agreed that his penchant for a good ass time made him a standout figure in a Chicago scene that was embracing drill while leaving Midwestern soul temporarily by the wayside.

To that point, in 2016, Chicago producer Monte Booker—whose work you're familiar with if you've ever pressed play on Smino, Saba, Ravyn Lenae, Mick Jenkins, and the like—told Pigeons & Planes that Acid Rap expanded Chicago’s hip-hop horizon. “Acid Rap is the reason I’m where I am today,” he said. “Chance opened the door for everyone in Chicago that wasn’t making drill music.”

Chance’s influence on hip-hop was not just limited to Chicago. Another man famous for privileging his happiness, Ventura rapper KYLE, also chimed in, crediting Acid Rap as a catalyst for recognizing his worth as an artist. “It was completely against the grain musically and, more importantly, message-wise,” Kyle explained. “Acid Rap inspired all of us artist[s] to become more innovative, musically impressive, and a little more loving with every message we put in a song.”

Bringing happiness to the mainstream, then, has allowed Chance to help the medicine go down. All over Acid Rap, we brush shoulders with themes of gun violence, police brutality, mourning the absence of God, a case study on PTSD in Chicago youth, and more. The heaviest themes on the tape evidence themselves in the form of questions. Speaking to MTV in 2013, Chance described the tape as conceptual, but not narrative-driven. “None of the songs are really declarative statements,” he said. “A lot of them are just things that make you wonder… a lot like LSD.” There is something childlike about asking several weighty questions in a row, but the depth of these questions suggests an accelerated maturity.

Acid Rap is marked by a unique and palpable blend of pain, heartache, and unfiltered joy—a living portrait of the multifaceted city. He’s crafty on the tape, tucking the sociological case-study that is “Paranoia” into the folds of the boisterous “Pusha Man.” His grin is the hook, but once he’s got your attention, there’s a lot of passion waiting to spill out of his mouth.  

Chance’s ability to tuck away these leveling themes within his smiling-ear-to-ear raps helped secure him a number one spot on Rolling Stone’s top mixtapes of 2013 list. “Chance the Rapper established himself in 2013 as the strongest new voice in hip-hop: cool enough for the teens, thoughtful enough for the old heads,” they write. “He deftly bounces from rapping about Chicago's murder rate to recalling hugging his grandma.”

With that, “Acid Rain” is the obvious centerpiece of this mixtape. The wistful lilt of Jake One’s production sets us along the perimeter of Lake Michigan with Chance rattling off escapist rhymes about fallen friends and teetering depression. Youthful admissions like “I miss my diagonal grilled cheeses” and “Smoking cigarettes to look cooler” coil around clashes with God and fears of gun violence. Out from these juxtapositions rises a contemplative young man plagued by his lack of answers.

That’s the utility of joy: it heightens our predisposition for the message. Critics argue that at times it feels as if Chance The Rapper is trying to sell them something as if he’s a motivational poster that haunts you on your drive to work or at the gym. And to some extent, they’re entirely correct. Chance is trying to sell us something, but it’s not the crack science of positive thinking to cure all ailments. He’s trying to sell us the truths of a co-opted and horribly misrepresented city.

There’s a balance to his approach as well. Two years after the tape, Chance The Rapper starred in the harrowing 2015 short film, Mr. Happy. The film centers a spiraling young man, Victor, played by Chance, so desperate for an escape, he schedules his own suicide through MrHappy.com. At the moment, his imminent suicide is his greatest joy. The irony here is thick.

“I just felt super-connected to the character,” Chance told Billboard. “The thing I connected to with it is this misguided search for true happiness.” In that sense, we can take Acid Rap to be marked by yearning. As Chance demands God show his face, mourns the violence in the city, and tirelessly highlights the brightness in his youth, we have to wonder if this is all a coping mechanism. Suddenly, we hear the inquiries on Acid Rap sending a deeper message: happiness is resistance.

That resistance also took the form of challenging the industry at large. Before the days of commercially streaming mixtapes, confused Twitter politics, and the accelerated death of nuance, Acid Rap unknowingly became the light at the end of the indie tunnel. To this day, for better or worse, Chance sings the praises of staying independent—though it may behoove him to remind fans that he was also lucky enough to have resources and connections unavailable to most early-stage indie artists.

Regardless, Chance The Rapper’s success—rewriting the GRAMMY rules, winning his own GRAMMY, and a “pep talk from Yoncé”—gave indie artists hope. Will every bedroom rapper reach Chance’s level of acclaim? Not likely, but putting some faith into an omniscient mentor never hurt anyone.

All of this is to say, if magical realism were to be smartly weaponized and personified, it would take the form of Chance The Rapper. Returning to “Acid Rain,” Chance expressed genuine concern over a potential rise to fame, worrying that he would perhaps buckle under the pressure. Regardless, in the years following his launch into the national spotlight, Chance has used his jubilant persona, potent introspection, and newfound fame to spearhead activist efforts at home.

From March to December of 2017, Chance raised and donated $2.5 million to Chicago’s public schools. He launched the SocialWorks Youth Empowerment Charity, an arts and education non-profit which has been instrumental in raising CPS funds. SocialWorks has played a role in facilitating summer school programs and hosting Chance The Rapper and Malcolm London’s OpenMike nights, celebrating the seemingly endless talent bubbling up in Chicago.

Also in 2017, Chance teamed up with Jamila Woods, giving CPS student filmmakers a chance to write the treatment for Woods’ “LSD” music video. The winner and other promising students were given a chance to shadow the director and set department heads. Watching the behind-the-scenes documentary of the shoot, we see scores of students grateful for the opportunity to work on their art, personifying their city alongside their legends.

Chance’s unique brand of happiness made its way into students’ video treatments, too. As Jamila recounts, “I love how in Ashley’s treatment she says: ‘LSD, like a play off tripping off the happiness of being in summertime Chicago, in our own neighborhood, with our families and friends.’” This is Chance The Rapper’s once-fledgling mission statement in action: happiness not just as resistance, but as inspiration and catalyst for growth, change, and creative expression.

With that, Chance The Rapper was, is, and always will be our beloved Acid Rapper. Acid Rap was the springboard of his legacy as an artist and an activist. Though some fans may posture disappointment at his never delivering Acid Rap 2.0, his expansive influence on Chicago and music culture cannot be denied.

Acid Rap proved happiness to be a potent form of resistance, and without the tape, there’s a good chance Chance The Activist would not have made nearly as many strides.

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