Joshua Lerner owns every Poor Righteous Teachers cassette.
Today at school, I erased the dates of January from my dry-erase calendar and put in new ones for February. I thought about the 41 homicides we saw in Chicago last month, an 11-year record. Most think the murder rate will drop with the temperature as summer and autumn slide into winter. I’m sure Mayor Emmanuel was banking on it. But the murders have continued. Kids are getting gunned down on their front porches. Last week, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed in Kenwood, not a mile from the Obama residence.
Musically, Chief Keef and the drill scene have become a symbol of Chicago’s gang violence epidemic. Some have accused Keef of feeding a culture of violence, while others, such as Leor Galil of the Chicago Reader, credit him for “exposing the bleakest parts of our city.” Whatever the perspective, it’s clear that Finally Rich paints a picture of this city’s youth in broad, terrible strokes. You don’t need to see all those YouTube videos of South Side teens throwing their guns and signs in the air. That dark throbbing soundtrack of an album is enough to send the message. Just as with the advent of gangsta rap two decades ago, the consumer is once again happy to disregard the totality of the urban experience, and instead accept the shell of what they see in the eyes hidden behind the dreads. Life is cheap. Anarchy rules.
I write this as a preface to explain why I’m so excited about the growing success of Chance the Rapper, a 19-year-old Chicagoan who is currently promoting the hell out of a new video for “Juice,” the first single off his upcoming Acid Rap. Chance first made a name for himself when he dropped the excellent #10Day mixtape, which he began to write and record while on a ten-day suspension from Jones College Prep for selling weed. He doesn’t mention it on the album, but Jones is one of the city’s premier selective enrollment high schools. In other words, Chance had to be doing something right to be going there to begin with.
Whatever his academic background, Chance’s stories on #10Day reveal a lot about the complexity of life on Chicago’s South and West Sides. Chance raps at the top of his register, in a nasal singsong that is both childish and self-assured. He uses that singular voice to cut through all the fronting and the hardness. Chance is not afraid to show some vulnerability. Round here we lose best friends like every week, he raps on “Nostalgia,” I like to think we playin a long game of hide and go seek/ And one day maybe I’ma find Terrance and I could lead them/ kids of the kingdom singing bout freedom.
Like the other 400,000 students in Chicago Pubic Schools, Chance is multifaceted. He can reminisce over fallen friends, but that doesn’t make him conscious. He also raps about getting high, and gang territory, and growing up “down the street from D. Rose practicing his free throws” (now you know he’s legit Chicago). Sometimes he sings. Sometimes he even spits a bar in Spanish. And in a segregated city like ours, that’s actually saying something. But what’s most apparent from the new video is his energy.
“Juice” is a tight mid-tempo track, held together by some jabs of Rhodes keyboard and an understated loop of Donnie Hathaway’s “Jealous Guy”. (Who said Chicago rappers don’t do soul samples anymore?) In the video, Chance bounces around in Times Square in the middle of the night, with all the youthful gusto of a teenager who gets to bounce around in Times Square in the middle of the night. In the background, we see the occasional passing car, but mostly there are just the neon lights of advertisements and department store signs. Director Austin Vesely occasionally drops words and imagery from the song into the frame. When Tupac gets a lyrical nod, we see Pac’s face flash across a rooftop billboard.
Otherwise, the focus is all Chance. He brims with bravado, charisma, and a kind of off- kilter grace. He staggers, spins, and points, sometimes holding his head or putting his arms up to the sky above him. This frenetic movement seems to reveal his true self— a sly cut-up who is unguarded and confident, and also pretty wacky. He is incredibly handsome. And he is wearing a tie-dye hoodie under that black leather jacket.
I think by now I’ve made the case that this video is pretty fun to watch. And considering the alarming context in which mainstream Chicago hip-hop finds itself, the level of enjoyment and pleasure that “Juice” offers is pretty unique. Now, that distinction should not be interpreted as a rigid boundary between Chance and the drill scene. Chance has repeatedly shown love for Keef. “Free Sosa” is a common refrain, in songs and interviews. And I appreciate the fact that Chance is showing his support for the stars he finishes out his jail bid.
But there’s also something nice about watching a rapper from Chicago who’s not afraid to jump in the air and click his heels together as he walks away.