by: Eric Roberts
In June, I moved from my room in Kenwood, close to the lake, to west Hyde Park, on Drexel Avenue. I share an apartment with my younger brother Alex, 25, who just moved to Chicago from San Antonio. With the Red Line currently under construction, we get on the Green Line at the 51st Street stop to go downtown. Though never as convenient as the Red Line or the #6 bus, it’s the route I’ve always taken with out-of-town visitors for a topographical look at the South Side. Now it’s my regular route to work, and Alex, as he becomes acquainted with the city, gets a bird’s eye view each time he ventures north. Alex loves hip-hop, like I love hip-hop. We’re the guys on the train, headphones on, totally in tune with our favorite rappers; you might think we’re talking to you, but really we’re just singing along. The Green Line is spacious and peaceful, a perfect moving stage for the solipsistic listener-performer.
It’s been a beautiful summer to take in new releases from two of Chicago’s best emcees, Chance the Rapper and Tree. Chance’s Acid Rap, you might’ve have heard, dropped in late April, the much-hyped follow-up to his debut mixtape, 10-Day. With slightly less fanfare, but highly anticipated in certain corners, Tree’s Sunday School 2 became available for download in late May, just as Alex was packing his things for Chicago. I could hardly wait to share our experience of them. They are soundtracks for the train, thoughtful, melodic hip-hop for serene mornings and lightly-baked afternoons filtered through wide train-car windows. And they are soundtracks for the city itself—crucial to my brother’s South Side immersion—played along discrete generational lines. Chance is nine years younger than Tree, the same age difference between Alex and me. I can tell you—that’s a difference. But in many ways, for Chance and Tree, it’s a gulf. They rap from opposite ends of perhaps the most formative decade of life, the first decade of adulthood. They are the years, like in any profession, that make or break an artist. Significantly, they are also the years many black men in Chicago don’t make it out of untouched.
Last summer, for a brief moment, there was perhaps no bigger name in hip-hop than Chicago’s Chief Keef, a teenager who was made, overnight, into a national icon for out-of-control gun violence on our streets. One year later, Chance has taken the mantle of hottest new Chicago artist, when it’s become cliché to say there’s never been a better time to be a rapper from our city, thanks largely to Keef. Chance is next in a quasi-conscious lyrical lineage that includes Common, Kanye West, and Lupe Fiasco. It’s tempting to paint him and Keef as opposites. But as Chance has observed (and must be tired of explaining), he and Keef grew up just 12 blocks from each other. Better to understand them as separate strands of a shared Chicago youth culture—born, if you listen, of an old Chicago found in the music of Tree.
Chance is from Chatham, a mostly middle-class neighborhood on the South Side. He’s light-skinned, with a “proper” speaking voice, qualities he refers to in his rhymes. He attended prestigious Jones College Prep High School in downtown Chicago, and has credited a certain eclecticism in his music to his exposure to different walks of life as a student there. Acid Rap’s release party was held at Jugrnaut, a clothing store in the South Loop, not far from Jones, with strong ties to Chicago’s hip-hop scene. On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in April, I stood in line with hundreds of post-millenials, many of whom had come over from Jones themselves, before half of us were turned away at the door for fear of overcrowding the small venue. Notwithstanding a common age range and collective new-Golden Age style (I complimented a guy on his Ewings, which I assumed were vintage, till I spotted a different pair moments later), the crowd was as diverse as they come.
Chance named 2012’s 10-Day for the suspension he received from Jones for smoking weed off campus his senior year. Over fourteen rich, meticulous tracks, Chance exuded unusual musical maturity, with a penchant for nasally singing, and bending his energetic flow to the beat rather than ride it. A punchy live intimacy gave 10-Day an in-house feel, as if, after being “banned from band practice,” as he rapped on “U Got Me Fucked Up,” he recruited the band to record with him. 10-Day was packed heavily with reminiscences, but of course there isn’t much a recent high school grad can reminisce about that interests anyone but underclassmen. A few of the songs merely sounded like riffs on Ahmad’s whiny classic, “Back in the Day,” and 10-Day like an overly-accomplished senior thesis.
Success has put some distance between Chance and high school, even if he still sounds like a kid on Acid Rap. On “Good Ass Intro” he sings, “Even better than I was the last time,” and strictly speaking, it’s true. He’s been rewarded for his rare talent and the famous frenetic effort he gives on stage, so the raps he says made him “anxious” are delivered with less desperation, even more gusto. More fans, more groupies, more drugs (he’s a bit of connoisseur), and more of the world he’s seen on tour are compressed into tight freestyles sometimes rapped at an impossible juke-pace, as on the opening track and, here, on “Everything’s Good (Good Ass Outro)”:
I used to be worse than worthless
Now I’m worth hooks and verses
I’m good like books in churches
Harold’s and Hooks and Church’s
See my name when you Google search it
Use a card when I make a purchase
Chance turned 20 this year. What an age to have the luxury of personal and artistic freedom.
Sonically, Acid Rap doesn’t deviate much from 10-Day’s blueprint, except to make the songs longer and, like Chance himself, the instrumentation more self-assured. Happily the effect is still novel. “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” featuring Vic Mensa and Twista, is co-produced, with Peter Cottontale, by Cam of the J.U.S.T.I.C.E League, well known for their lush work with Rick Ross. The beat-break crashes and rolls under discriminating keyboard stabs. With apologies to Mensa, who recently parted ways with his band Kidz These Days, Chance is the most natural rapper this side of Black Thought on beats that sound live. “Juice,” the album’s first single, even samples a live Donny Hathaway recording; Chance sings behind the rambunctious hook in a voice filtered to make him sound like Billie Holliday. (As if to make a point, he shouts out Keef in the rap.) Elsewhere, loops made famous in the early 90’s by speeding them up are given room to breathe, truer to their original live form. On “NaNa,” Action Bronson goes in with Chance over a simple rendering of Jack Wilkins’s “Red Clay,” last heard on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Sucka Nigga.” And “Favourite Song [sic],” with Childish Gambino, might be the first time in hip-hop history the guitar licks from Betty Wright’s “Clean Up Woman” have ever been slowed down.
The numerous guests are all part of Acid Rap’s masterful orchestration. Each takes his cue from Chance, following the star rapper sequentially in the song, and forming his verse around the bar structure Chance has already laid out. His energy is infectious. Mensa and Twista go hard as ever; Chance and Bronson sound like they’re throwing sand at you from a sandbox; and Gambino would seem to take revenge on his naysayers at their own frat party, without forgetting to have a hell of a time himself. Black Hippy’s Ab-Soul drops by for “Smoke Again,” biding his time before jumping on for the rousing third and final verse. I saw Soul open for Kendrick Lamar at the Congress Theater last fall. He holds his own with better rappers.
My favorite appearance, though, by Noname Gypsy, on “Lost,” rings a more somber note. “Lost” is a love song—a sad, earnest puppy love song to make love your teenage love by, as if the world were about to end. Chance invites his girl to his room, seems so excited, yet so serious, he can barely enunciate the words—baby talk on wax. It’s not clear whether the girl in question is Noname Gypsy, but she assents anyway, ambiguously; the whole thing, she implies, may be in her troubled head.
Gypsy’s verse is essential, and follows a tradition of guest turns on hip-hop albums by women (or girls) that serve to correct the one-sided aspect of an outsize male personality. Think of West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. There is nothing of substance in Nicki Minaj’s verse on “Monster,” but imagine the album without her. Appearances like Gypsy’s become the more arresting when the main artist has created an aura of such nuance, we nearly forget the female perspective is missing, until it shows up. A snapping Yo-Yo put the lie to Ice Cube’s claim “It’s a Man’s World” on Amerikkka’s Most Wanted; Foxy Brown strategized separately from Jay-Z’s thoughtful hustler on “Ain’t No Nigga,” from Reasonable Doubt. Gypsy, on “Lost,” is the reluctant female in a sexual scenario, strikingly akin to Apani B on “Let Me Watch,” from the album Vaudeville Villain, by one of MF Doom’s several aliases, Viktor Vaughan. Like Apani B, Gypsy admits to taking psychotropic medication. Her psychiatrist’s advice is given in earthy argot: “Pill-pop, baby girl, ’cause I promise you, you tweakin’.” (As a social worker who frequently doles out meds to teenage girls with emotional and behavioral health problems, this moment is close to my heart.) Chance—in a particularly brilliant lyrical stroke—has already revealed she has never known her father. Maybe it’s why she needs him.
In fact, there are enough grave moments couched in Acid Rap’s jazzy continuity to justify the name. Our emotions as well as our senses are stirred. The combined second track, “Pushaman/Paranoia,” descends from celebratory, to paranoid, to downright fearful in two-minute intervals. One version of the chorus takes up the leery perspective, perhaps, of the dope-pusher riding around Chicago, blunt on lips, gun on hip, resigned to the mundane danger of his lifestyle. Finally, toward the very end, in half-bar, spoken word bursts, Chance raps
It just got warm out
This the shit I been warned ’bout
I hope it storm in the mornin’
I hope that it’s pourin’ out.
I hate crowded beaches
I hate the sound of fireworks
And I ponder what’s worse between
Knowin’ it’s over and dyin’ first.
’Cause, everybody dies in summer
Wanna say your goodbyes? Tell ’em while it’s spring
I ’eard everybody’s dyin’ in the summer
So pray to Go’ for a lil more spring.
The last four bars are sung, like a lullaby. Note the “d,” dropped from the end of “God”—the enunciation of a six-year-old. Few need reminding of the youngest victims of Chicago’s gun violence. After all, they make the boldest headlines. Chance gives voice to the survivors, the ones who’ve seen others die. They’re scared. It’s the most convincing rap from a child’s perspective since Imani of the Pharcyde’s opening verse to “Passing Me By.”
Much has been made of the reduced murder rate in Chicago—down from last year’s nightmare scenario—with the city taking credit for an increased police force in neighborhoods plagued by violence. But, giving credit where credit is due, deep down some of us have, indeed, thanked God for a temperate climate. Chance couldn’t have timed this song any better. As May turned to June, June to July, and Alex and I could still see cool gray rain clouds guarding Chicago from the Green Line, this became Acid Rap’s most affecting moment.
The worry is: will kids with early-stage paranoia from exposure to senseless summer violence ever hear it? The incredibly diverse crowd outside Jugrnaut no doubt contained young people who’ve lost close ones in the way Chance so eloquently describes. (Chance himself is one such young person.) And in May, Leor Galil for the Chicago Reader remarked on how often he heard Chance “leaking out of strangers’ headphones on the streets and on the el,” comparing Acid Rap to a new Harry Potter novel in its ubiquity. I had the same experience in Hyde Park, just before the University of Chicago let out for summer. But my partner at Rhymes & Reasons, Eddie Vogel, lived for the past couple of years in Back of the Yards/West Englewood; until recently, most of our interviews were recorded at his home. We never heard Chance in that part of the city any more than we saw Harry Potter. Keef, however, still gets plenty of love.
Riding the Green Line with my brother as it rolls through the Forties, bending briefly on Pershing, closer to U.S. Cellular Field, it’s difficult to imagine the recent chapter in Bronzeville’s storied past when rows of project buildings—the Robert Taylor Homes, once the largest public housing development in the country—obscured the view westward. Chicago is the most densely-populated American city Alex and I have ever lived in (I’m from Texas, too), yet this part, out of context, feels strangely empty. On the Fourth of July, we got off at 35th-Bronzeville-IIT for Alex’s first White Sox game, surprised to find hoards of fans on a bright afternoon served by a single Starbuck’s on State Street, on the ground floor of some newer-looking apartments. From the train, the building stands like a potted plastic flower amid vacant lots where portions of Stateway Gardens, once adjacent to the Robert Taylor Homes, were demolished a decade ago, along with most of the other projects in the city.
Tree, 29, is of this world gone by. I first heard him on Power 92’s Sunday-night show “Raw TV Radio,” on a song called “3 B’s,” from The Lit, an EP he released last year with producer Tony Baines. “Raw TV Radio” plays only local artists. When Tree rapped, “I’m just a brotha from the North Side ghetto,” I struggled to place where that might be—Howard? No, Tree is from the famous projects of Cabrini-Green, of which the last remaining high-rise building was finally brought down in 2011.
Reader, here I must make a personal confession, under the legitimate guise of full disclosure. In January, Rhymes & Reasons released our interview with Tree, one of the finest we’ve recorded. (Alex listened to it several times before moving here just to acquaint himself with something Chicago.) Eddie and I learned all about Tree’s childhood in the projects. His older brothers were heavily in the streets, and though not immune to the pressures of his surrounding lifestyle, he managed to avoid their harsher fates. Per the Rhymes & Reasons format, Tree talked about “Keep Your Head Up,” by Tupac, whose authenticity (Pac looked just like Tree’s uncle) inspired Tree as a youngster. He talked about “Ride 4 U,” by No Limit’s Mr. Jinks, a kind of hip-hop dirge from the I’m Bout It soundtrack played at project parties and funerals. And he talked about Andre 3000’s verse from Outkast’s “Return of the G,” which convinced Tree he himself could rap. Tree spoke movingly of his memories not only of Cabrini; he also hung out in the Robert Taylor Homes once he’d relocated to Englewood in his late teens.
As anyone who listens to Tree’s music will know, you don’t need to listen to his interview with Rhymes & Reasons (though I encourage you to) to glean a sympathetic picture of his past and the people who inhabit it. The first Sunday School, released last year, was as chock full of old names and faces as Chance’s 10-Day. The difference being: family members, old friends, and former neighbors weren’t regarded with the wonderment of a young man who’s just discovered what they mean to him as he surges into adulthood, but what they meant to him after 10 years slogging through it. “Made It” contains a recognizable portrayal of a fallen hustler who can’t find a job—as if there were any to be had in his old hood. Tree sees him on the way to the liquor store and offers to buy him a drink. On “Die,” Tree saves the unorthodox fourth verse for an estranged cousin locked in prison, rapping from the inmate’s point of view, “One Love”-style, in a letter:
Daryl sent a kite, said why ’ont you niggas visit?
Homie seent’chu in the streets and said you niggas livin’.
When we was young and dumber, couldn’t tear us apart
Got us stickin’ niggas up all the way up north
Now a nigga in the bing and you won’t show ya heart.
This is a confession of guilt, an emotion reserved for the fairly aged. The laments on Sunday School were truer than 10-Day’s for being those of a grown man. And where 10-Day sounded so much like a collaborative effort—Chance and the band—Sunday School was produced entirely by Tree himself. There were outstanding guest appearances on Sunday School (Chance sang the hook on “Roses”), but Tree came off as kind of a sad loner. He calls his sound “soul trap,” for its combination of soul samples laid to trap-like drum-programming, but I’ve never heard a bluesier hip-hop recording.
Tree wasted no time telling Rhymes & Reasons, as he has in other interviews (and frequently on Sunday School 2), that MTV ranked Sunday School third on a list of the five best mixtapes of 2012. That’s something a rapper who sold shoes at Nordstrom for years (“the meet-and-greet business,” as he put it) can hang his hat on. I was personally taken with Tree’s old soul and apparent humility. Before the interview was over, he suddenly shot from his chair, realizing he was late to pick up his son from school, but took time to answer the standard final question of each interview to which Eddie and I attach so much importance: why does hip-hop matter? And this is my confession: when Tree sat down to talk to us, I hadn’t listened to Sunday School at all. I had no idea I was talking to a man whom I would come to revere as one of the finest hip-hop artists working today.
Sunday School 2, as others have noted, marks an inevitable step up in the quality of Tree’s production. (That Sunday School wasn’t mixed in a proper recording studio is a minor tragedy—the beats are quite good, and sound like soul crap in your car stereo.) He recruited several other producers for the project, each of whom works from a more traditional format. Tye Hill is credited with three songs, including the opening track, “Safe to Say,” which employs a gritty snare that recalls DJ Premier. Bink!, the undersung producer—next to West and Just Blaze—of key tracks from Jay-Z’s finest album, Blueprint, co-produced “Devotion” with Tree. Judging from the deep, filtered bassline that carries the chorus, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bink! were still recording on two-inch tape. Only Frank Dukes approximates the Soul Trap sound, crafting repetitive high-hats and 808 snares beneath a dramatic eight-bar loop.
Tree, for his part, has simplified his own production style to match his collaborators. One of the feats of Sunday School was Tree’s uncanny ability to keep up rhythmically with roughly-chopped samples that sounded as if misplaced in Pro Tools. The beats don’t stray as much on Sunday School 2; Tree sticks to a mellow groove. The tracklist found in the liner notes of the hard copy (for how I got my hands on one, keep reading) is broken up, like a program, into the sections of a Baptist church service. The first four songs comprise the “Call to Service,” “Greeting,” and “Hymn.” Pastor Tree practically dares you to turn up before he says so.
Curiously, he never quite does. “Devotion”—which appropriately begins the “Devotion”—is a barn-burner, to be sure, a lively and personal exhortation; and “Tree Shit,” the final song of the service (before it lets out into the streets for a bonus posse cut featuring Tree’s crew, Project Mayhem) is a rowdy high point. But even the original music for “Devotion,” on the version released back in March, consisted of a mere loop until Bink! (I’m guessing) added the powerful swinging percussion for the mixtape. Verses by Danny Brown (“No Faces”) and Roc Marciano (“Trynawin”) liven things up only enough to hold our attention over the thick, confessional middle. Singers Lili K. (“Say How You Feel”), Teddy Caine (“Hurt”), and Ari Lourdes (“Thankful”) make for an attenuated choir. The church is so quiet you might think it was Wednesday-night Bible study.
One of the few moments that hark back to the first Sunday School, a strict progression of that mixtape’s sui generis style, is “Love You for That,” which opens the “Acknowledgements.” Whereas Sunday School 2, like Acid Rap, is occasionally preoccupied with Tree’s future as a successful musician (let’s admit that with a family of his own the stakes are higher for Tree than Chance), on “Love You for That” Tree looks deep into his past. On the first verse, he’s “ridin’ ’round, whippin’, sippin’ top-speed,” channeling the same dope-pusher archetype from Chance’s “Paranoia.” This younger version of Tree is already wise and perhaps more cynical than paranoid. But the rapper himself is grateful. Here is how he closes the memory, as if giving his younger, purple-peddling self a reason to live:
Thinkin’ back when we was chil’ren
Mom’a turn ’em on the news, and from there we’d see my buildin’
They would talk about the killin,’ the dealin’ where I’m livin’
But I never paid attention, I wa’ way too busy chillin’
Now it—now it’s different, if I ’on’t ever mention
Thanks for jumpin’ in them rumbles, never lettin’ them niggas get me.
Chance, on “Paranoia,” moves backward across life stages from dealer to innocent child. Tree, on “Love You for That,” moves from dealer, to innocent child, to grown man, a privilege Chance doesn’t yet have: to mix wisdom with two types of naïveté. What makes these last six bars so moving is knowing it’s a privilege many never get.
The second verse is one for the CTA—for Alex and me. As I alluded to earlier, Tree is the youngest of several brothers, with whom (as one might infer from a telling line on “Die”) relations are sometimes strained. But that Tree is a loyal brother is a hallmark theme to his music. Whatever the spoils of his burgeoning rap career, he and his partners, his brothers, whoever, are “ridin’ with each other like the buses every evenin’”—a perfectly evocative Chicago simile. A few bars later, Tree recalls fights on the Red Line, a single instance of which I’ve never seen in seven years riding it. But when Alex told a coworker at the restaurant in Hyde Park where he waits tables that he takes the Red Line to get downtown (Red Line trains still run on the Green Line out south, so in fact it doesn’t matter which you take from 51st), his coworker, a thirty-something native South-Sider, called it the “Dead Line.” Reputations die hard.
Alex, whose accent, much to his surprise, immediately pegs him in Chicago as a Texas boy, told his coworker he was into hip-hop, which made him laugh. His coworker said he used like hip-hop, but doesn’t pay much attention anymore. He hadn’t heard Tree, which is too bad. I hear the same thing from older hip-hop fans where I work, at a large group home for troubled youth on the North Side. Part of Tree’s professed mission is to “make older niggas love rap over,” not with a sound derivative of old rap, but an era-specific brand of authenticity hip-hop fans over thirty can relate to. If Chance is the leader of Chicago’s new school, Tree’s bringing up the rear of the old. He bears witness in his music to a different way of life—a different Chicago. His core audience deserves to hear it.
A few weeks ago, Alex and I rode the Green Line to Union Park for Pitchfork, where Tree, fittingly, was scheduled to perform at 1pm on the festival’s closing Sunday. The night before, when I got off at 51st on my way home from work, a crowd had gathered around a police tape cordon stretched across a small parking lot at the corner of 51st and King Drive. The cordon was still there Sunday morning, and I pointed it out to Alex. As we approached the train platform, a couple of dred-heads were talking about it. “A girl got shot in her foot!”
Once our train passed the Roosevelt stop, lots of people started getting on, and Alex and I wondered who among the other passengers on their way to the festival would bother with Tree so early in the day, especially if, as we surmised, not many were already fans. Normally we relish opportunities to be the loudest, most devoted fans at any venue. (In June, for the Governor’s Ball in New York City, we impressed a few native New Yorkers during Nas’s set with our perfect recitation of half his catalogue; for the other half we were just tired.) But I was feeling uneasy. Oddly, the festival website, through some glitch or poor design, had somehow kept Tree partially hidden on a list of performing acts for several days before the show. I’d read Tree was taking his Pitchfork performance seriously, and for his sake I wanted it to go smoothly.
Weather reports had said it would be cool, but by noon the sky was open, hot, and dry. As soon as we got there, we each grabbed a handful of beers—Tree’s the man we were there to see—and sidled up to the stage. To my relief, a row of fans had already secured their places along the front barricade, and, directly in the middle of the crowd, a group of folks had set up chairs and umbrellas, ready to take in Tree’s performance on their own terms. Alex and I held down a patch of grass, second row.
I didn’t know what to expect on stage from a rapper who often sounds on record as though he’s talking to the past, or to himself. I know someone close to Tree who told me the preparation he put into Pitchfork was an acknowledgment of his prior deficiencies as live performer. Alex and I guessed he might come out with back-up singers. He did, along with a DJ, hype man, and live drummer. Everyone was dressed for church in white shirts and black ties, and Tree—wearing a Sox buck-fifty with red letters to match his Jordans—relied on each in their turn to keep the sun-beaten congregation involved. Have you ever heard a young pastor well-versed in Scripture, but still gaining his hold in the pulpit? That is what Tree’s live show is like. Until he matures into the full-throated (or, in Tree’s case, gravel-throated) preacher as confident in delivering the Word as he is in the Word itself, it’s our glad responsibility to ensure his sermon’s success through active participation.
That moment came for “Chuuch,” one of the only joints Tree performed from the first Sunday School. Never mind that most of us wouldn’t have otherwise been in church—we sang the eponymous refrain with abandon. Tree’s skinny hype man earned his keep, ably standing in for Tone Skeeta, who appears on the mixtape version. Alex and I caught the holy ghost during Tree’s verse, one of his best, and for a second he singled us out in the crowd—benediction. Beforehand we’d discussed the inevitable moment when Tree would vaguely recognize me from his Rhymes & Reasons interview. I don’t know whether he did, or whether we were just the most impassioned in the pews.
Project Mayhem joined the stage with Tree to close the show, tossing Sunday School 2 CD’s into the crowd for good measure. The performance was a modest success, and Tree had made at least one new fan: I overheard a young cat reviewing the liner notes, excited about Danny Brown’s appearance. Afterward my brother and I caught Tree with a plate of food mingling with his crew in the shade. I gave him dap, the kind you give when someone’s eating, a light knuckle-bump. He said he’d seen us, but I didn’t stick around to remind him who I was. Maybe I was worried I’d have to explain that the last time I saw him I didn’t know who he was. I just snapped a picture, and told him, “You’re my favorite motherfucker, man!”
Two weeks later, Chance made his Lollapalooza debut in Grant Park, and it says a lot about his mass appeal that he was the Chicago emcee chosen to represent at the more venerable festival. Rather than shell out for three-day passes, Alex and I bought a couple of scalped tickets to Chance’s sold-out Lolla after-show at Reggie’s Rock Club in the South Loop on Friday night. We took a cab to get there, and it just so happened the driver knew something about our new digs.
“Man, you all know that building y’all came out of?” he asked, as we cruised up quiet Cottage Grove Avenue. “That used to be where all the junkies lived. I used to live around there, for years. We called it Drex-side, ’cause it’s between Ingleside and Drexel.” He laughed. “Yeah, this neighborhood has changed a lot! All the junkies used to live right there. So imagine I see you two guys comin’ out the gate…”
Politely, we acknowledged that change is constant, and so is, for some, abject hardship, but I couldn’t testify to what he said. I thought I’d seen bigger waves of gentrification in Hyde Park in the past year. On 53rd Avenue alone there were several new restaurants, a new high-end clothing store, a fancy new yoga studio, and a new movie theater, with a Whole Foods and L.A. Fitness on the way. But being a beneficiary of gentrification means hardly conceiving of who or what came before you.
The driver was slumped over in his seat, a diminutive man in middle age; I supposed he could’ve been a former junkie himself. “And since Obama moved in, forget about it,” he added. “You can’t do nuthin!” That we knew—Alex had already remarked on the number of squad cars and unmarked police vehicles patrolling our neighborhood at all hours of the day.
As the self-appointed custodian of my brother’s Chicago education, I was glad we’d run into this man. Alex had been curious about who would be at Chance’s show—namely, what type of crowd. Chance had gotten so big since his release party I wasn’t sure it would even resemble the one I’d seen outside Jugrnaut, which anyway was a slice of new Chicago even younger than Alex. Our driver, on the other hand, spoke to something of the old Chicago from Tree’s catalogue.
He dropped us off, and we took our places in line outside Reggie’s. Reggie’s is a bar, so naturally the crowd was older than the one at Jugrnaut, though it occurred to me Chance himself wouldn’t have been able to buy a drink. As we moved slowly toward the entrance, a couple of young women from Lincoln Park, dressed for a night out, were loudly angling to cut the line. I regarded them blankly (they were quite young), but my brother (bless him) was not too good to give in. They joined us in line. They were native Chicagoans; Alex marveled at their accents, as thick as his. They were excited to see Chance, but they didn’t have tickets. They were hoping the guy at the door would let them in for a wink and a tip. The guy ended up being a girl, but she didn’t check our electronic tickets closely, and Alex and I managed to get the girls in with us, party of four.
Inside—of course—we were immediately separated. Alex and I drifted to our customary spot in the middle of the floor, back of the rowdies. The DJ cycled through current hits, the crowd already loose. BJ the Chicago Kid, a singer who makes several tasteful contributions to Acid Rap, opened for Chance—a real treat. BJ’s appeared on several of my favorite albums of the past few years, carving himself a supporting niche for some of the era’s finest rappers, including Freddie Gibbs and Kendrick Lamar. He is also a spirited performer, an ideal warm-up man for the likes of Chance.
The energy in the room was palpable; the elevated VIP seating to either side of the stage was packed full. The lighting, however, was poor. When Chance ran out to “Good Ass Intro,” it was anticlimactic: no spotlight shone on the hometown hero. Still, perhaps the low light lent to the intimacy he quickly established. Chance is big-headed and muscular. His size and his stage presence, spotlight or none, commanded our attention as he hung on his mic-stand, practically in the dark, for numerous candid moments in his set. He consistently, humbly, thanked us throughout, thanked Chicago, for this opportunity we’d given him at so young an age. And he added convincing theatrical gravity to his renditions of “Acid Rain” and especially “Pushaman/Paranoia,” covering his face with his hands as the band played out the latter song once he’d done rapping.
Whatever the ambience, it didn’t prevent Chance, or anyone else for that matter, from turning up. He warned us before performing “Juice,” asking us to contemplate what was about to happen, and to act accordingly. “Favourite Song [sic],” and the closer, “Chain Smoker,” were no less conspicuous for their revelrous crowd participation. These are songs where Chance’s distinction as one of most original hook-makers in the game pays huge dividends live, since anyone unable to keep up with his raps can just sing along. The set would not have been complete without appearances by Gypsy, for “Lost,” and Mensa, who reunited on stage with Kidz These Days to perform “Cocoa Butter Kisses.” But the night’s livest moment came from 10-Day. The selector cued the chorus to “Fuck You Tahm Bout,” and instantly the floor became a mosh pit. Alex and I braced for impact, but pint-sized women perhaps expecting an extension of Lollapalooza suddenly found themselves in Keef’s grandma’s living room. Someone must have said to cut the music before one of them got hurt. Even Chance looked surprised.
No one seemed to want to leave once the show was over. Chance was that good, even exceeding our expectations. All summer, between Chance and Tree, Alex, like me, heavily favored Tree. But now that we’d seen Chance live, every prior listen to Acid Rap seemed as if in preparation for this night. I often pine for CDs; it urks me not have purchased an album by either rapper, my two favorites in 2013. But there’s no denying the digital revolution’s positive effect on live hip-hop. Until Chance starts selling records, he may be the prime exemplar of this phenomenon—in other words, the best rapper paid exclusively to make his own songs even better in person. Of course, Chance probably won’t have to rely on live performance alone much longer. (A recent report that a bootleg version of Acid Rap had cracked the Billboard charts confirms this.) He has the attention of major record labels and national media outlets, to the point where The Shrine could plausibly promote Tree as “the hottest hip-hop artist in Chicago” for his show the very next night.
While waiting for a cab outside Reggie’s, Alex and I ran into the young ladies we’d got in. They were grateful—they’d had a good time. We chatted for a few minutes and it turned out they were pretty legit hip-hop fans (said with all the lack of condescension I can muster). I was glad when Alex went with them instead to explore the North Side. For my part, I had the dignified excuse of wanting to save my energy to see Tree, again. Alas: the girls had never heard of him.