Chance the Rapper is one of the biggest breakout stars of the past few years, achieving fame and success in an unorthodox way — by avoiding the major labels that want to sign him. Fiercely independent and articulate, he’s found a way to please both the backpacker fans and a much wider audience through savvy collaborations with the likes of Lil Wayne and Kanye West. He’s also politically active, and a recent act of philanthropy, which saw him donate $1 million to Chicago public schools, even had fellow Chicagoan Michelle Obama tweeting her praise for him: “Thanks for giving back to the Chicago community, which gave us so much. You are an example of the power of arts education.”
Born on Chicago's South Side
Born Chancelor Johnathan Bennett on April 16, 1993 in Chicago’s south side, Chance the Rapper had a comfortable middle-class upbringing: his father, Ken Williams-Bennett, worked for the city's mayor and later for Barack Obama when he was a senator. Young Chance began rapping under the name Chano and formed the group Instrumentality with a friend, J-Emcee. Chance’s brother, Taylor Bennett, also launched a rap career.
In his senior year at Jones College Prep High School, Chance was suspended for 10 days for marijuana possession, and used that time to record his first solo mixtape, 10 Day. A 14-track project that included work with a future frequent collaborator Vic Mensa, and production from Flying Lotus, it was released as a free download on mixtape website DatPiff. Chance had already come to the attention of Complex magazine, which featured him in its "10 new Chicago Rappers to watch out for" feature in February 2012, noting that “Chance has one of the more distinct flows and voices of any new artist in the game.”
'Acid Rap' Delivers
A hook-up with Childish Gambino for the track "They Don’t Like Me" on his Royalty mixtape in 2012 opened up another door. Gambino – aka the actor Donald Glover – invited Chance to open for him on his next tour. Chance was already recording his second mixtape, Acid Rap, the release that would really push him to the next level. Released again as a free download on April 30, 2013, it featured tracks with Twista and Gambino, and almost drowned in critical praise. Spin claimed that “Chance is a wide-eyed talent figuring out the world one deeply felt rap song at a time,” while the Chicago Tribune saw Acid Rap as “a springboard for his versatility as an MC, thinker, improviser and surrealist. Little wonder he’s being pursued by a gaggle of record-company suitors.”
No Labels, No Problems; The Social Experiment on Surf
Those labels would be disappointed. He took meetings with them but decided that he would rather maintain his artistic independence while exploring the limits of a label-less career. As he told Fader Magazine in 2015, “They’re almost like, ‘Keep going. You’re in uncharted territory, and you’re helping to shed light on what [the future of the business] will look like.’” It’s an approach that relies on revenue from touring and merchandise, but means he can do whatever he wants musically. A prime example of this was his next move. While fans expected more of the same, perhaps on a major label, he instead worked with trumpeter Nico Segal (aka Donnie Trumpet) and a group of musicians called The Social Experiment on an album called Surf. Released as a free download, it was an organic, jazzy, soulful album shot through with Chance’s laconic rap style. Uncredited guests included J. Cole, Erykah Badu and Busta Rhymes. Chance then gave away his next project too, a six-track mixtape recorded with Lil B.
The start of 2016 saw Chance collaborating with his hero, Kanye West, on tracks for the latter’s The Life of Pablo album. He also attended the White House along with a slew of other rappers and singers to meet Barack Obama to discuss the My Brother’s Keeper Challenge, to create equal opportunities for young people. It was another sign of his growing activism, which saw him named Outstanding Youth of the Year by the Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel, in 2014. In March 2017, he met with Governor Bruce Rauner to discuss public schools in Chicago. He later told reporters: “Governor Rauner still won’t commit to giving Chicago’s kids a chance,” and pledged $1 million of his own money in an attempt to highlight the issues and prompt other philanthropists to contribute. He’s also been pivotal in the #SaveChicago campaign, an anti-violence initiative in a city with a troubling murder rate.
The First Streaming Grammy
Coloring Book, the third free mixtape from Chance, dropped in May 2016. Again, an eclectic range of guests accompanied him — among them Kanye West, Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, T-Pain and Justin Bieber. The single "No Problem" was an instant hit. The album became the first ever to chart on the Billboard 200 just from streaming, receiving 57.3 million in its first week alone. Entertainment Weekly thought it had sequencing issues, but raved about the creativity on display, concluding that Coloring Book "affirms Chance’s place as one of hip-hop’s most promising — and most uplifting — young stars.” Blending soul, gospel, hip hop and the music of Social Experiment, it was a favorite in best-of-year polls and with other artists. Mac Miller tweeted that it was “very very very very good. I like music that makes me feel things might just be alright.” The industry agreed, with Chance winning three Grammy awards in 2017. But Chance was already in a celebratory mood; months earlier he had embraced the spirit of the festive season with "Merry Christmas Lil Mama," a Yuletide alliance with singer Jeremih.
Chance’s interest in social justice, welfare and education stem partly from his upbringing, partly from his own awareness and conscience, but also from becoming a father himself in 2015, to a daughter, Kensli. Both fans and peers expect great things in the future from an artist who clearly has his eyes on the bigger picture and who intends to keep surprising us.
(Profile photo of Chance the Rapper by Matthew Eisman/Getty Images)
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