It’s a narrative as old as time, really: the bigger you get, the more people are inclined to find reasons to tear you down. It happens to more or less anybody who forges their path through the public eye, but those involved in music seem especially vulnerable to the whims of the fickle. Lately, I’ve noticed that Chance The Rapper seems to be an increasingly-favoured target.
Since the release of his debut mixtape 10 Day back in 2012, Chancellor Bennett has been steadily establishing himself on the hip hop scene. As sophomore effort Acid Rap (2013) dropped to critical acclaim and 1,000,000 downloads on DatPiff the stage was set for a major breakthrough, with a transition to the mainstream consciousness finally realised with 2016’s Coloring Book. Somewhat predictably, this step up in notoriety has brought with it an increasingly-prevalent backlash against an artist who was adored within the hip hop sphere at the outset of his career.
The most salient criticisms that I have noticed can be broadly split into three overarching complaints. Much discussion has focused on Coloring Book. Whether it’s because of the apparent overuse of religious imagery or its diminished quality when compared to Acid Rap, Bennett’s most recent mixtape is often first in the firing line. Other criticism is levied at the man himself: claims that his rapid rise is attributable to ‘industry plant’ status are of questionable veracity to say the least, but much more difficult to argue with is the speculation that he may not be as much of an independent darling as he and particularly his fans like to suggest.
No shortage of ire, then, but do these arguments actually hold any weight? Is there any substantive justification to go with them, or can the existence of these claims be explained away as an inevitable consequence of a growing audience (more listeners equals more potential for criticism) and the fact that some people just can’t handle a thing that they like attaining mainstream popularity?
When the project tentatively known as Chance 3 dropped in May last year, it did so off the back of an understandably considerable amount of hype. I listened to it a lot and my initial impression – along with countless others – was that it had delivered. After the release hype had died down, though, it didn’t stick around in the rotation for long and nowadays there are only a few tracks that I listen to with any real frequency. As more time elapsed, Coloring Book began to come in for criticism that was directed primarily at what many perceived to be an overemphasis on Chance’s religion.
Whilst there were some who felt it was not overused but simply implemented either heavy-handedly or unimaginatively, particularly vocal were those who felt the themes were just too prominent: but were they really, though? Breaking down the most frequently-occurring words from Chance’s verses across the entire project, we do see a small and varied drawing from that particular semantic field – God, heaven, prayer, exalt, etc. – as well as hooks like the one from Blessings below:
Beyond that, of course, you look at the obvious gospel elements and themes of community and spirituality that underpin the whole thing and, yeah, okay, it’s hard to deny that Christianity is a fairly fundamental presence. What’s more debatable, however, is the impact that this stylistic choice has on Coloring Book’s overall quality. Acid Rap did not employ religious overtones, and as a fan coming into this expecting more of the same it’s easy to see how their relative prominence may appear overbearing; if you wanted Acid Rap II and instead got such a marked contrast, you’re naturally going to be inclined to think it isn’t as good. That’s just how human beings work.
Obviously, musical opinions are subjective so it’s impossible to say whether Acid Rap or Coloring Book is the better mixtape. Personally I do think the former outshines the latter, and I can absolutely understand that an emphasis on religion would be the deciding factor for many who would agree. That said, though, a slight decline in quality between just two mixtapes is not reason enough to completely turn on an artist.
The Idea of the ‘Industry Plant’
I actually hadn’t been aware of this particular school of thought until very recently, and I must concede that at a very (and I stress very) fundamental level it isn’t an entirely baseless accusation. Compared to other ostensibly (more on that later) independent up-and-comers it certainly seems like he had access to resources/connections of some kind when you look at the features on Acid Rap, and the way that his hype level kept at a steady buzz despite a three year gap between mixtapes is certainly worthy of a second thought.
However, as one Reddit commenter pointed out to me, much of this ammo can be explained away fairly rationally, and the importance of an early Childish Gambino cosign can’t be understated. Beyond that, the whole idea kind of comes off as something of a conspiracy theory anyway, as well as being more than a little disrespectful to the artist being discussed by virtue of implying that their talents alone would not have been sufficient. Looking specifically at Chance, I think it’s fair to say that help or no help, his musical proficiency would have got him there sooner or later anyway.
Credit: /u/furr_sure on Reddit
“I don’t make songs for free, I make ‘em for freedom”
Of the main strands of criticism being discussed here, this one seems to me to be the most objectively fair. Much has been made – both by Chance and many of his fans – that he operates free from the meddling of a record label, and it’s certainly easy to see why that is: keeping hold of your master recordings is a surefire way to shield your work from exploitation, exercising full creative control is key to effective artistic expression, and in this age of big money contracts there’s undoubtedly something admirable about sticking to your principles no matter how many zeroes are dangled in front of your face.
Whilst Chance might not be signed to a label, though, it’s difficult to argue with any real sincerity that he’s a truly independent artist. Beholden to the whims of a label he may not be, but the corporate connection is there: for the first two weeks following release, Coloring Book was an Apple Music exclusive despite Chance’s long-held belief that music should be freely available for all. I wasn’t able to find any real information about how much they paid him for it, but given how fierce the competition amongst streaming services is (not to mention Apple’s considerable financial clout) I’d wager it was no paltry sum.
When we think about the independent angle, I guess the most important question to ask is not “is he really as indie as he says he is?” but rather “does it really matter if he isn’t?”. On the one hand, both Chance and (especially) his fans use it as a pretty major selling point when extolling his virtues, and the fact that there’s at least a degree of substantive truth to it definitely somewhat undermines his whole ethos. On the other hand, though, the music is still the same at the end of the day and you’d have to be seriously principled (arguably to a fault) to completely reject him on that basis alone. Considering how much positive change he is trying to effect given the platform that he now has, I’m not in any hurry to begrudge him his success.
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I have to admit that the fact most (certainly not all, but unarguably a great deal) criticism appears to be coming from older fans makes it difficult to see this as anything other than “this thing I liked is popular now, so I’m no longer interested” mixed with “I wanted Acid Rap II and didn’t like what I got”, but the claims are by no means unsubstantiated. To cursorily surmise the three arguments discussed here:
- Coloring Book is a definite stylistic departure from what came before, but I feel that dismissals of its merits based solely on the religious content give it an unfair prominence; there is enough on there that eschews the theme completely to avoid classifying it as “overwhelmingly religious”
- The gradual (and then explosive) growth in his notoriety may not have been entirely organic, but (manufactured pop music notwithstanding) phrases like “industry plant” are best left to the tinfoil hats
- Chance The Rapper is not an independent artist just because he has not signed a record deal, but the ways that he is using his newfound platform (not to mention the fact that he seems to be a genuinely nice guy) makes it hard to hate on him legitimately for it
All told, some of these criticisms do hold weight, but as a bigger audience is always going to bring more scrutiny their rising prominence should not be seen as a surprise. It certainly came as a slight shock to me given how near-universally he was loved before, but I can absolutely understand why people might think these things having looked at the debate a little more closely.