Chance The Rapper: Artist Of The Year

In a cynical year, he was our greatest optimist

We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.

It isn’t hard to sell people on optimism, but it’s hard to keep them sold on it, especially in a year as cynical as this one. Yet as we tear the final pages out of this ferociously exhausting calendar year, Chance the Rapper stands as 2016’s greatest optimist. His Coloring Book was one of the albums that wouldn’t go away this year, no matter what came after it. First, it was the perfect summer album. Then summer passed, and I was still kicking up dead leaves in my neighborhood and listening to cars roll by with their windows slightly cracked listening to “Smoke Break” or “Mixtape.” Chance made the only thing this year that has fit unconditionally.

For the past several months, I’ve wondered, sometimes out loud, if this could still have been The Year of Chance had he come out of any other city. If Chance was someone who hailed from the coasts, I imagine that the sound of Coloring Book — a joyous mess of voices and harmony, with the self as the most reliable instrument — would have moved us just the same. But what of everything else that came with it? What about the feel-good aspects of Chance’s story, the Midwest kid made good? And it’s not as though he rose from the cornfields of central Iowa. Unlike any other city in its region, Chicago sits at the center of the national conversation, taking up space in exciting, uncomfortable ways. Its name is deployed by politicians who imagine any place black people live as a war zone. Black people live and die in Chicago, they create and thrive in Chicago. This year, in particular, the city has been a driving force behind art, sound, writing, and a movement of young black creatives claiming a space of their own — Saba and Noname and Mick Jenkins and Jamila Woods and Vic Mensa, to name a few. Chance, though, was the one who tapped into exactly what this year needed. The soundtrack to grief isn’t always as dark as the grief itself. Sometimes what we need is something to make the grief seem small, even when you know it’s a lie.

In late May, I was crammed into a seat on a school bus driving through Chicago to an undisclosed location. Chance carried me here, strictly on the promise of something spectacular. It was the first time in years that an artist had made me believe in their capacity for the unbelievable in such a way that I got on a plane and flew toward something unknown. The school bus eventually pulled up to a warehouse, where I settled into a long and snaking line. Once inside, Chance’s voice rang out over the loudspeakers, inviting everyone to Magnificent Coloring World: an interactive event and funhouse for all ages to be experienced while Coloring Book played through in its entirety. It was, in many ways, like watching a visual album playing out, created in real time by random participants. Teenagers colored, twentysomethings rapped to every word of every song while leaning into glowing church pews, young children broke out into dance wherever there was a clear bit of floor — first a handful, and then others, and others. There were bowls of candy, coolers of cold drinks, and the entire set from the music video for “Sunday Candy” pushed back against a wall. It was a brilliant creation, in both scope and execution. When the album died down, the final handclaps of “Blessings (Reprise)” echoing off of the warehouse’s brick, a silence fell over the room, and then it quickly became everything but silence, as Chance himself rose from a riser. He was smiling, a Chicago Bulls jersey nearly down to his knees. He stood for a moment, waiting for the cheers to die down. And then he stayed for a moment longer, and a moment longer, until he seemed to realize that the cheers weren’t going to stop.

There’s something about the way Chance takes up space that causes these types of intense reactions. It’s a rock star–like quality, like The Beatles stepping off the Boeing 707 in New York back in 1964. Because he seems too good to be true, witnessing Chance in person, even in stillness and silence, can prompt a type of thrilling madness. It’s also in the energy he gives off, particularly in Chicago. By the time he arrived to the people at Magnificent Coloring World, he was nearly vibrating, radiant. Eventually he spoke, briefly: “Hi. Thanks for coming to Magnificent Coloring World. I hope you had a good time, and please be sure to try to clean up a little for the next group coming in.” He smiled as someone in the back yelled, “Thank YOU, Chance!” And then he was gone, waving as the riser took him back underneath the wonderland he’d created. The air was still buzzing as the masses walked back outside into the sun.

It is one thing to be good at what you do, and it is another thing to be good and bold enough to have fun while doing it. It keeps us on that thin edge of annoyance and adulation. When Steph Curry shoots a three-pointer and turns to run back down the court before it even goes in, there is a second where I tell myself that I’d love for the ball to spin around the rim and fall out, that no one should get to be both good and confident in a time when it’s hard enough to be either. But when the ball inevitably falls through the net, I cheer like I always do. I rewind the play and watch again. Chance has the nerve to have fun, which has to be hard on the rap fan who wants something more urgent out of these urgent times, or who imagines that Chance being from a city like Chicago means that he has to commit to only a single narrative. In interviews, he’s still excited to talk about his own work, sometimes rapidly burning through cigarettes and bouncing up and down in his seat. In live performances, he’s still able to come across as genuinely in love with the people he performs with, staring with admiration at Lil Wayne during a performance of “No Problem” on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

At the end of this long and bloody summer, I sat with friends in New York and wondered how we survived it all. In June, a massacre in Orlando. In July, a dead black person on the news seemingly every week. In August, the protests spreading through every city, in the face of something that seemed like it was going to swallow us all. I thought back to Magnificent Coloring World then, or at least I considered what it might be like to live inside of an album, and if there would be any pain there if we did. The truth is that I, like so many of you, spent this year trying to hold on to what joy I could. I, like so many of you, am now looking to get my joy back, after it ran away to a more deserving land than this one. And maybe this is what it’s like to live in these times: The happiness is fleeting, and so we search for more while the world burns around us. There is optimism in that, too, in knowing that more happiness is possible. Coloring Book’s childlike aspects can feel a bit overwhelming at times for the more grown of us, but in watching what those seeds produce in young people, I am, again, energized. Watching people younger and more carefree than I am now spill toward any space Chance is standing in unlocks the part of me that once did the same thing for Kanye West or Lupe Fiasco. When you watch hope closely enough, manifested in enough people, you can start to feel it too.

Chance’s biggest strength is his remarkable ability to pull emotion out of people and extend those feelings into a wide space. But he is also a skilled writer, one who you can tell was molded through Chicago’s poetry and open-mic scene. He is the type of writer I love most: one who thinks out loud and allows me to imagine the process of the writing. He stacks rhymes in exciting and unique ways; his delivery is the type that seems entirely unrestrained but is, truly, deeply controlled. In “How Great,” he sets a hard act for Jay Electronica to follow in one of the album’s finest verses, spitting, “Electrify the enemy like Hedwig till he petrified / Any petty Peter Pettigrew could get the pesticide” and, later in the verse, “Exalt, exalt, glorify / Descend upon the Earth with swords and fortify the borders where your shorties lie.” His breath control allows for a cadence that seamlessly dances between rapping and singing. There is an urgency in his writing, the idea that he truly believes that this is more than just rap. The leap between 2013’s Acid Rap and Coloring Book is massive, largely in lyrical direction rather than technical ability. It’s the distance from “Trippy shit to watch drugs while on the clock / Acid on the face, that’s a work of art” to “Clean up the streets so my daughter can have a place to play.” On Coloring Book, “Smoke Break” seems like a smoking anthem from a distance, but up close, it’s a song about cherishing silent and stolen moments in the face of new parenthood. In “Same Drugs,” Chance meditates on clinging to youth, even as it slips through your fingers. When he softly sings, “Don’t forget the happy thoughts,” it is an anchor, a reminder that hangs over many of us, even in the year’s worst moments.

Another thing that Chance showed on Coloring Book is that he’s one of rap’s great collaborators. He is capable of bowing to anyone he is sharing a track with, without it coming off as forced — like the aforementioned “Mixtape,” when he finds a way to meet Lil Yachty and Young Thug where they’re at, delivering a verse that sounds right at home, and then, two tracks later, sliding on the airy and mellow “Juke Jam” and lighting a path for Justin Bieber to follow. There is something very Chicago about this, too, like when I call my friends from Chicago who are artists, and we only get five minutes into conversation before they want to know what I’m working on, or how they can help. It is fitting that Chance comes from a city that never lets you walk alone.

He’s also young, and an activist learning to be an activist in these times, as we all are. It’s thrilling, sure, to see so many artists and athletes figuring out how to navigate their role in the political landscape. But with Chance, it feels even more urgent that he “get it right” — a deeply unfair expectation, but one that he seems up to. National attention is shined on things like his “Parade to the Polls” on November 7, where he performed a concert and then led thousands to an early-voting site in Chicago. But there is also Open Mike, a series for young Chicago writers and performers, founded by Chance and his friends. Last spring, Chance surprised high school students there with guest appearances by Kanye West and Vic Mensa. There is global activism, but there is also the work of turning and facing your people, which has to become harder with the more distance put between you and those people. I don’t know what the future holds, but Chance’s commitment to Chicago is truly pushing the needle forward. This isn’t without its flaws; a wide, far-reaching community is always going to be failed by its heroes from time to time. But when all else fails, you have to be able to go home again and have people call your name in a way that is familiar to only them. Regardless of how wide your wings stretch, they were still born from a single place. For those of us with an eye always facing toward home, Chance inspires.

The truth is, if we don’t write our own stories, there is someone else waiting to do it for us. And those people, waiting with their pens, often don’t look like we do and don’t have our best interests in mind. With rap in the midst of what may become its greatest generational shift, geography has taken on a new importance. Chance and his peers are looking at gentrification as a generational issue, looking at place and seeing memories unfold that have to be archived somewhere. I hear that in Vince Staples, in Kamaiyah, of course in Kendrick Lamar, and even in Drake’s Views, a sprawling love letter to Toronto. Chance, at his best, is half-rapper, half–tour guide. The demand is simple: No one gets to speak the name of my city without first knowing it as I have. The interior of the land is always layered. Yes, sometimes with blood, but sometimes with bodies marching, with bodies moving, with bodies flooded into the streets chanting or dancing at the roller rink. There is no singular version of any place, but particularly not Chicago. Everyone, turn your eyes to the city you are told to imagine on the news and, instead, listen to the actual voices inside of it. There is nothing on Coloring Book that I haven’t felt on the streets of Chicago in any season. It is the album that puts a hand inside of a city’s back and makes it speak, makes it sing.

So many people want to talk about church when they talk about Chance. I understand this, in the same way that I understand my hands clapping, almost against their will, when a choir swells into a single, unmistakable voice. I understand it in the way that I understand gospel in its simplest terms, despite not being raised in the church. But here is what I also know: We stomp our feet in my church. In my church, we yell the names of those who will never be able to hear us. We curse in my church, the way our grandmothers did, loud and defiant, anchored by a life. My church is black, yes, but you might be able to get in if you can stay on beat long enough. My church sits high on a hill, away from a world on fire below it. And all of our time in it is brief, far too brief, but we get free there. We do it at the feet of musicians like Chance the Rapper, and the people who love him. If this year was bad, next year might be even worse, or at the very least it might be harder. We are nothing without our quick and simple blessings, without those willing to drag optimism by its neck to the gates of grief and ask to be let in, an entire choir of voices singing at their back.

Next in MTV News's Year in Music 2016: Meaghan Garvey on Marshmello and the year of realizing things.