Tracy Chapman: Outsider Made Good

Cool Continuum
3 min readMar 4, 2024
Tracy Chapman, photo via WikiMedia

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Tracy Chapman is a great example of what can happen when an artist takes risks and pursues their dreams despite the challenges that might occur in life.

In the early stages of her career, the songwriter faced many issues and struggled to fit in. As a young person, she felt isolated and experienced discrimination due to her background and skin color.

In spite of it all, Chapman stayed focused on her goals. She channeled her struggles into something productive, making her personal stories an essential component of her songwriting, creating music that still resonates with listeners of all ages. One of her most well-known songs, “Fast Car,” is a classic example of her style. The now classic track features mellow guitar and sparse percussion sounds played gently overtop of the iconic guitar riff. More importantly, Chapman’s lyrics and personal storytelling add a very authentic vibe to the song. The track talks about her family, life, and struggles growing up in a problematic home with an absent father figure. Many of her songs deal with personal experiences, allowing listeners to connect with her on a deeper level.

Chapman started out as a busker in Boston, often playing her songs and some covers on subway platforms. This was a very formative experience for the artist, who learned more about making music in a barebones format, relying almost exclusively on her guitars and vocals. It did not take long for the artist’s music to get noticed. Chapman began building a strong fanbase and became a respected name in the local scene, attracting the attention of a local radio station, which played some of her songs. Eventually, this led her to sign a record deal, which resulted in the release of her debut album. The full-length was released in 1988 and became an instant success. The record sold over 20 million copies and earned Chapman several Grammy awards. To this day, it is considered one of the most successful debut albums of all time, and it is still praised for its ongoing influence on the singer-songwriter scene.

While her initial success was in folk-pop, Chapman explored different directions in her later records. She focused more on her straight-up folk influences, going for a more organic tone inspired by roots music and Americana. Later career albums such as “Our Bright Future,” from 2008, stand out as excellent examples. Tracy Chapman took a lengthy hiatus from performing and making records, virtually vanishing from the music industry after her last tour in 2009. In the following years, the artist only performed a mere three times, making a long-awaited surprise return to the music scene in 2024 when she performed “Fast Car” at the Grammy Awards ceremony alongside country artist Luke Combs. Her decision to step away from the spotlight was simply due to the fact that she did not enjoy the publicity and constant scrutiny that came with fame and notoriety.

Chapman’s singing style is notable for her emotional and deep voice, as well as her rich lower register, which to this day, remains one of her most defining artistic qualities.

She could be considered an Outsider in the scope of the Cool Continuum, because she had no musical upbringing of any kind, and she was literally able to build a career for herself through sheer willpower and confidence in her musical passion. She embraced a very hands-on approach to her career, especially at the early stages, as she worked very hard to get her music to the “right sets of ears” and reach a like-minded audience with her songs.

Cool Continuum is a collaborative effort by Jason S. Comely and ChatGPT. For more artist profiles and ideas on how you can make your mark on the art world, follow me on Medium.