Why Chance the Rapper isn’t Lupe Fiasco and how he can continue not to be

Chance the Rapper’s life is perfect. He said so himself in Summer Friends and Zach Baron said so in GQ. That’s three people that have said it now, it must be true. Still sceptical? Well listen to this.

In 2017 Chance won 3 Grammys including Best Rap Album. Now that’s extremely impressive, but it’s not THAT impressive, there’s one every year right? Well yes, but also no. This win was game changing. See, Chance has never released a rap album. He has only released mixtapes, and who still cares about mixtapes? Well, the Grammys do now. They actually changed their rules to enable themselves to recognise Chance’s work, furnishing him with the gongs that I’m sure he now sharpens his mustache in each morning before breakfast.

And it was a game changing win for a truly game changing artist. See Chance isn’t only forcing the most prestiguous musical awards body to bend to engage with him on his terms, he’s doing it to the entire music industry. That’s the same industry that makes artists sell their soul for a 50/50 shot at 15 minutes of fame coming in the form of a Drake remix. But Chance’s soul is well and truly in tact and, might I add, in bloody good shape if his last album, sorry mixtape, is anything to go by. See, young Chancellor Bennet has turned down every single major music label there is. He is not signed. And he’s won a Grammy. Shit, he’s won three Grammys.

And you’d better believe those labels want him. He is just about the biggest catch there is in the industry right now and Chance is well aware of his market value. But rather than looking to secure a record advance, Chance has stated he wants no part of the ‘dick swinging contest’ taking place, recognising that to those labels he is no more than a trophy and a major pay day. Chance recalled to Mr Baron, in that GQ piece, how the exploitation of Chicago’s recent violence, which included Pitchfork taking Chief Keef to a shooting range, the same Chief Keef who in 2011 was arrested for aiming a loaded gun at a police officer, opened his eyes to the nature of the game he was in. Seeing those industry vultures swoop in to fetishise and profit from Chicago’s turmoil apparently had a bit of a red pill in the matrix effect and ever since Chance has been avoiding controversy and the general bullshit that hangs around rappers just like Neo swerves bullets in the aforementioned blockbuster.

If you want proof that Chance operates on a higher platform check this — Chance and his ex, Kirsten Corley, were recently applauded for their “unusually high level of cooperation” in arranging child support. To reiterate, that was a rapper, praised for his attitude to child support, who could have conceived it? Seriously, there’s a script for what a young black rapper from a city torn apart by gang violence is supposed to do and that particular script Chance hasn’t read.

Chance the Rapper, Hip Hop’s Neo?

Now that’s all well and good right, but don’t you need a label to really make it big? Distribution and marketing and stuff like that? Well no. See in addition to his Grammy award, this year Kanye let him lead out his Life of Pablo album. Did Kanye realise Chance would be up sort of stealing the entire album with that verse? That’s not a question I can answer. But on top of that he’s just scored his first number 1 with everyone’s favourite Snapchatter, unless you’re delivering a baby that is, DJ Khaled. And in addition to thaaaat, Chance has set up his own festival, established a revolutionary system for giving artists radioplay and oh yeah, he’s done a world tour.

And the reason he’s been able to achieve what he has in the way he has is simple, it’s the masterful use of Social Media. Riding its democratising wave like a pro Australian surfer with sun bleached hair and a leg scarred by the shark he killed with his bear hands rescuing an infant child from the beasts jaws, Chance has risen to the pinacle of Hip Hop bypassing what many would have assumed was the only was to achieve anything i.e. signing to a major label. His example illustrates perfectly how social media shakes up existing power structures. Being able to connect directly with his fans, using their spheres of influence to share his music and sell his merchandise has given Chance an air of authenticity, humility and approachability. You feel like you know Chance and then you realise that you don’t and then you realise that you really really want to. Marketing his last project via posters pasted around Chicago saw flocks of budding fans snapping them for the ‘Gram meaning that even I got to see them in (sometimes) sunny England.

And if you were sat thinking that this is all very pious and nice, but questioning whether he actually makes any money, well be assured he does. Chance is paid. Sure, he could be more paid if he sold his projects, and he probably will in time, but the shrapnel he’s made from touring and merchandise has left him in the somewhat enviable position of being able to donate $1,000,000 to Chicago schools following recent funding cuts. His donation was also matched by the Chicago Bulls demonstrating Chance’s growing social influence in his hometown. Because that’s another thing, he reps his city, bitch he sleeps in his hat.

Chance is a human zeitgeist, pioneering a new way founded on new technology. Social media has given him a platform to demonstrate his talent without having to compromise on his artistic vision or pander to label pressure. He has you rooting for him even if you don’t like his music, although in fairness, how could you not like his music? But as his career develops it is highly likely that he will increase the amount of work he does via existing power structures. For instance cementing his relationship with Apple music, through whom he released his Colouring Book project in deal for which he was paid $500,000. The worry is that an artist with so much vision and whose whole thing is independence, will be pacified rather than empowered by engaging more with those structures.

As Chance sails these unchartered waters I hope that is able to avoid the pitfalls that a fellow Chicagoan fell into. Another rapper whose whole thing was difference, who challenged the status quo and who also happened to light a torch on a Kanye song, but whose career turned into an inglorious descent into irrelevance. Read on for a wild ride and a tale of woe.

A few weeks ago I was lying prostrate in my bed, I was scanning Facebook waiting to my life to have some meaning. I came across a Genius video. I didn’t recognise the interviewee and I didn’t recognise him when I very professionally tried to find the video, which obviously I didn’t manage to do. Nonetheless one of his answers stuck in my mind. He was asked which decreased rapper he would most like to bring back to life. His answer was Lupe Fiasco. In case you don’t know who that it, he’s 35 and he’s a long way from dead. As a massive fan of Lupe that hurt a little bit, but I can’t pretend I didn’t agree with him.

However, rewind a few years and things looked very different, or rather similar, similar that is to the prodigal Chancellor. In 2005 Lupe graced my favourite album of all time, Late Registration with arguably my favourite verse of the album (Paul Wall’s verse in Drive Slow and Kanye’s final verse in Crack Music are the competition). Then in 2006 Lupe released his debut album Food and Liquor which is a classic, even if Lupe says isn’t. See on that album Lupe gifted us with something thought provoking, challenging, brave, funny and very very clever. On American Terrorist he challenges racism against African Americans, but also against Native Indians as well as Muslims while also presenting us with a Klan member who can’t burn his cross because he can’t afford the gasoline. I mean, how are you supposed to feel about that? And that’s after he’s already criticised hip hop’s misogyny and laid bear his hypocritical acquiescence to its proliferation of the word bitch in Hurt Me Soul. That’s not what rappers are supposed to rap about. They’re supposed to be a bit scary, a bit offensive, a bit cool, wear lots of jewellery, hang with bitches and rhyme about all of the above. Lupe however, wore spectacles and rode a skateboard. Just like Chance, he didn’t read the script. And also just like Chance, Lupe had the adorning fans, he had the ability, he had the vision and he had the cojones. So what happened?

Basically it’s all Jay Z’s fault. See what happened was this. Lupe had gotten notice from his time on the label Arista Records leading Jay Z to contact Lupe’s mentor Charles ‘Chilly’ Patton. Jay Z explained that he was about to take the Presidency at Atlantic music and he wanted Lupe over there with him. Now when Jay Z tells you he wants you, you don’t baulk, just ask J Cole, or Rihanna, or Kanye (kind of). So Lupe signed with Atlantic. But Jay Z got a better offer and took the same role but at Def Jam. This precipitated a situation rather like when you go to a party with your friend and they introduce you to one of their other friends and the three of you stand there getting on like a house on fire and making plans and having a top time, but then your friend goes to talk to someone else and the two of you are left there and suddenly you realise you don’t actually have that much in common and you don’t really see things the same way and you’d both rather be someone where else talking to someone else, but you’ve already got day plans, it’s awkward.

The problem was that Atlantic prides itself on the successful execution of a musical formula for hit making, while Lupe and the word formula don’t exactly go together like milk and honey, thus leaving artist and label in very different headspace. Atlantic didn’t even want to promote Lupe’s single Kick Push leading Patton to put up $100,000 of his own money to do so. Further compounding the acruing missery, Lupe claimed that his refusal to sign a 360 deal, which would have given his label a cut of his merchandise and touring income, coincidentally Chance’s two main revenue streams, resulted in Atlantic refusing to promote his sophomore album The Cool.

Although The Cool proved successful, the conflict between art and business soon spawned Lasers, a piece of pop synth trash that Lupe claims he released to appease his label. Last year via Facebook Lupe offered fans the chance to send him their copies of Lasers to be destroyed by a massive laser. That tells you all you need to know about that album and Lupe’s opinion of it. Yet despite its tortured release and scathing reception it demonstrates an interesting pre-twitter example of people power in the 30,000 thick petition delivered to Atlantic demanding the albums release. Would things have been different for Lupe if he’d blown up 10 years later?

Despite seeing out his Atlantic contract with 2015’s Tetsuo & Youth, Lupe has been unable to reestablish himself as an artist of any prominence, positive at least. At the end of 2016 he was caught in a proverbial shit storm after rapping the lyrics “Artist gettin’ robbed for their publishing
By dirty Jewish execs that think his alms from the covenant
” in the song N*E*R*D*. The backlash he faced, namely in the form of unsurprising accusations of anti-semitism, led Lupe to announce his retirement. That retirement came at the end of a year in which he had promised 3 albums, none of which had seen the light of day due to copyright and mixing issues. Admittedly he did release Drogas Light in early 2017 but have you listened to it? I haven’t. Nowadays if you, like me, follow Lupe on Facebook you’re more likely to see him wielding a samaurai sword than a mic. Can you blame him though, if you’d had the career he’s had wouldn’t you fill your time with funky hobbies? His N*E*R*D* lyrics were insenstive at best, but they tell the story of a very frustrated man, whose art has been interfered with and whose voice has thus been diluted, ultimately reduced to a whimper. And to think, it’s all Jay Z’s fault.

So there you have it. Two kids from Chicago. One making the industry bend to him and the other seemingly bent and broken by the industry. But while Lupe is the worst case scenario there are umpteen examples of artists getting screwed by their labels. Look at Lil Wayne, Drake, J Cole. And that is because art is art but business is business and the motivations are different. Of course many a time there is a happy middle ground, but sometimes there isn’t and sometimes you get Lasers. Chance’s success so far has been built on his ability to cut straight to his fans almost as if he is speaking to them in his living room. That is both in terms of his actual communication, tweeting and the like as well as his championing of causes that matter to those like him. But it is also the result of creating art with an authentic voice untempered by commercial concerns, a voice which is honest and insighful and independent.

And so with Chance in mind, along with all the yet to be famous kids who will follow in his footsteps, may they continue to use technology to challenge power structures which serve interests not in their best interests. Let us hope that as Chance progresses on what should be a long upward trajectory, he keeps a sense of self, keeps speaking his mind and standing for independence. And while all of this is happenening let us also spare a though for Lupe Fiasco, the artist that might have been.