Chance the Rapper rattled the Midland with an exuberant set last night

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When Chance the Rapper opened his show Wednesday night at the Midland Theatre with “Cocoa Butter Kisses” from his 2013 breakout mixtape Acid Rap, the young Chicago MC already held the crowd rapt with attention. By the second time he and his band the Social Experiment broke into the track, late into their sprawling and intoxicating set, the whole theater was trembling.  

As the weight of a few hundred kids collectively losing their shit caused the balcony to queasily bounce in time with the music, technicolored lights filtered through puffs of smoke floating languorously toward the ceiling. Perhaps riding high off the Royals’ defeat of the Astros — or maybe just weed and cheap beer — the audience slurred along happily with the wily, 22-year-old Chance: Cigarettes on cigarettes / my mama think I stank / I got burn holes in my memories / my homies think it’s dank / I miss my cocoa butter kisses.

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For a rapper with just a handful of impressive mixtapes and features under his belt (including, but not limited to, an oddball track from Madonna’s latest album that also inexplicably features Mike Tyson), Chance drew a midweek crowd formidable both in size and sheer enthusiasm. Fresh off releasing the free album Surf this past May, the Social Experiment doubled as the performance’s booming, rhythmic backbone and Chance’s de facto hype men, injecting the already charged atmosphere with so much frenetic energy that it was hard not to move to the music just by way of osmosis.

Born Chancelor Bennett, Chance the Rapper’s music is distinct — and distinctly of Chicago — in its blend of Kanye-like soul raps, trumpeting horn arrangements, and gospel-like singalongs. Songs often veer suddenly into the rhythmic territory of juke and footwork. Following up on the success of 2013’s Acid Rap, just his second mixtape, the rapper took a left turn, forgoing a debut album to release instead the Social Experiment’s Surf and a mixtape collaboration with Lil B earlier this year.

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Expanding upon Acid Rap’s breezy, earnest hip-hop, Surf is the joint effort of Chance and a rotating cast of Chicago musicians and collaborators, sounding not unlike a Midwestern version of the Toronto indie supergroup Broken Social Scene if they dealt in jazz-inflected pop rap rather than bombastic guitar rock. Both Chance’s solo output and his Social Experiment project share an ineffable, timeless musical quality: songs at once feel nostalgic, best suited for evening drives during late summer with the windows down. The guiding principle here seems to be one of radiating good vibes, not by shying away from life’s darker moments but rather by confronting them, and striving for something brighter.

Live, the Social Experiment crackles with that same energy personified and in motion, and Chance is the electrical conductor. Songs crescendoed until the room was bursting at the seams with warm, enveloping sound and soulful exuberance. Social Experiment leader Donnie Trumpet accentuated the music with brassy, echoing flourishes that seemed to paint colors onto the air, only to dissipate just as quickly as the stage lights flashed.

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Mid-set, bathed in shadow and moody reds, Chance performed
Acid Rap standout “Paranoia,” accompanied by sporadic, comet-tail bursts of trumpet that called to mind Miles Davis. The crowd grew hushed, illuminated by glowing phones outstretched and a few lighters, and the rapper sang of his native Chicago: They murder kids here / Down here, it’s easier to find a gun than it is to find a fucking parking spot. The mood turned contemplative, if only for a few moments.

Periodically, in the darkness between songs, Chance would hoot at the crowd, later explaining that this was his way of soliciting more energy from the audience — to provoke them to dance harder, to sing the words loudly. For three and a half minutes during set closer  “Chain Smoker,” the crowd became one bouncing, shifting mass as Chance rapped about Frank Ocean and cigarettes over a skittering, synth-diffused beat. And with that, the house lights came up and buzzing concertgoers began to file out the exits. Still, clusters of dedicated stragglers remained on the theater floor, hooting, as if to call Chance back and delay the night’s inevitable end.

Categories: Music