Review: Chance the Rapper proves he's one of hip hop's best live acts at Jannus Live in St. Petersburg
You hate to throw a guy who’s all of 23 into the thorny and heated discussion of Greatest Rapper Alive.
But let us at least agree on this: Chance the Rapper is no doubt one of the great live acts in hip hop today.
At Jannus Live in St. Petersburg on Thursday, he put on the sort of concert that demolishes expectations of what a hip hop show should be: Earnest, emotional, endearing, jazzy and joyous and jubilant instead of overly heavy and hardened. It was every bit a reflection of Chancelor Bennett’s outsider approach to the biz (for instance, his insistence on dropping his music for free online).
Credit much of the winning vibe to Chance’s four-piece band, the Social Experiment, who all night long fueled his flow with sounds slinky, soulful and triumphant. If you’re still wondering why their excellent spring LP Surf was credited to the full band, not just Chance the Rapper, this show was all the convincing you needed.
All that said, it's still the Chi-Town kid with his name on the door that sets the tone for each night on stage.
“I got the Chicago blues,” Chance said, stepping into the courtyard to the hazy soul of Everybody’s Something, before lurching to life on Pusha Man, skittering and stutter-stepping across the stage, and leaping into jumping jacks like he was Tommy friggin’ Tune.
Everybody’s Something and Pusha Man come from Chance’s acclaimed 2013 mixtape Acid Rap, which saw a ton of love on Thursday — way more, curiously enough, than Surf. That was fine by many fans, who rapped and bounced along to Acid Rap favorites like the soaring Chain Smoker and journalistically honest Interlude (That’s Love) (“What’s better than followers is actually falling in love,” he rapped, a curious but laudable sentiment for an artist who broke online).
The crowd fed off Chance’s energy, which at times was a double-edged sword: When the music stops, he tends to speak softly, almost stammering at times, refusing to pander with easy and obvious banter. But he’s able to turn the electricity back on as if flipping a switch on his back. After halfway castigating the crowd for not quite making Jannus shake on Juice, he exploded off his feet as the band lit into Favorite Song, juicing the house right back up.
Leading the crowd as much as Chance were the Social Experiment, particularly brassman Nico “Donnie Trumpet” Segal, whose flaring flourishes added majestic verve to the thoughtful Paranoia and seductive Lost. Keyboardist and producer Peter Cottontale, too, made the place feel almost like a basement jazz lounge, twinkling out piano interludes while Chance moaned lyrics in a grainy, beyond-his-years croon.
Chance dropped in some of his own best features (BJ the Chicago Kid’s Church was fittingly spiritual, and the crowd ate up Action Bronson’s Baby Blue) and a mini-suite from his 2012 mixtape 10 Day (the heady, uplifting Brain Cells showed signs of the inspirational soul-stirrer to come).
Maybe it’s not surprising Surf got the short end of the setlist stick — considering the album’s copious feature roster, from J. Cole to Big Sean to Busta Rhymes, maybe there just isn’t much left for Chance to do — but fans still devoured the few songs they got, including the contemplative jazz jams Rememory and Miracle. Sunday Candy had the whole crowd shouting along, and post-Surf single Angels showed Chance at his most forceful, rhyming and jitterbugging so hard he nearly knocked his ChiSox cap clean off his noggin.
Chance even threw in Everyday Wonderful: Arthur, his lyrically sparse yet organically spiritual spin on the theme song to the animated kids’ series Arthur. The jam went on a bit long, but paid off by the end as Chance led everyone in a massive high-five-along, clearly getting great joy out of watching everyone open up, let go and feel alive.
Chance may be only 23 — nine years below Nicki, six below Drake, five below Kendrick — and Greatest Live Act in Rap is a long way from Greatest Living Rapper (to say nothing of the hallowed throne of G.O.A.T.)
But by the end of the show, the positivity in that courtyard was pervasive. Not many rappers could pull that off live. With Chance, it’s expected. That, nobody can debate.
-- Jay Cridlin