Ari Chi is about to drop her debut album. She will do so on all major digital music services through a company she created and runs from her home outside Tampa, where she gigs constantly and lives comfortably as a working musician. She's marketing the album with strong social media and a line of signature hats. After dalliances with record labels that left her dissatisfied, she is doing it all on her own, at 23, and finding the whole experience "really, really, really worth it and fulfilling."
The album's title: Color Fool. That it sounds a lot like Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book is probably not a coincidence.
"When I was looking for album titles, I actually thought of Coloring Book," Chi said. "But then I thought, No, I totally can't do that!"
It would be a bit on the nose — although it did work wonders for Chance, the 24-year-old hip-hop wunderkind who has virtually upended the music industry overnight, inspiring and opening doors for a generation of young, independent artists like Chi.
Chancellor Johnathan Bennett isn't the first indie artist to achieve mainstream success, but he might be the first with such a clear vision of how to rise from a teenage mixtape wunderkind to a Grammy-winning, festival-headlining, Kanye-featuring superstar.
Following a string of acclaimed mixtapes and singles (All Night, No Problem) and high-profile features (Kanye West's Ultralight Beam, DJ Khaled's I'm the One), the Grammys' reigning Best New Artist and Best Rap Album winner has ascended to the biggest stages in music, including as Tampa's Amalie Arena on June 14. In the process, his adherence to a unique artistic, strategic and even moral code has forced stodgy institutions like the Grammys and Billboard charts to re-evaluate decades-old benchmarks for success.
Chance's rise through the industry may be unprecedented. But can it be replicated? Is Chance a one-off phenomenon, or has he really changed the game for indie acts worldwide? Here are four lessons artists grinding in the time of Chance the Rapper can apply to their own careers.
Chance released his first two mixtapes, 2012's 10 Day (written while he was still in high school) and 2013's Acid Rap, as free downloads. They garnered big buzz, he toured with big names, and labels came calling. That success, Chance has said, showed him the power of releasing music for free, without limitations, to the widest audience possible. So he stayed independent, controlling his music (and musical direction) and instead earning money from touring and merchandise. For last year's Coloring Book, he sold Apple Music a two-week exclusive streaming window for $500,000, but then made the album free again.
"It's a lot easier to put things out digitally, and there's a better return in a way, because you're going to spend less than you would if you were to press music physically," said Jorge Brea, president and CEO of Symphonic Distribution, a Tampa company that gets indie artists' music on services like iTunes and Spotify. "Independents are seeing a bit of an inspiration, seeing that they don't have to get signed in order to make it."
Who you know has always been a factor in making it big. Growing up, Chance's father worked for then-Sen. Barack Obama and he soon befriended artists like Kanye and Childish Gambino. But making connections and then capitalizing on them are two different things.
"I've met so many people, but oftentimes I'll be too shy to make good, meaningful connections — it's kind of like, 'Hi, I opened for you, it's an honor, nice to meet you,' " said Diana Hardy, a.k.a. Dynasty, a Tampa rapper who has worked with Talib Kweli and frequently tours in Europe. "He definitely taught me to capitalize on that moment and make those relationships and those connections. ... That's a huge takeaway for any indie artist."
Networking also helped Chance outside of music. He has met with corporations and politicians, including Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, about his favorite cause, Chicago's public school system, and has held regular news conferences during 2017 to be transparent about his progress. Weeks after announcing he would donate $1 million to Chicago schools, he held a conference to announce the Chicago Bulls would do the same.
Be a brand …
Chance has always been a savvy self-marketer. Example: For years he was almost always pictured in a Chicago White Sox hat (the "SOX" doubling as shorthand for his band, the Social Experiment). For Coloring Book, his third mixtape, he switched to a hat with a striking "3" above the bill, and has worn colorful variations on almost every stage since. The hats are now a best-selling item in his online store.
"That release in particular was perfect — probably the last one that will feel that independent-feeling and still be that big," said Billy Mays III, a St. Petersburg experimental artist who runs a digital branding and marketing service called Remember You Are Dreaming. "I follow everything he does just to see how it's put out, and I try to translate it to my people. I'll probably do my physical bundles in a very similar way."
… but also be yourself
Part of why artists seem so eager to work with Chance is his artistic style: Earnest, playful, optimistic, slightly awkward and childlike. He sings about church and childhood (he's long performed a variation of the theme to the kids' cartoon Arthur), dresses in clothes that are more geek than chic and performs with a dynamic live band, including horns. "The Rapper" might be part of his name, but he doesn't fit any preformed mold.
"He was able to stand out by being a hip-hop artist that wasn't necessarily saying what everybody else was saying, and wasn't acting or looking like everybody else," Brea said.
That may inspire younger artists to follow their own left-of-center muses, Dynasty said.
"A lot of times, people don't think it's dope until they see it on the big level, until somebody big tells them that it's dope," she said. "For an 18, 19-year-old, that might mean there's a little more opportunity. It looks like it's coming back around to the lyricism, the soul in the music, the authenticity. So there's maybe a chance for them in that regard. For the artist, it might make them a little more hopeful."
For Ari Chi, it already has.
"I've always said, when people asked who I would want to work with, he definitely came up," she said. "He is himself, always, and that's awesome and inspiring, because he always sounds like himself. It doesn't matter what song he gets on, everybody knows it's Chance the Rapper."
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.