Chance the Rapper takes a sold-out Xcel to church

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Chance the Rapper, on his way to heaven. Photo by Steven Cohen.

Chance the Rapper is more than we deserve.

The 24-year-old Chicago hip-hop phenom motored to center stage on a minibike as a series of flash pot explosions behind him announced that yes, this would be a real arena tour, with all the glitz, pyrotechnics, volume, and scale we’d expect of a true pop star. Which, unlikely as it may seem, Chance has now become. In the following 90 minutes he would transform the sold-out Xcel into a cross between a cozy basement rec room and a high-wattage megachurch.

The improbability of Chance’s success is baked into his appeal: He’s made his way without record label support, without releasing a commercially available album, without sacrificing his independence to corporate hegemons like Apple even as he siphons away their cash. Few rappers fill arenas this far north, and almost none could launch something called the “Be Encouraged” tour without coming off as an utter cornball.

“There’s way too many people here,” Chance announced after the opening benediction of “Blessings,” adding that he was more used to a room like First Avenue, which he packed in 2013 after the release of his breakthrough mixtape Acid Rap. But this wasn’t false humility -- as Chance went on to boast about his first number-one single, the Billboard Hot 100 logo flashed on the screen behind him. And this was about a half hour before he'd get around to performing the actual song.

The room may have been bigger than Chance was used to, but some things hadn’t changed. He’s toured from the start with the same three-piece backing band, sometimes d.b.a. the Social Experiment: horn man Nico Segal (a.k.a. Donnie Trumpet), keyboardist and musical director Peter Cottontale, and drummer Greg Landfair, Jr. This time a mixed-race gospel quartet joined them, necessary to recreate the grandeur of Chance's most recent release, Coloring Book.

But before he dove fully into the new stuff, Chance luxuriated in a mini-set of Acid Rap tracks: “Pusha Man” (its title a nod to his hometown's soul great, Curtis Mayfield), the sensually sing-song “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” and “Favorite Song,” which he introduced with orders for unison crowd bouncing. “I would like to shake this bitch,” he said, explaining that with the right amount of coordinated movement “you can literally shake the foundation of the building.” The Xcel foundations probably remained undisturbed, but that floor sure reverberated.

Chance mixed his own enthusiastic bounding with some nimble footwork, scooting forward, backward, and sideways across the stage on his toes. He whisked through a medley of Kanye West songs he's appeared on, and during his “Ultralight Beam” verse, the most incandescent pop moment of 2016, he seemed to levitate up from the stage floor that had flooded with smoke. Gradually, the platform he stood upon came into view, and he continued jumping at his higher elevation.

When he dipped back into the 2015 Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment album Surf (“a cavalcade of fun,” as he accurately described it) for the grandma-celebrating “Sunday Candy,” two teen girls in my row exploded like hamsters in a microwave. Chance briefly darted offstage as his backup crew came down front to harmonize on “D.R.A.M. Sings Special,” then returned to get his previously teased smash hit, “I’m the One,” out of the way. It's a star-bloated bit of fluff he shares with burly human ad-lib DJ Khaled, pop cipher Justin Bieber, and an underutilized Quavo from Migos.

From there on out, it was all Coloring Book. “All We Got” ended with a literal mic drop, and the assertive “No Problem,” which 95.3 has been pumping for a straight year, rushed into the clubby “All Night,” before “Smoke Break,” which wasn't about Marlboros, eased up on the forward motion. Chance then enthused some more about First Ave. “I’ve played every room in that building,” he said. “Every time we left there, the walls were covered in sweat.” There was some slight sacrifice in intimacy to the performance -- beefing up the sound always dulls musical nuance, and Chance's delivery lacked that hint of a chuckle you sometimes hear on his recordings that suggests he can’t believe the line that just occurred to him.

But Chance's connection with the crowd was undiminished, whether he was instigating echoes of the infectiously strangulated squawk that’s his trademark ad-lib or leaving lines for the crowd to finish without any fear of silence. Trim in his white T-shirt and skinny tan pants, his powder-blue ball cap emblazoned with his trademark “3,” Chance held the floor with a charm too casual to call “stage presence.” The only other performer I can think of who so delights in the opportunity to publicly be himself without seeming even a twinge egomaniacal is Stevie Wonder.

“There’s a path we got to get on,” Chance said several times throughout the night, foreshadowing the concert’s climax. After mourning his aunt’s recent death from breast cancer, the MC got explicit. “She was a warrior in God’s army,” he said of his aunt. 

“I’m tryin’ to get to heaven,” he continued. “And I want everyone to get there.”

There was no preaching after this, but there was testifying. Chance perched on a stool for the subdued “Same Drugs” until a purple, illuminated catwalk descended from the heavens, allowing him to stroll out mid-Xcel, where a golden spotlight illuminated both the performer and the giddy crowd, so that the kids below him were lit in more ways than one.

“How Great” praised God, incorporating a brief reprise of “All We Got” that changed “music is all we got” to “Jesus is all I got" (note that shift in pronoun). And to close the night, a second version of "Blessings" became a spiritual workout regimen -- “When the praises go up” arms raised high “the blessings come down” and ... release. Maybe only a guy who humblebrags "they never seen a rapper practice modesty," then recounts a convo with the Lord -- “He think the new shit jam, I think we mutual fans” -- could pull off this evangelical shift without risking sanctimony. But you didn't need to be a believer to have faith in Chance the Rapper that night.

The Crowd: Young, younger, and even younger. Extremely (but not knuckleheadedly) hyped. Predominantly (but not exclusively) white.

Overheard in the Crowd: “I could sell these tickets for $200 to some white girls” -- some white boys on Seventh Street.

Random Notebook Dump: To show his hometown pride, Chance brought along as a warm-up act the great King Louie, the Chicago local hero who rules the regional rap style called drill. King L's stripped-down, street-level performance wasn't ideal for the big room, but his spare, hooky tracks won over much of a crowd whose tastes were more in line with DJ Oreo's radio-rap mix.

Critic’s Bias: Coloring Book sounded good enough last summer that I braved the shade-less broiler of the relocated Rock the Garden at Boom Island to tippy-toe a glimpse of Chance over bobbing teen heads and clouds of cheap weed smoke. Soon after, this was some of the only music that alleviated the stupid, wracked tension of the scummy death-march that the second half of 2016 would become.

Setlist
Mixtape
Blessings 1
Pusha Man
Cocoa Butter Kisses
Favorite Song
Waves / Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1 / Ultralight Beam
Sunday Candy
D.R.A.M. Sings Special
I’m the One
All We Got
No Problem
All Night
Smoke Break
Angels
Finish Line/Drown
Same Drugs
How Great / All We Got
Summer Friends
Blessings 2


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