Hey remember this?
I was going to contribute this essay to a larger project that never got off the ground. I wanted to cram every idea I had about the album into one chunk; it’s a little unwieldy. But I’m so happy to finally be able to share this.
2. Acid Rap
Even the most cursory pass through the thirteen tracks on Acid Rap reveals the curious fact that the ideal human state as envisioned by Chance the Rapper is “good.” The first line of the first song on the record is, “Even better than I was the last time baby—I’m good. So good.” The song is appropriately titled, “Good Ass Intro.” The last song on the record—appropriately titled, “Everything’s Good (Good Ass Outro),” has Chance affixing the titular assertion on the end of innocuous statements like “remember sittin’ in class the first time listening to Dilla.” He also raps “I’m good like books and church is,” “it feels good for me to thank you,” and ends the song, and the record, with a simple: “everything’s good.”
On “Paranoia,” the second half of the second song on Acid Rap “Pusha Man,” he raps “pray for a safer hood, when my paper good.” Chance opens “Everybody’s Something” by flipping the word “good” into different connotations: “What’s good, good? What’s good, evil? What’s good, gangstas, and what’s good, people?” The very next song—the gospel tinged “Interlude (That’s Love)” builds on “Everybody’s Something” that came before it, where Chance runs down a list of “what’s better than ___ is ___,” whose logical baseline is something “better than” another thing means the first thing is, at the very least, “good.” But “good” is still the default; “better than” is what comes after.
However, consider the conceit of the record: by opening Acid Rap with “even better than I was the last time,” it’s safe to assume everything on the record is “better than” what came before it. “Good” isn’t good enough. Chance is cataloging, not just on the “Interlude,” but the entire record, what can happen when Good is transcended. When Good is something that isn’t seen by most people his age. The relentless optimism is what makes Acid Rap so good: everything’s Good, but it can be better, it will be better, I’m better than I was the last time.
The frame of “Good Ass Intro” is built on Kanye West’s “Intro” to his I’m Good mixtape, a simple loop of John Legend singing, “Even better than I was the last time, baby—I’m good. So good.” (The same exact cadence was reused by T-Pain on Graduation's triumphant “Good Life”.) On Chance’s version the line is sung by at least six other people. Kanye raps a little on his song before ending by simply stating, “It’s people at war right now. We can’t be sittin’ up here complaining about the bills, complaining about whatever beef we may have. We good, man. We blessed.”
“Good Ass Intro” snatches its syntax from the rumored album Kanye was supposed to drop after Graduation, that later became My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—Good Ass Job.
Mr. Bennett you done did it, you did it, you did it
You did a good ass job, you did a good ass job
Or consider that Kanye’s record label imprint is called G.O.O.D. Music, where G.O.O.D. stands for “Getting Out Our Dreams.” Kendrick Lamar, another gifted young rapper, titled his breakout 2012 record, good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Chance is obviously influenced by Kanye, and is a contemporary of Kendrick. He’s in good company.
So-called academic takes and reads on rap music often feel hollow because they seem to think subtracting the context of the music makes it easier to digest or talk about, and the effect is both weakening the analysis of the music as well as the impact the music made that justified writing about it in the first place. While this type of writing can often be helpful, insightful, and worthwhile, the result can create something like an “In” club, elevating a certain type of rap music and a certain type of listener and a certain reading of rap that zaps all the fun out of it. If there is a problem with this type of writing, it’s that over-analyzing and processing the music to explain or decode it for a wider audience makes music feel like work, or anthropological documents, and nothing is more condescending or disrespectful to artists than to view their work as the result of othering the experiences that created their art. When people, especially black and other people of color, criticize the whitewashing of rap journalism, this seems to be the main issue: removing the context from which the music was created. Making a safe judgment from afar. Ignorance of the real issues. No baseline to gauge the black experience. Art for art’s sake or ignoring from where it was borne? Take into account the real-life ramifications or come across looking like a hand-wringing moralizer? It’s tough, but not impossible, to strike a balance.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah wrote for the Los Angeles Review of Books an essay titled, “When the Lights Shut Off: Kendrick Lamar and the Decline of the Black Blues Narrative.” In her last paragraph, she hits on what made Kendrick’s good kid so good, and, you know, Important, or influential, or whatever:
Lamar is not just a wandering preacher in town to be angry at the locals and their chaos. Nor is he salaciously telling their stories, hoping to give people an angry crime fantasy so that he can bait and hook anyone who is susceptible. …Kendrick Lamar has made a third way, and by the end of his album, one cannot help but feel excited for him.
I like Acid Rap more than good kid because Chance finds a fourth, fifth, maybe even a sixth, seventh, and eighth way. His album is funny and fun in the right moments and heart-wrenching in others. It’s also not so concerned with the self-consciously middle-class issues of Kanye West’s perfect debut The College Dropout. It’s a personal story, but one that’s not about working at the Gap, or about losing his virginity.
My favorite record of 2011 was Danny Brown’s XXX, and in 2012 it was obviously good kid. In 2013 it was Acid Rap. What we have is a triumvirate of personal narratives that elevate rap to a novelistic vision, which isn’t to condescend to all the great music that came before, but is to say there is currently a focus on highly personal records in a form that dropped out of popularity for awhile. Detroit. Compton. Chicago. These are records that place their pain on a map, as well as their celebrations and resilience, their drugs and drinks, their heroes and villains. It’s not new, and it’s not exclusive to these three records. But they remain among my favorite from recent years.
Acid Rap leaps past references, allusions, real life stories, drugs, violence, desperation, all with Chance at the center laughing, smiling, ad-libbing his trademark high-pitched yelp, insisting everything’s good. It manages to crawl all over forty years of rap production while still finding some middle point in classic soul samples, sometimes immediately-recognizable samples already sampled on classic rap records, creating a mobius strip of hip-hop and R&B’s hit-parade hall-of-fame, while still finding time to call back to Chicago footwork, juke, and bop, allowing Nosaj Thing to ramble on for a few minutes before a song that rests firmly on old-fashioned-sounding samples. A lot of songs sound like outtakes from Common’s Be (the cascading coda on “Good Ass Intro” quotes wholesale “Faithful”), but to their advantage. Hometown giants like R. Kelly (whose “World’s Greatest" is appropriately interpolated), Twista (who appears), Kanye, and countless Chicago rock and blues legends loom large. There’s Willie Hutch, Donny Hathaway, and Betty Wright. An intersection of spoken-word-open-mic-poetry ethos and battle-rap mentality. It sounds like the culmination of many underground visions, without major label backing or star-powered cosigns.
The last real line Chance raps on “Good Ass Intro” is, “This your favorite fuckin’ album and I ain’t even fuckin’ done,” in a snotty slur that registers as humorous but with the threat of being real. Chance is sneering, insisting he’s “better than,” but the scary part is, he really means it.