The Chicago MC (mostly) transcends by-the-numbers arena show
Near the end of Chance the Rapper's performance at a crowded Nationwide Arena on Tuesday, the Chicago-born MC lamented his occasional inability to speak plainly in his songs, dressing up his verses with colorful metaphors and intricate rhyme schemes rather than conveying his message in a more straightforward manner, so as to maximize its impact.
Chance sounded determined not to repeat this pattern as he launched into a set-closing “Blessings,” slowing down to stress each word and syllable in the song's chorus — “When the praises go up/The blessings come down” — like a language instructor carefully drilling his or her pupils on the lesson of the day.
Earlier in his 80-minute set, the rapper, supported by a quartet of backup singers and his three-piece band the Social Experiment, expressed what he views as his mission even more bluntly. “My goal is I'm trying to get to heaven,” he said. “And I want all you guys to go to heaven.”
It's fitting the MC kept an eye on the heavens throughout the evening, being that he’s in the midst of his own remarkable ascension. In February, Chance won three Grammys — his first ever — for best new artist, rap performance and rap album. More recently, he garnered his first No. 1 single for his DJ Khaled collaboration “I’m the One,” which he revisited here, balancing the track's carefree vibe with a comparatively gymnastic verse that effortlessly arched its back, flexed and pirouetted.
Despite limited chart success, Chance has emerged as a pioneer of sorts, becoming the first artist to win a Grammy for a streaming-only album with Coloring Book, from 2016. The rapper’s distaste for the traditional label system and its lack of artistic control spilled over into a performance of “No Problem,” where he clapped back at the majors as a video screen displayed doctored names and logos for a handful of targets, including Sony (“Phony”) and Universal (“Undiverse”), among others.
The concert marked Chance’s first local appearance since headlining Breakaway Fest last summer, and, freed from festival time constraints, the rapper was able to stretch his legs a bit more, though he still served up most songs in frustratingly sample-sized snippets. Also, for such a pioneering, rule-bending artist, Chance's arena show followed a fairly predictable, by-the-numbers template, integrating pyrotechnics, confetti cannons, floor-length catwalks, electronic risers and booming detonations that sounded engineered to set off car alarms in nearby parking garages en masse.
While Chance logged time combing the scriptures and sending praises heavenward, he refused to neglect his earthly setting, rapping about cleaning up the Chicago streets “so my daughter can have somewhere to play” on a calypso-spiked “Angels,” referencing Black Lives Matter on “Blessings” and paying tribute to family on “Sunday Candy,” where he equated his grandma's scent with stability (“[She] smells like light, gas, water, electricity, rent”).
The rapper also payed homage to a man he considers family — friend and fellow Chicagoan Kanye West — delivering a medley that included “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” “Ultralight Beam” and “Waves,” the latter of which included a prerecorded video that played like an “In Memoriam” segment, flashing photographs and performance footage of the two musicians working together.
Shortly after the concert kicked off, Chance took a moment to acknowledge his rise, revisiting an earlier performance at Skully's Music-Diner where the crowd, jumping in unison, managed to make the entire venue bounce in time. Though he failed in an attempt to recreate that experience here — largely owing to the tons of concrete reinforcing the arena's foundation — Chance and Co. damn near lifted the roof off the place as they sent their entwined voices arching toward the rafters on a gospel-stoked “Finish Line."
“I'ma get to the gate singing,” Chance rapped with a disarming directness as the music reached a crescendo, leaving little doubt as to the meaning in his words.