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Chance the Rapper’s Rejection of Sanctimony

The Chicago star’s four new songs complicate and extend the savior narrative around him.

Chance the Rapper at the 2017 BET Awards
Mario Anzuoni

Chance the Rapper has bought Chicagoist, a local-news publication whose parent company shockingly shuttered last year after the staff voted to unionize. The injection of cash into the endangered and important trade of neighborhood journalism marks the latest in a line of apparent good deeds by the 25-year-old Chancelor Bennett. The rapper whose music preaches Christian love and forgiveness is headlining the Special Olympics. He has donated a million dollars to Chicago Public Schools. He has chaperoned field trips, called for moratoria on gun violence, and blasted racist beer ads.

But Chance does not exactly sound saintly as he announces the Chicagoist buy and touts his other mitzvahs on “I Might Need Security,” the first of four new songs he released Wednesday night. Rather, the track revolves around a loop of Jamie Foxx singing, sweetly, “Fuuuuck you. Fuck you.” The rapper’s first line goes, “I ain’t no activist / I’m the protagonist.” Which is to say, he’s not a mere vessel for causes. He’s a person, and people are flawed.

That distinction is important to remember in an age when many of the working rap gods have made public service into spectacles. Kanye West’s 2018 tirades have called for love across partisan lines and a troublingly ill-defined spirit of service. Jay-Z keeps doubling down on the disputed notion of his success as a helpful political symbol—while also doubling down on out-and-out political statements about policing and mass incarceration. Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther work injected more motivational pep into his tortured-preacher routine. Even the solipsistic Drake brandishes a new “good guy” persona by caring for his kid and showering the needy in cash.

Chance has, all along, convincingly and effectively played the good guy. Sonically, his creaky voice, childlike affectations, and bright bulbous beats scan as “positive” and “sunny.” As a public figure, he’s been held up—often recklessly—by people outside of hip-hop as an example of what other rappers should fashion themselves into. As a lyricist, he has insisted that you can have a really great time while living New Testament teachings, but many of his most powerful passages have come from him staring into the ways in which he’s lapsed. All of which is to say there’s a savior narrative developing around him.

But he knows that narrative’s dangers. “I Might Need Security” has him embracing messianic labels (choice cut: “young chosen one”) only sourly, and he decides not to bask in accolades but to scrap with villains. He calls for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who’s employed Chance’s father in his administration, to resign for being soft on “murderer” cops. He says he bought Chicagoist “to run you racist bitches out of business.” Impious rappers, annoying white people, critics of his parenting: all on “a hit list so long I don’t know how to finish.” The song bumps satisfyingly, and Chance’s delivery is deceptively casual: You, too, can adopt an air of pissed piety just by pressing play.

Indeed, there’s something reassuring about hearing Chance this brittle and punchy. Maybe that’s because the illusion of his universal acclaim has cracked this year. When he tweeted mild support of Kanye West at exactly the wrong moment for someone theoretically opposed to Donald Trump’s policies, it led to a “thanks” from the president and an apology from Chance. And when he bit back at the Twitter snark about his marriage proposal, many saw it as the latest sign of him having thin skin. But “I Might Need Security” owns that accusation of petulance as a fuel to push ahead in a larger project. He’s Christian, but he can’t always turn the other cheek.

The rest of his new four-song release uses a range of approaches to square sanctity with entertainment, bolstering his brand as relatable rather than insufferable. Worldly concerns mostly fade away with the featherweight grooves of “Wala Cam,” a celebration of the Chicago juke scene that has Chance sending up materialist rap clichés: “Watch don’t got no face / Jet don’t got no plates / God don’t got no cape.” His signature church organs emerge on the closer “65th & Ingleside,” a moving narrative of his come-up that has him practically shouting in gratitude for the woman who recently became his fiancée.

The more remarkable document of the batch, though, might be “Work Out,” which breathes and wafts over standup bass, ’90s TV PSA melodies, and not-one-iota-ironic wind chimes. The first verse has Chance acting rude, insulting an ex and mistrusting women (“I don’t want my next album sounding all Usher-y,” he raps, which is great). But then the mood turns: He says he wants all the best for his exes, and for the rest of the song he uses a lilting flow to apologize to those he’s insulted and to praise God. It’s folly and forgiveness wrapped up and hummable, and it suggests that accomplishing change doesn’t have to be as drastic as buying a news organization—though he’s of course doing that, too.