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Chance the Rapper Didn’t Sell Out. He Grew Up

His latest, The Big Day, has been criticized as 22 songs about happy marriage. In truth, it’s a celebration of the culture that forged him.

Chance the Rapper performs at Garfield Park Conservatory on the eve of his album release.   Photo: Chicago Tribune

Last month in the New York Times, the writer Amanda Hess introduced “The Wife Guy,” loosely described as a heterosexual man who “defines himself through a kind of overreaction to being married. He married a woman, and now that is his personality.”

Earlier this year, I became a “Wife Guy.” Incidentally, the photos for our wedding took place at the Garfield Park Conservatory, which also served as the location for a Spotify-sponsored concert by Chance the Rapper last Thursday, in a private event targeted to a small subset of fans and in support of his fourth solo project and first “official debut album,” The Big Day. (If you’re confused as to how a fourth release could be labeled a debut, keep in mind that the concept isn’t new: The late Nipsey Hussle dropped 13 mixtapes featuring major-label talent, all available for purchase, before releasing his official debut Victory Lap last year.)

Chance’s album dropped at lunchtime the next day, and one thing was immediately clear: Chance is a Wife Guy too.

If you hadn’t heard by now, Chance married his sweetheart Kirsten Corley earlier this year. The couple have an adorable daughter, Kensli, and look like the type of duo who would throw really good Labor Day parties.

The Big Day feels like the album a guy who just got married would make. It’s gushing. Throughout, Chance radiates joy and excitement about his marriage, to the point that it’s become one of the main criticisms of the album.

But what is the undercurrent of all that happiness? As Chance sounds like he’s learned, growing up means embracing your total self. It also means a whole new set of things to deal with: You’re happier than you’ve ever been before, but you’re also worried about shouldering the responsibility of providing for a new family. Chance’s biggest risk on The Big Day is choosing to firmly embrace a new persona — that of a husband and father who makes Doritos commercials with Lionel Richie sometimes. It’s called growth, people!

This growth feels like foreshadowing, a nod toward the next phase of Chance’s career. Strangely, it feels like the last DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince album, 1993’s Code Red — everything from here on out is Will Smith. Skeptical? If you woke up to the news in a year or two that someone rebooted Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Chance got cast as the lead, would you be shocked? Me neither.

The songs on The Big Day are strategically designed to win mass acclaim. The new jack swing homage “I Got You (Always and Forever)” seems aimed to dethrone Bruno Mars’s long reign over wedding-reception playlists. The guest verses are both current (recent breakthrough acts DaBaby and Megan Thee Stallion) and full of hip nods to artists who’d seem out of place on a Chance album (they seriously went and got Randy Newman for this). And all the featured guests land: Smino shines on “Eternal,” Gucci Mane drops wisdom on “Big Fish,” and on “Roo,” Chance’s younger brother Taylor makes a strong case for his own rapping skills.

Sure, not everything works. There are issues with the album’s length (19 songs plus three skits) and sequencing. But a lot of the criticism on Rap Twitter feels like overreaction to Chance’s run to date. Some of the concerns are valid — particularly with regards to Chance’s team killing unfavorable articles about him in the past — but what’s being missed is the larger context around The Big Day. Chance is not talking to hardcore rap fans. He hasn’t been for a long time. The arguments about his faith crowding the album? That’s been the case since Coloring Book in 2016. Why would anyone expect to get Acid Rap 2?

Chicago is rapidly losing the culture that created this album. The Urban Institute predicts that by 2030, Chicago’s black population will shrink to 665,000 from a high of roughly 1.2 million after World War II. This movement out of cities has been called a “reverse Great Migration,” and the phenomenon is rapidly reshaping neighborhoods like Chatham, on Chicago’s South Side, where Chance grew up. The Big Day sounds like the product of a black kid who grew up there in the wake of the ambitious energy of the black middle class, the pre-crack era minds who worked hard and saw the gains of economic progress, if only for a bit.

In that regard, The Big Day is a spiritual successor to Kanye’s College Dropout. That girl on “All Falls Down” who couldn’t afford a car, so she named her daughter Alexis? This album was made with her in mind.

At certain points, it almost sounds like Chance is making music exclusively for the city and people that forged him. Take the undeniable “Ballin Flossin.” The song features DJ Casper — the “Cha Cha Slide” man — sharing bars with Shawn Mendes over a Chicago house-flavored flip of Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down,” and finds Chance shouting out every section of the city. (The same thing happens, courtesy of DJ Pharris, on Kanye’s “Cold.”)

It seems that an intended goal of The Big Day is to spotlight people who don’t usually get acknowledged on major rap albums. Listen to Chance’s last verse on album outro “Zanies and Fools," where he raps: “We learn together how the back door feels / And we was jumping over brooms in tobacco fields / We was the same, all black folks still / Until the white man found out black votes steal elections / So they legitimized us, but behind us / It’s still black folks at the back door still / For every small increment liberated, our women waited / And all they privacy been invaded.”

To Chance, the decision to get married represents an investment in the culture that created him. It’s a form of rebellion.

At Chance’s concert last week, I stood to the right of the bench where I saw my wife for the first time on our wedding day. The stage sat in front of the wall where I took pictures with my mother. Chance roared onto that stage, ripping through his most-loved tunes (“Same Drugs,” “No Problem”) backed by the Maze to his Frankie Beverly, longtime collaborators the Social Experiment. I had experienced the feelings Chance projected that night. It’s the happiness of not just marital bliss, but cultural celebration and pride. On The Big Day, for a little more than an hour, you can hear what that sounds like.

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