When your name is Chance the Rapper
It’s pretty much a given that one of your favorite parts of your job is performing in front of an energetic crowd. But the Grammy-winning musician has been denied that opportunity since the pandemic first hit a year ago. In nine years, he had gone from writing raps between high school classes to performing and collaborating around the world—and now he was suddenly hunkered down in his Chicago hometown without access to the outlet he loved most.
It’s been a huge change,” the rapper tells Adweek. He also moved to a new home soon after the pandemic hit “just to get some space”—which forced him farther away from his studio. “Going through the process of working in these new conditions and keeping everybody safe and also trying to get your work done—it can be a difficult process sometimes,” he says.
Despite the challenges, including being unable to see his parents and other loved ones because of Covid-19, it will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his music and performances that Chance is still finding plenty of reasons to be joyful. “When you’re more grounded and you’re not moving place to place as much, when you’re waking up with your kids or going through the day, there’s a lot of stuff you can get done,” he says.
So the prolific artist—who released his first official album, The Big Day, in 2019—has been staying as busy as possible. In addition to collaborations with Vic Mensa and Justin Bieber, plus regular work in the community with his nonprofit SocialWorks, the rapper now has 11 virtual concerts under his belt—and he has no plans to slow down. Those boundary-pushing virtual performances are just the latest example of the ever-evolving creative capabilities of the rapper, who has found in the shutdown an opportunity to redefine live music experiences while also cultivating his directorial ambitions.
It’s all part of the expanding legacy of the 27-year-old musician, who has sidestepped easy musical classification since releasing his first genre-bending mixtape in 2012 and eschewed record deals in order to maintain control of his own professional and musical destiny.
“Historically, Black people in the music industry have never really gotten to be in charge of their own future, and in a lot of instances, they end up being the ones abused within the industry itself,” says Chance, who made history when Coloring Book became the first streaming-only mixtape to win a Grammy in 2017. “It’s been an awesome thing to be able to be in control of my path and in control of the music and the IP that I own.”
Stepping into the virtual world
That element of control extended to Chance’s virtual concerts in 2020, many of which came about as a result of brand partnerships with companies like Verizon and Ralph Lauren. While brands commission them, Chance maintains the rights to his performances.
But Chance will be the first to tell you he wasn’t always a believer in performing virtually as an alternative to in-person concerts.
“When I was first introduced to the idea of [virtual performances], I was not really into it,” Chance admits. “In the ones that I had seen, I didn’t like how the audio was recorded. I didn’t like the format or the staging or how it was filmed. They’d be on a big stage, and you could tell no one was in the room.”
That all changed after Verizon asked him to work on a concert for its weekly streaming entertainment series to support small businesses. Verizon let Chance and his team record and film themselves, and they opted not to replicate a stage performance but record it more like a Tiny Desk Concert. The results, Chance says, opened his eyes to the possibilities of the medium.
“The audio was so crisp, it sounded like a studio album,” Chance says of the resulting concert, released virtually on May 14. “The live mic sounds good when there’s a lot of bodies, and it’s on the right kind of speaker system. But when you use a studio mic or a lapel mic and mix it right, then it feels really intimate.”
In the months since, the virtual opportunities have kept coming, and Chance has performed everything from a studio-style concert inside of the Ralph Lauren flagship store in Chicago to a virtual performance for app Triller designed to be played through car speakers.
“With any partnership, it’s a necessity to have both parties be proud of whatever they’re going to be doing and excited for it,” says Chance, whose first brand partnership was with Kit Kat in 2016. “All of the people that I’ve worked with and all of the brands that I’ve worked with recently have been extremely generous and understanding of what my intent is and what I stand to gain or maintain in any partnership. Because of that, it allows me to be creative on the highest level.”
Taking a creative chance
The special offered an hour of visual and audio delight for fans of Chance’s music and of classic television and film. In the special, which was released in virtual reality and on YouTube in mid-December, Chance sings his own hits and some Christmas classics while stepping in and out of sets that pay homage to films like Home Alone and Mean Girls, classic sitcoms like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and even a few Michael Jackson music videos. At the end, there’s even a nod to the 1988 film Scrooged.
“Most people that know me know that I’m really into film, and I always have been,” says Chance, who doesn’t miss a beat when asked who his favorite directors are: “Christopher Nolan for his storytelling, Wes Anderson for his aesthetic and how he shoots things, and Spike Lee for his style and how it permeates through his work.” His favorite movie, he says, is the 2002 Chinese martial arts masterpiece Hero starring Jet Li.
The special, which Chance wrote, directed and executive produced, took nearly a month to pull off. He spent a week on a Chicago soundstage jam-packed with elaborate sets that took 10 days of around-the-clock work to construct. “To be able to author this idea and have other people come in and help you realize it and build it with me and shoot it exactly how I wanted it to be shot was awesome,” Chance says.
The musician only recently ventured into television, primarily in front of the camera and as a producer in a reboot of the prank show Punk’d on now-defunct service Quibi—the show will soon be available on Roku—and as a judge and EP on Netflix’s hip-hop talent show Rhythm + Flow, but he’s really interested in spending more time behind the camera, directing film projects or limited series.
To further his directorial chops, Chance is experimenting with shorter projects. On Valentine’s Day, the rapper, a self-promoter from the start, released a minute-long commercial hawking I My Wife T-shirts for sale on his website—the first piece of content he’s released himself since Chi-Town Christmas.
Chance expects he will be doing more virtual concerts for at least the next year and a half, giving him more time to focus on his filmmaking ambitions while still performing the music his fans love. “I think the soonest that we’ll be back to having large gatherings, or even the ability to be able to do concerts again, isn’t probably going to be until summer 2022,” he predicts. “That sucks—my favorite thing in the world is performing—but I do really think that virtual concerts are the future.”
But will they be the future even once in-person concerts are back? Chance is betting on it. In fact, he suggests, streaming services may want exclusive content to keep fans tuned in long after he’s back to performing onstage in front of live audiences.