Following the release of his psychedelic trip of a second mixtape, Acid Rap, Chance The Rapper delivered a guest verse on Rapsody’s “Lonely Thoughts,” rapping: “They sayin’, ‘Acid was an album, retail it’/I said, ‘I got way too much soul for me to sell it.’” Since his first mixtape, 10 Day, Chance has excelled at crafting clever aphorisms. What’s special about this aphorism in particular–having “too much soul to sell”–is how instrumental Chance’s belief has been to the success of his career. He’s convinced Apple to remain true to his vision; they release his music for free. He’s the first independent artist to perform on SNL. Ever.
Along with writing credits on several songs on Kanye’s seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo–“Father Stretch My Hands Pt.1”, “Famous”, “Feedback”, and “Waves”–he arguably has the most transcendent verse on the entire album in “Ultralight Beams.” All of his mixtapes, including his most recent release, Coloring Book, has received critical acclaim from nearly every respectable music publication with ears. And Coloring Book has become the first streaming album to chart–No.8–on the Billboard 200. Chance has managed this–albeit not alone–without ever charging a red cent for his music, or signing with any label–major, “indie,” or otherwise. Everything that Chance has accomplished with mixtapes forces me reweigh the value we ascribe to them and the role they play in an artist’s success.
“Am I the only nigga still care about mixtapes?” Chance asks on “Mixtapes,” a track midway through Coloring Book that features Young Thug and Lil Yachty. Musicians often pose rhetorical questions to their audiences because musicians, like their audiences, already know who has the answer. This is a musician’s power: to cultivate enough curiosity in an audience to get them to listen, consider and internalize what’s actually being said. But considering that reviewers, listeners, and even Apple music–the company that exclusively streams the mixtape–insist on referring to Coloring Book as an album when it’s not, it’s obvious we have jumped to our own conclusions. The distinction between albums and mixtapes may strike some as inconsequential. Others may see it as a question of semantics–but language matters. This is especially true for artists who spend a great deal of their time arranging words in a peculiar order so that we may be able to hear something different.
In the cultural imagination when we say “this sounds like an album,” many of us are saying: this is valuable; worth something. I was seventeen when Lil Wayne’s Da Drought 3 mixtapes were in everything from cars to iPods, and the overwhelming sentiment I remember besides “Is this really Wayne?” was: “This sounds like an album.” I was one of those people. Reflecting now about my interaction with those tapes, I think about how I allowed myself to be corrupted by the pernicious idea that anything executed with expertise and cohesion couldn’t be a mixtape; it couldn’t be free. It had to cost something, which is ironic because I spent most of my time in high school scheming on ways to not pay, or pay as little for music as possible. Whatever it took to keep the few dollars I barely had in my pocket, I did it–Limewire, asking friends to burn and borrow CDs and flash drives, buying bootlegs (3 for $10) off the many men and women selling them in barbershops, train stations and wherever else heavy pedestrian traffic was certain.
I really didn’t give that many fucks about stealing music, anyway, but since I understood I was more likely to find mixtapes on the streets than in stores, I felt less guilty about not buying them. The cultural appeal with mixtapes had always been that you weren’t really expected to buy it from a record store. They weren’t sold there. You had to go to the streets–you had to know someone who had it; or knew enough about an artist to know where you could find it. You were supposed to get it from a friend, or lift it from an older sibling’s stereo or cd player, search every barbershop in Brooklyn for it, or go to a show. Even when people sat by their tape decks for hours—hitting record and play at the same time, waiting for their favorite song to come on—dubbing mixes for their lovers, parties and best friends, the mixtape was an intimate discovery. Time and energy spent was proof of your devotion. There was freedom.
Designating Da Drought 3 as an album was my way of saying I was willing to pay the price that demanding artistic freedom cost the artist to make the tape. I valued the time, energy and devotion. I appreciated the intimate discovery of learning, like Wayne and other artists, what they could do with beats that were and weren’t theirs. Too many albums suckered me in with a lead single, that didn’t deliver on the rest. With the seal broken I couldn’t get my money back. I’d be stuck with basura. Trash. A makeshift Frisbee. As money was something I didn’t have a lot of, I literally couldn’t afford that mistake. Mixtapes decided if an artist was worth my money. I repeated these sentiments for Drake’s So Far Gone, Kendrick’s Section.80, A$AP Rocky’s Live. Love. A$AP, The Weeknd’s House of Balloons, Frank’s Nostalgia, Ultra, and both of Chance’s mixtapes, 10 Day and Acid Rap. These mixtapes each came at greater costs to the artists who made them than the audience who listened. In many cases the audience reciprocated, galvanizing the artists until they got what we felt they deserved but were in no position to give them–record deals, million dollar advances, better studios, Grammys, coveted album placements with more established artists, world tours.
Listening to Wayne’s verse on “No Problem” after Chance warns, “If one more label try to stop me/ It’s gonna be some dread head niggas in your lobby” I remember what made “Mixtape Weezy” so captivating—and what made me want to buy his albums in the first place: “Hol’ up/ I got it slowed up/ My soda po’d up/My woes up/I’m flippin’ those bucks/they doing toe tucks/I rolled up/and let the smoke puff/I lay down, told yah/ Hold up/get too choked up/when I think of old stuff.” On Da Drought 3, Wayne communicated a hunger typical of an artist who’s trying to get a record deal. Not someone who’s had one since before he was a teenager. But it was the hunger we all heard and identified with which is why when Wayne rapped on “We Takin’ Over,” “I am a beast/Feed me rappers, or feed me beats” we all believed him. To hear Wayne’s stomach growling again, I can’t help but be grateful for Chance who provided Wayne a kitchen with the freedom to cook.
With Chance, there are never too many cooks in the kitchen. He gives D.R.A.M. his own interlude on “D.R.A.M. Sings Special”; returns Jay Electronica to Pride Rock on “How Great”; takes a smoke break with Future; mixes and matches Kirk Franklin with T-Pain and Noname on “Finish Line/Drown”; croons with Justin Bieber on “Juke Jam”; and reminisces about his “Summer Friends” with Jeremih and Francis and the Lights. This many people on any one project usually suggests an artist’s inability to carry it alone, but community and collaboration are central to Chance; it’s how he shoulders the load. On the reprise of “Blessings” Chance raps, “I speak of wondrous unfamiliar lessons from childhood/Make you remember how to smile good/ I’m pre-currency, post-language, anti-label, pro-famous/ I’m Broadway’s Joe Namath/ Kanye’s best prodigy/ He ain’t signed me but he proud of me.” Thinking about how much Coloring Book beckons College Dropout, it’s difficult to see how Kanye couldn’t be proud. Chance is coloring in what Kanye outlined twelve years ago.
What struck me and many of the people who fell in love with Kanye was how hard he fought for vulnerability and vindication in hip-hop. This was at a time when ways of being in mainstream hip-hop were restricted to being the shooter or getting hot. College Dropout was an album with the freedom of a mixtape. Here was Kanye, in his pink Ralph Lauren polo, rapping about Jesus, past due bills, friends who resembled Michael Jackson—black and white—Black Greek Letter Organizations, family reunions, workout regimens, wired jaws, and satirizing the false promise of college degrees. Not to mention all the unlikely collaborations—Freeway, Mos Def, and the Harlem Boys Choir; Jay Z and J. Ivy; Jamie Foxx and Twista; Syleena Johnson. This was the Kanye that first caught Chance’s ear in the fourth grade. College Dropout was the first album Chance bought with his own money. The album that made him decide he wanted to be a rapper.
Coloring Book is special because it gives Chance the opportunity to take that experience Kanye provided for him, absorb the cost, and give it to another generation free of charge. “Won’t sell ‘em no dreams,” Kanye spits on “Gone” from his second studio album Late Registration, “but the inspiration is free.” I imagine Kanye looks at Chance and sees everything an artist stands to lose when they make their Faustian pacts with record executives. “Music is all we got” –the refrain they share on Coloring Book‘s opening track “Blessings”–could then be taken as Kanye’s conferral of wisdom to Chance. Something he probably wished someone had told him before he signed on the dotted line. Don’t sell. Once you do, it’s no longer yours.
Freedom has a price few can afford and most aren’t willing to pay. Some artists want what they see, willing to do anything for it–the money, the cars, the awards, the famous friends, the followers, the retweets, the adulation, to buy their mama a house, take care of their family. All the little expenses that come with living. People want to be paid. In a country like ours where everyone has a price, it’s a matter of time before people’s palms itch and they name them. So you can imagine how the music industry bristles at the idea that someone as young, talented and influential as Chance is resisting the urge, and fighting the temptation to sign or charge for music while still finessing every opportunity to get what even some signed artists can’t. It’s making the artist who signed reconsider the value of what they actually relinquished.
What Chance believes in can’t be bought, sold, or bargained with. It can only be felt. This could explain why a song which so few of us understand to have a place on the mixtape is so crucial to its understanding: Am I the only nigga still care about mixtapes? Put another way–am I only the one who’s concerned with the creative possibilities that the mixtape allows? Are albums so central to our understanding of how we value music that we can’t fathom a world where free mixtapes can become a way to make money? “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” “How can they call themselves bosses/ When they got so many bosses?” I wouldn’t say Chance is only one who still cares about mixtapes, but he is certainly one the few who can afford to. He has what many mainstream artists don’t have and are desperately trying to get back: their freedom.