Kanye West is not one to turn down a celebration of himself. And when he performed on SNL on the night of the release of his newest album, The Life of Pablo, he definitely relished in the moment. He stood front and center in his bedazzled jacket, a full gospel choir behind him. It was as gaudy a celebration of Kanye as we’ve seen. But for a minute and a half of the performance something unexpected happened: Kanye took a backseat. He stood on the side of the stage cheering and chanting along as a figure in a baseball cap and a purple shirt—the only person on stage the whole night who didn’t wear matching white—took the stage.
When they come for you,
I will shield your name
I will field their questions,
I will feel your pain
For a minute and a half, it was the Chance the Rapper show. Not bad for a guy who’s sold exactly zero albums in his music career.
You may not have heard of Chance the Rapper, but your high school-age little brother has. So has every music exec in the country who’s scrambling to catch up to the way Chano from 79th is redefining the way music is consumed and distributed.
Chance the Rapper’s first project was a 2012 mixtape called 10 Day, which he recorded after serving a 10-day suspension from Chicago’s Jones College Prep High School for having marijuana on campus. The project would land him on every publication’s “rapper to watch” list. It showed Chance’s potential as a songmaker and next-level MC, but it was merely an appetizer. A year later, he released Acid Rap, another mixtape that would land him in the category of rap elite. The project is widely considered a “classic,“ a defining piece of work that fans will swear by for years.
Acid Rap is a heartbreaking look at the devastation of violence in Chicago as he raps about PTSD on “Pusha Man” and murdered friends on “Acid Rain.” “Good Ass Intro” is an ode to Kanye West and uptempo Chicago-style house music. “Chain Smoker” and “Juice” are wacky, creative lyrical bombardments that show why it’s so hard to mimic Chance’s style. I have no doubt, though, that, like Kanye’s College Dropout and other classics before it, Acid Rap is what rap is going to sound like in 10 years.
But the quality of the work isn’t what’s baffling the music industry. It’s the fact that he has yet to sell a single song from his catalog. Both 10 Day and Acid Rap are completely free to download. So are his collaboration album Surf and all the loose tracks in-between. He’s not signed to a label, gives away his music and makes a boatload of money on features (he was on Justin Bieber’s single, “Confident,” the aforementioned “Ultralight Beam” and a bevy of other high-profile songs) and touring. He’s sworn never to sell any music, and it’s worked out tremendously well for him. Chance’s fans are largely millennials who are going to download the music anyway, and the easy access to his projects mean they can digest every word and recite them at his sold out-shows the world over.
The idea of never selling music seems absurd in an industry that’s predicated on album sales. Even when artists like Lil Wayne were putting out dozens of songs for free, they had endgames of having their new fan bases buy the eventual albums. Chance is subverting the record label model and becoming more of a household name with each project. His songs don’t make it onto radio charts, but he’s performed on SNL (the first unsigned artist to do so) and Stephen Colbert; last week he debuted a new song on Jimmy Fallon.
The music industry has been trying to figure out how to combat the rise of pirating since the Napster days at the turn of the century. Their most recent strategy was a February RIAA rule change that allowed streams to count towards album sales. The result is absurdly inflated stats that would put baseball’s steroids era to shame. Drake’s Views album “sold” hundreds of thousands of “copies” before the full album even came out, solely thanks to how many times people streamed the singles leading up to its release.
Chance’s approach seems more sensible. It’s like he foresaw the circus album sales would become and avoided the headache altogether. Instead he’s opted for shows full of rabid fans who swear by his music. Not a bad move.
At 11 p.m. tonight, Chance releases his third project, Coloring Book. [The title was believed to be Chance 3 until the album dropped.] For free of course. He’s selling posters online (10 for $20) and fans are reaching a critical mass of anticipation. Chance’s mixtape is getting a full promotional build-up as if it’s a retail album. And after millions of people download it, they’ll be equipped with new sing-alongs to take to the next Chance show. The proceeds of which go into his pocket without a record-label middle man.
So is Chance’s approach a blueprint for every artist to follow? Not necessarily. First of all, Chance can back up his radical approach with genre-bending music: He’s one of the best MCs in rap and his compositions are Outkast-like in precision and execution. Not every artist can just say he’s going to give away music and audiences will flock to their shows; it takes a special artist to accomplish what Chance is doing.
But if someone can put out music that connects with fans like Chance’s does, then he’s definitely carving a new path that artists can benefit from. And the music industry is dying to understand.
Note: The name of Chance the Rapper’s new release is Coloring Book, not Chance 3 as previously stated.