Escaping is easy.
Effecting real, lasting change is hard.
While such thoughts might seem heavy for a rap concert predicated upon gathering with like-minded individuals and cutting loose, those sentiments were an unspoken undercurrent to Chance the Rapper’s arresting, uplifting and unique performance Sunday at the Bomb Factory.
Anticipation was, to put it mildly, sky-high for the 23-year-old rapper’s appearance in Deep Ellum: Lines were reported snaking around buildings and down the block hours before the show was to begin, and once inside, the sold-out crowd bolted toward the stage when the man born Chancellor Bennett darted out from behind the curtain at the climax of opener Francis and the Lights’ set to briefly dance.
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Five songs into his own set, the show was temporarily halted so fans could step back from the barriers near the stage — the video screen above the stage showed brief glimpses of attendees being hauled over the barricades by security — and a little of that frenetic energy could dissipate. To Chance the Rapper’s credit (and the venue’s), what could have escalated into a terrifying situation was handled calmly, quickly and professionally.
Once the Dallas stop on his “Magnificent Coloring World Tour,” resumed, the Chicago-bred MC, touring behind his latest release, Coloring Book, spent 90 minutes demonstrating how he inspires such fervent devotion.
Chance the Rapper’s story is fascinating: With a trio of mixtapes to his credit, along with a handful of guest appearances on other artists’ tracks, and no major label infrastructure to support him, Chance has turned into a budding superstar, rubbing elbows with no less than President Barack Obama.
The rapper, bolstered by mentors like fellow Chicagoan Kanye West and collaborators such as Vic Mensa, is an idiosyncratic talent in an genre with no shortage of vivid characters, and the best moments Sunday blended formidable skill, deep faith, a poignant whimsy and an easy charisma to create peculiar but magnetic moments.
The set strung together many of Chance’s sharpest cuts — early highlights included Blessings, a slamming Smoke Again and Juke Jam — but it was in the final stretch, beginning with All Night, that the concert shifted from the entertaining into the profound.
A lion puppet named Carlos was a recurring character on the Bomb Factory stage, sharing a dialogue with Chance (whom Carlos repeatedly called “big fella”) and subtly shaping the arc of the performance.
“I was heading on a path, I made a turn and I don’t remember which way I was going,” Chance told Carlos at one point — an allusion to his career, his life or his art.
The willingness to get a little weird — the night peaked with a choir of what seemed like cartoon vultures singing rapturously as the adoring crowd strained to capture it all on their phones — and speak frankly about doubts, desires and dreams is what sets Chance somewhat apart from his contemporaries.
He is of the heart-on-sleeve R&B school ( “All I see is these [expletive] I’ve made millionaires/Milling about, spilling their feelings in the air,” to quote Jay Z’s verse on Kanye West’s Monster, which played over the PA between sets Sunday), but Chance isn’t content to simply share what he’s feeling: He’s picking it apart, turning his emotions over and trying to figure out how he lives and creates in the world in which we live. It is fascinating to watch, and adds an intriguing texture to his effusive tracks.
The riot of Technicolor lights, blizzard of confetti or thick jets of smoke are familiar tools of the large-scale concert, as are the smoothly integrated, multi-level video screens, but Chance the Rapper seemed to use all of these effects to drive home his message — whether that was growing apart from childhood friends in the devastating Same Drugs, or wrestling with fame-induced anxiety in All Night — letting the sensory overload serve the song, instead of the modern default, which is the other way around.
In doing so, Chance the Rapper displays an ambition and a personality that is often stripped away from artists in an effort to sell them to a wider swath of the marketplace. Abandoning his independence for a label deal wouldn’t just cripple his creativity, it would confine and dilute him.
Chance the Rapper has achieved a rare kind of success, on his own terms, and it is thrilling to watch someone in the early stages of their career already in full control of what they want to say and how they want to say it.
Which brings us to Chance the Rapper’s relentless postivity, and his embrace — particularly in a year so fraught with ugly, divisive sentiments — of the individual lifting up the whole. Late in his show Sunday, the young rapper performed All We Got, the opening track from Coloring Book, and its lyrics hit home, belted back at full force by a crowd vibrating on the same wavelength: “We know, we know we got it.”
The song itself is an ode to the power of music, but the meaning seemed to shift inside the jam-packed Bomb Factory.
The lyric took on another dimension, transitioning from a burst of words that, for a moment, provided some escape, and became something that felt hopeful, as if, just maybe, something changed for the better.