chance-the-rapper-acid-rap[xrr rating=4.0/5]What does a “mixtape” even mean these days? Like its vinyl cousin, the EP, the mixtape has become a nebulous term. Whereas the former has devolved into shorthand for “a few songs that won’t fit onto an album,” hip hop mixtapes exist in a place between photocopied beats being rapped over by aspiring MCs and slick, professional grade albums in all but name utilized as introductory platforms. Acid Rap, the second release by Chicago-based Chance the Rapper (aka Chancelor Bennett) is squarely in the latter category. Following last year’s 10 Day, the 13-track mixtape sounds as polished as any label release could hope to be, which again begs the question, what makes this different from simply being an album?

Setting that aside for a moment, it’s easy to say that Acid Rap is a great introduction to a unique new voice. It’s also accurate. While Chance will undoubtedly be weighed down by understandable (and pretty apt) comparisons to Kendrick Lamar, the West Coast breakout star of the year, it’s also an unnecessary reductive. While the two young rappers share a methodology of wildly shifting sounds and dense wordplay, Lamar’s acclaimed good kid, m.A.A.d city is a darker, more foreboding album. Chance’s Acid Rap largely sticks to a woozy, friendly mood, which only makes the sudden dips into melancholia and terror all that much more effective. It’s a frequently dizzying listen, one that leaps from genre to genre and frequently blends soul, acid jazz and classic hip hop (A Tribe Called Quest is notably lifted from on “Nana”). The whole thing feels like a bewildering but not unpleasant trip, both wildly unfocused and lyrically canny at once. After all, “acid” is in the name.

Even past the sheer bombardment of differing musical references and tones, the element that may be make-or-break for many listeners is Chance himself. While he’s undoubtedly a gifted (and frequently hilarious) lyricist, his delivery is affected in the best sense of the word. He drawls out rhymes cartoonishly; he stutters and puts on a nasal whine, half-singing and half-rapping in a flow that’s pitched somewhere between Lil Wayne and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. It’s a love-it or hate-it in that regard; fortunately, his wordplay is up to the task regardless of the camp you’re in. On “Juice,” he manages to name check both Tupac and Kevin Costner (likely the first time the two have belonged in the same sentence, let alone verse), while “Acid Rain” manages to evoke the wistful lost innocence of ‘90s childhood in just one rhyme with “I miss my diagonal grilled cheeses/ And back when Mike Jackson was still Jesus.”

Considering Chance’s skewed charisma, it’s something of a pity that so many of the tracks are overloaded with guest verses. While none of those appearances are subpar, per se, they largely feel unnecessary. A verse by Childish Gambino on “Favorite Song” only serves to highlight his relatively traditional delivery against Chance’s wilder style, while Twista’s appearance on “Cocoa Butter Kisses” feels entirely out of place while showing the famously hyper-speed MC’s skills undiminished. Many of the rappers featured seem to be Chance’s contemporaries in the Chicago scene, which is fondly referenced in several tracks including “Everybody’s Something.” While this makes sense for a young rapper just coming into exposure beyond a local scene, it often frustratingly distracts from the star attraction. Despite that, Acid Rap is a compelling, almost ridiculously self-assured release from a rapper who’s barely 20 years of age. Regardless of what constitutes a mixtape these days, it’s a promising new listen.

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