When the public turns on you, it can be subtle, or it can be swift. We’ve seen a lot of sudden turns, politicians exposed in lurid sex scandals, celebrity drug and alcohol arrests, and worse. These stories all involve someone screwing up and suffering the attendant backlash. In media, the slight turn is more disorienting. You accrue a quiet infamy over time, as brass develops a patina; you think you’re one kind of person, but people incrementally begin to speak to you as though they see another. You still feel and function the same, but the luster you had when you were young, fresh, and new is gone. I’m thinking about how we get from the dulcet toned praise music of “Blessings (Reprise),” the closer on the most recent Chance the Rapper solo project, Coloring Book, to the spice and chipmunk Jamie Foxx “fuck you”s of today’s new “I Might Need Security,” the first song in a four-pack of loosies that marks the Chicago artist’s first solo endeavor since he sang about angels and blessings in spring 2016.
People soured on Chance a little, and he can tell. It’s not because of any single demonstrably evil thing he did. A tiny tiff here and there did the trick. Some rap fans got tired of hearing the guy call himself an indie artist. Some members of the music press are miffed about his team applying pressure to get a critical MTV News story pulled. Some Twitter users are shocked he messaged a dude “Get off my dick” for cracking jokes about the recent announcement of his engagement. In the grand scheme of bad behaviors fans are willing to put up with of late — open assault cases, homophobia, colorism, racism, misogyny … — these seem comparably light. Lakeith Stanfield’s use of a gay slur in a rap on Instagram last month didn’t stop this audience from supporting him in Sorry to Bother You. Where is the line?
Chance isn’t perfect, but people have heard him rap enough about righteousness to hold him to a higher standard. It’s hard to say whose fault that is, but I do know that enough needling about your character in a month can melt your brain. People often wonder why successful artists like Cardi B still give time to their detractors. It’s because so many social-media users feel like a rude tweet is a shout into the void, when they should know that there’s a human on the other end, one who has feelings that can include a capacity for rudeness. It’s a bit of a Vlad the Impaler approach, picking off your naysayers very loudly in hopes you’ll spook other feisty spectators, but sometimes there’s value in a little strategic unpleasantness. Think of Bernie Mac winning a tough NYC crowd over with a curt “I ain’t scared of you motherfuckers.”
The coarser bars and more combative tone of “I Might Need Security,” “Work Out,” and “65th & Ingleside” feel like natural reactions from a guy who tries to do the right thing but sometimes fumbles and faces a mountain of unforeseen flak when he does. The “Security” announcement that Chance bought the news-and culture-blog Chicagoist is, like the time Chance attempted to save SoundCloud, going a little pear-shaped. His heart’s in the right place, but the worry about what happens when artists get a measure of control over local media is certainly worth pondering. Another point we should ponder is what the hell we want from this guy. If Chance raps about faith, people bristle about it being too liturgical. People also bristle at the tough talk and money talk.
I wonder if it’s a function of social media narcissism that we all believe we have perfectly noble reasons for being annoyed by all of the things that annoy us now. I don’t know what to do about it other than to try and be fair and open-minded, as someone who writes criticism and also receives a lot of it. Knowing a bit about what it’s like on both sides of the fence makes me appreciate anyone who wakes up in the morning with good intentions and holds onto them even when things get hairy. These new Chance tracks feel like warm-up exercises, pipe cleaners for the soul. I hope social media isn’t burning him out. His uplifting music is valuable, and I’d hate to lose it in a hail of trilities.