For the first time in my life, I wanted to get to a concert before the opener started. Chance the Rapper was coming to Philadelphia for what promised to be an intimate show—it was at the modestly-sized Electric Factory, and had sold out soon after tickets went on sale.
But the legend of Chance has grown too great to uphold such quaint ideas of intimacy. The venue was already packed when we arrive two hours before his scheduled set time, filled to the brim with a bright-eyed horde that clamored for proof of attendance at the makeshift merch stand.
We made our way upstairs to the balcony, an area blessedly reserved for 21+. On the way up, I was struck by a strange phenomenon: everyone was grinning at each other. My concert experiences are usually pretty introverted affairs, a “squad vs. everybody” mentality that means fighting for a better view and a lot of passive-aggressive pushing.
But for Chance, the opposite was happening—I saw strangers striking up conversations, and a general wave of good vibrations washed through the arena. It was owed in part to the rapper’s unadulterated positivity, the message of the music that brought us all here. “Everybody’s Something” has become a mantra for his entire discography, from 10 Day to Surf.
Everybody’s somebody’s everything, nobody’s nothing.
Chance’s Family Matters Tour is trading cities with another one of rap’s biggest names, Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick has been pulling up across America for Groove Sessions, performing songs off To Pimp A Butterfly for what he’s told crowds will be the first and last time.
The two artists have risen to fame two very different ways: Chance’s emphasis on love and independence is contrasted by walking TDE billboard Kendrick and his dark, hypnotic music, reflections on a violent childhood and bare-faced looks at society’s systemic racism. There’s dancing and rabid fandom at both shows, but their current tours are exposing just how different success in hip-hop can be.
Writing about Kendrick’s New York Groove session for the Village Voice, Claire Lobenfeld pointed out that “there is always going to be some semblance of unpleasantness at a Kendrick show, none of which has anything to do with him or where he’s booked to perform… Much of his power lies in the intricate narratives of his music and, at times, an outpouring of tangled and dysfunctional emotions. There has been something moderately disturbing about seeing people treat a song like ‘Swimming Pools’ like it’s a party anthem, not a meditation on alcohol abuse.”
There’s dancing and rabid fandom at both shows, but their current tours are exposing just how different success in hip-hop can be.
The Fader, meanwhile, ran a Groove Session recap called “Sometimes I Feel Bad for Kendrick Lamar” that focused on Kendrick’s “earnest craftsmanship battled the crowd’s party vibes,” describing him as a “grand thinker, perpetual worrywart, the kind of dues-paying kid that older, self-identified ‘real hip-hop heads’ are proud to list as a current fave.”
None of this is to say Chance’s eyes are closed: both artists confront gun violence and loss in their music, albeit in very different ways. They’re two weights on the same scale, one comforting us with optimism, the other challenging us with realism. Both artists are striving for the same goals: social progress, peace, and musical excellence, but they’re going about it in different ways, and setting a very different tone in the process.
Back at Chance’s show, Towkio and Hiatus Kaiyote had finished their opening sets. Chants of “Chance the Ra-pper” started bouncing off the venue walls soon thereafter, and I saw Chance’s Social Experiment making their way past us on their way backstage.
Most of the crowd had been there for three hours already, and the positivity/weed had begun to wear off. But when the lights dimmed and The Social Experiment took their posts, hysteria began to roll in like thunder, and when Chance stepped out from behind the drum set to launch into “Everybody’s Something,” the clouds opened and a torrential scream-storm began.
Shit got religious: the two bros I had pegged for tagalong boyfriends were sobbing by the second chorus. The blue-haired couple to my left were hugging so tightly their eyes were halfway out of their sockets. Even the Electric Factory bartenders were standing on chairs to get a better glimpse of the stage, maniacal grins plastered on their faces.
After “Something” came “Pusha Man,” then “Smoke Again,” and people finally began to calm down. Chance took the opportunity to address the crowd directly, his trademark White Sox hat pulled down over his eyes. “I’m Chance the Rapper,” he revealed with a smile, voice barely raised above a murmur, “and I’m here to perform songs off my tape Acid Rap.” The simplicity of the statement was enough to set off another explosion of applause.
Chance’s stage presence is immediately familiar—he asks plenty of questions and expects answers. He has the ability to make you feel at home, to feel loved. After “Interlude (That’s Love),”Chance had the whole crowd chanting “I love you,” and then he went down to the pit to tell fans directly, making sure they knew that it was true.
Kendrick, by contrast, is a studied and serious performer. The Groove Sessions promised an intimate evening with King Kendrick, but don’t expect him to look into your eyes and profess his adulation. Kendrick, like Chance, performs with a four-piece band, but there’s a heavier focus on instrumentation and the musical craft. You can love King Kunta and his music, but you go to a Kendrick concert the same reason people fill out stadiums when LeBron James comes to town: to see greatness in the flesh, not for hugs.
After nearly two hours of performing, Chance’s sermon closed, appropriately, with sing alongs “Sunday Candy” and “Chain Smoker.” The end had come too soon for the crowd, most of whom milled around with big, goofy grins on their faces, unsure what to do with this new freedom.
Kendrick and Chance are on the shortlist of music’s most important figures, both musically and and politically speaking. Both have forsaken rap’s tendency for larger-than-life self-mythologizing for an honest, down to earth bent. And while they’re both embracing the modern savior role in hip-hop, their lasting influence can be seen in their live shows and the message it communicates. Neither Chance’s optimism or Kendrick’s realism is any less relevant than the other—they both exist for a reason, and they are both vitally important.