Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE ®

Chance the Rapper is ready to take his next creative risk

Chance is in a period of enlightenment. Coming off a decade-long season of thrilling highs and lows, he’s studying fine arts, experimenting with sound and buying film equipment. The goal? Connecting multiple mediums to produce some of his best work to date.

Words by Tiffany Walden
Interview and creative direction by Morgan Elise Johnson
Photography by ANF Chicago
Cinematography by C’airra Cortez
Camera Assistance by Gregory Guillen
[ssba-buttons]

There was a point in the 1990s where it was nearly impossible to go into anybody’s grandma, auntie or godmama’s house without seeing a particular style of framed paintings of Black life and spirituality on display. 

Chance the Rapper remembers them. They varied in subject matter; a funeral procession, a white-cloaked Madonna holding a child while looking toward the heavens. Typically you’d find such a painting in the living room, accentuating the off-limits, plastic-wrapped couch and glass-top coffee table set, or in the dining room across from the fancy curio cabinet stuffed with dinnerware, porcelain figures and collectible knick-knacks.

Looking back, it seems a home couldn’t be properly christened a God-fearing Black household without one or two of those paintings. Did Black folks get together somehow and decide they’d all hang the same artwork in their homes?

“I want to find that out,” says Chance the Rapper, who started this conversation off by bringing up the before-mentioned artistic mainstays of Black life. Hitting a quick Google search on his cellphone, he pulls up two famous paintings by neo-mannerist Ernie Barnes: “The Beauty of the Ghetto” and “The Sugar Shack.” He was also the artist that painted the portraits done by Jimmie Walker’s character J.J. Evans on the 1970s television show “Good Times,” which was set in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project.

Listening to Chance deep-dive into Barnes’ career is exciting; his eyes and smile grow wide as he takes a few minutes to nerd out on Barnes’ elongated style of Black portraiture that inspired the coming generations of Black Romanticism; a genre oft dismissed as low brow (because it’s Black), but widely popular among Black people in the 90s and commonly sold at the local Afrocentric shops in Chicago.

In fact, as most Black things do, the art form has roots in the Chicagoland area: works such as Annie Lee’s “Blue Monday” and Brenda Joysmith’s “Madonna” were once sold through the west suburban-based Artistic Impressions.

Chance draws inspiration from Ernie Barnes who is known for his aesthetic of elongated Black bodies and movement, most notably in this iconic 1976 painting, The Sugar Shack.

“When I used to see it, all of it, whether based in Christianity or not, I felt like they were all Christian works. I didn’t know that space was a club when I was a kid,” Chance says about Barnes’ “The Sugar Shack.” The image has a duality to it, in that the figures lifting their hands up in joy and dance could have easily been lifting their hands up in praise and worship. Such is the art of Blackness.

“And because there [are other] paintings with the same similar style, with the faceless figures, whether they’re doing baptisms or it’s just a mother and daughter [in] that white hood,” Chance pauses for a second, his mind steeped in the nostalgia of his grandma and auntie’s homes in Roseland. 

“I wish I knew the names of these pieces,” he added. “I didn’t even really think about them like that at the time.”

Born Chancelor Bennett, the 28-year-old rapper is in a period of enlightenment. Coming off a decade-long season of thrilling highs and lows, he’s ready to take his next creative risk. He’s studying fine arts. He’s experimenting with sound. He’s buying film equipment. And he’s figuring out how to connect all three mediums to produce some of his best work to date. 

For his next project, Chance explains, he’s going after the lofty goal of bringing the expensive and mostly inaccessible world of fine art to the masses through music and film.

“It’s a project. It’s, like, a big ole project. I’m trying to think of a good word for it. I feel like it’s like a heist,” Chance says. He refuses to use the word “album.” What he’s cooking is more than that.

Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE ®
Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE ®
“I’m the curator of this project. That’s the main role that I’ve assumed. I’m the writer, and the director-slash-curator,” Chance explains about his upcoming project.

“I’m the curator of this project. That’s the main role that I’ve assumed. I’m the writer, and the director-slash-curator,” Chance explains. “I’m trying to work with as many people as possible — that are also artists — to turn my monologues into dialogues. A piece that’s conveying that conversation and making it about connectivity.”

He’s already on the right track with it. On March 24, Chance released his new single, “Child of God,” a mellow track signaling his return to the soulful, nostalgia-infused, raspy-voiced prophet who first illustrated the depths of his musical palette on 2013’s “Acid Rain.” He premiered the new song, music video and accompanying art piece at an invite-only event at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago on March 23.

For “Child of God,” he tapped Gabonese artist Naïla Opiangah to paint a 6-foot-by-12-foot painting. The piece is an ode to Black women, the faceless figures of different shapes and sizes ascending to the heavens. Opiangah creates the painting in the accompanying music video for “Child of God,” in which Chance serves as the director of photography for the first time. 

Taking cues from some of his favorite films and directors, Chance positions the song’s lyrics in the middle of the frame throughout the video, an effort to create dialogue between the all three mediums.

“I wrote the song, both verses and hook, in Los Angeles in September last year, and I didn’t meet Naïla until early January of this year,” Chance told The TRiiBE. The two met during his trip to Ghana. They talked about Black art, the role of capitalism in the art world and racism within the fine arts industry. 

In working on “Child of God,” both artists hope the pairing of music, film and art will open additional doors for Black creatives overlooked and dismissed in the arts.

“Our relationship with contemporary art, I feel, is inherently different than white folks. A lot of white folks that have the capital to be in art, they look at it as a form of currency or an investment versus us appreciating what it means,” Chance says.

***

Standing in the great room of his 9,251-square-foot manse in the north ‘burbs, Chance seems to be feeling real confident. He invited The TRiiBE out to the House of Kicks, the name of this budding multi-discipline studio where he shot the “Child of God” music video, for a sit-down interview about what he’s cooking up for his next project.

In one corner of the room, he’s got drums, a keyboard, guitars, microphones and a beat pad all hooked up for jam sessions, the kind that’s been known to yield undeniable classics of the past such as “Cocoa Butter Kisses.” And on the other side of the room, there’s a tabletop easel, a yellow scaffold tower and these tall black vision boards, revealing a creative brain trust of possible song collaborators, song titles, motifs and artwork alongside the artists’ names and bios for the new project.

Chance insists on playing a couple tracks-in-progress over the speaker during the photoshoot. “This is my workspace studio, editing house and just all around place where I get a lot of stuff done,” he explains. He’s been using the space since 2020 and, according to news reports, purchased the home in October 2021. It’s become a playground for his exploration into film, and a creative base for new music. 

When Chance stands next to his director’s chair, appropriately embroidered in red “Chance the Director” threading, he asks his assistant to hand him his book. Way bigger than the typical three-ring binder used in school, the “Prophetrospective Analysis,” as he calls it, is similar to the show bible screenwriters use as a reference for characters, settings and other on-screen elements. Chance’s bible, however, holds the future of the world, his role in it and the connectivity of people. 

“This is what’s going to come. So I’m reading this to make what I’m making,” Chance says. However, the word album isn’t in the bible. He no longer likes to use that word. “What I’m dropping is way more important than that,” he adds.

Chance has been on a supernatural rap run since the April 3, 2012 release of 10 Day, his 14-track debut that put all the labels, rap bloggers and hip-hop magazines on notice. A year later, he followed up with his second tape, Acid Rap, a critically-acclaimed classic that set the stage for his eventual three Grammy wins in 2017 — including Best New Artist — for his third mixtape, Coloring Book.

Over the span of 10 years, he positioned himself as a major power player in Chicago. Anyone who was anti-establishment rooted for him, the underdog, as he proved that multi-million dollar success can exist in alternative routes for artists who wish to remain independent of the major-label machine.

With Chance’s success also came a new multilayer creative ecosystem in Chicago. He created a nonprofit, Social Works, to serve the youth of Chicago. He donated more than $2 million to Chicago Public Schools (CPS). He supported progressive and abolitionist thought with the backing of 2019 mayoral candidate Amara Enyia. And he elevated the platforms of his creative peers through music festivals, such as the sold-out Magnificent Coloring Day at the White Sox’s Guaranteed Rate Field on the South Side. 

“I do feel like there’s always this need to explain my success. So if I gave a real explanation, I would say it’s God,” Chance says. “But if you’re looking for, like, a specific human person, white or Black, my dad, my ex-manager, whoever, I’m the man with the plan. I’m one of one.”

Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE ®
Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE ®
“I do feel like there’s always this need to explain my success. So if I gave a real explanation, I would say it’s God ... But if you’re looking for, like, a specific human person, white or Black, my dad, my ex-manager, whoever, I’m the man with the plan. I’m one of one.”

When some of Chance’s closest friends and collaborators pop into the House of Kicks to work on some of his new tracks that afternoon of our interview, it’s a reminder of how wide-reaching and sustainable Chance’s sphere of influence is on Chicago’s music scene. He runs ecstatically to the front door to embrace singer-songwriter Jamila Woods in a big hug, then daps up his boys: rapper Vic Mensa, producer and composer Peter Cottontale, trumpeter Nico Segal and more. 

Prior to a recent meetup at House of Kicks, where everyone from his album cover designer Brandon Breaux to streetwear designer Joe Freshgoods came out to hear about the new project, Chance hadn’t really been able to chill with many of his friends in three or four years. Being a newlywed, a father of two girls and busybee rap star and all, his time was limited. 

“We grew up together and I haven’t seen her in so long. It’s just been so divine in this space,” Chance says about Woods.

***

With multiple Grammy awards, a hit collab with Chicago icon Kanye West and some political weight under his belt, Chance could only be an industry newbie for so long. His ascent into global name recognition meant a hellfire of critiques were on the way. 

In July 2018, Chance dropped a loosie called “I Might Need Security.” In it, alongside some much-needed shots at ex-Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, he boasts with bravado, “I got a hit-list so long, I don’t know how to finish. I bought the Chicagoist, just to run you racist bitches out of business.”

Now, look. It’s one thing to diss Emanuel and the whole corrupt Chicago machine, but it’s a whole ‘nother thing to toss Chicago media into the mix. That last line sent Chicago journalism Twitter into a frenzy, as Chance’s media purchase happened during a time of dizzying uncertainties and turmoil for the local media landscape. 

Hundreds lost their jobs when the owner of online newspaper DNAInfo — Trump-supporting, Cubs-owning Joe Ricketts —  pulled the plug on it, another digital entity named the Gothamist and all of its digital news subsidiaries, including the Chicagoist. 

In 2018, Chance attended the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) conference to learn more about the industry and the Black press. When asked if he knew what was going on with Chicago journalism when he bought the Chicagoist for a price “cheap enough that a lot of people could have purchased it,” Chance instead surprised us with his response. 

“Truthfully speaking, it’s ‘cause I’m Black. There’s very few people with a track record that clearly shows how anti-capitalist they are, or how they treat people with respect and dignity and jobs. And there is me,” Chance says in regards to public criticism of his purchase. 

The idea to purchase the Chicagoist came from a shopping day at Best Buy. Chance says a former DNAInfo photographer who was working at Best Buy spotted him and encouraged him to buy the defunct media site. 

Six months went by before Chance looked into it. Initially, he says, no one knew he’d bought the digital newspaper, but when the Chicago Sun-Times started writing sensational headlines about his child support case with Kirsten Corley, the mother of his first child (who he later married in 2019 and now has two children with), he decided to put them on notice in the song.  

“And the next thing I knew, there was 50 think pieces about how bad this was gonna be, the end of the world for journalism because I had bought the Chicagoist. How I’m going to make everybody write great reviews of my music. Like, it’s so short-sighted and racist that I really don’t even pay it any mind,” Chance says.

Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE ®
Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE ®
“And the next thing I knew, there was 50 think pieces about how bad this was gonna be, the end of the world for journalism, because I had bought the Chicagoist. How I’m going to make everybody write great reviews of my music. Like, it’s so short-sighted and racist that I really don’t even pay it any mind,” Chance says.

The TRiiBE was critical of Chance’s purchase as well. At the time, we were a year into the game and had just barely raised $20,000 in our anniversary Indiegogo fundraiser. We had a digital product that people loved and found value in, yet as a Black news outlet, we struggled to gain financial support through donations and foundational grants. Instead of Chance supporting the existing Black Chicago media ecosystem, his new title as a media owner felt extractive.

He went on to explain that he doesn’t want to be an editor and oversee the Chicagoist relaunch. But he plans to lean on TRiiBE publisher Morgan Elise Johnson and other Black journalists for help to build an outlet of high integrity. 

“At the end of the day, I own it. Nobody can take it from me. Nobody can make me start it before I want to. Nobody can force me to sell it,” he said.

Later in July 2019, Chance dropped his first studio album, The Big Day. Unlike the praise he’d received in the past, the hip-hop blogosphere and Twitterverse dragged all 22 tracks with harsh youth-pastor jokes and “I love my wife” spoofs. 

Although the album debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 chart, marking Chance’s highest chart entry, Stereogum called it “a general sigh of disappointment.” DJ Booth, in its first listen review, wrote that it felt out of touch since many fans regarded Acid Rap as his true debut. And Pitchfork, the renowned industry standard, gave it a 6.9/10 rating, adding that it “struggles to bring depth to his newlywed dad-raps.”

“How can you enjoy it if you put a number on it? I’ve never shown somebody a song and been, like, ‘this song is really good. You should listen to it. It’s an eight or a nine.’ Or, somebody show me something and I be, like, ‘this shit decent. I’ll give it a six,’” Chance says. “I’m trying to feel the song, feel what it means to me.”

Despite critics and fans feeling like The Big Day was a departure from the sound we fell in love with on his previous projects, Chance still stands by his final product.

“Rather than departure, I would say progression. A positive progression,” Chance says about The Big Day. “It’s like Dave Chappelle told me. That album, or a special like in comedy, they don’t define who you are. They’re like a yearbook photo. You come in and you document who you are in that moment, and then you come back next year and you make another.”

After his rocky bouts with external criticism, Chance looked inward. He found the courage to create again through film. You see, Chance is actually a film nerd, who loves the cinematography of movies such as Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” and Jet Li’s “Hero.“ 

“That’s why I’m good at cinematography,” Chance says, crediting the 2002 Jet Li film as an influence for his “Child of God” music video. “It’s, like, every frame is actually a painting,” he adds. “When you can learn to manipulate light and learn focal lengths and learn even just what you want it to look like at a certain point, then you can storyboard it out and then just make that shit happen.”

***

The pilgrimage to the Motherland is a Black artist tradition. Often in a period of personal enlightenment, when the hope for equality is fizzling out and the racist ways of the American system becomes just too insufferable to bear, Black American artists retreat to West Africa.

James Baldwin left for a trip to West Africa, and found a certain indescribable freedom and joy that he hadn’t experienced as a Black gay man in America. Maya Angelou worked as a journalist in Egypt for a bit before moving to Ghana, where she found community with other expatriates such as W. E. B. Du Bois.

Chance’s recent pilgrimage to Ghana follows in that Black artist tradition and, in the process, he discovered a familial connection to the land.

“I didn’t find out that my family had built a church and two schools in Ghana, and had been to Ghana, until two days before I went to Ghana,” Chance says.

He also learned that his family has a connection to Garveyism, the body of Black thought by Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey, who believed in developing an international home for African people of the global diaspora. In Chicago, Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA) had several divisions on the South Side, and ran many small businesses.

“I’m talking to the children of God,” Chance says regarding his next project. “Child of God,” he continues, “it’s a universal idea and understanding.”

Instead of this being a proud piece of family history passed down through the generations, Chance says he didn’t find out about his family’s work in Garveyism until a week before his Ghana trip.

“My grandmother was raised militant and was a Garveyist. She’s reading Kwame Toure and had her kids volunteering for Harold Washington, which was radical at that time, and did a lot of stuff that I never knew about until I was way older because that next generation, a lot of our parents, were the first generation that got taught that racism was over and that Martin Luther King saved us,” Chance says. “They didn’t really teach us about Malcolm, but really who they never talk about is Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois. They didn’t teach us that stuff because they were trying to protect us.”

While reflecting on his Ghana trip, Chance goes into another deep dive about the West African country’s liberation from colonialism in 1957, and how their first president was intentional in including Garveyism and the idea of creating a home of global Blackness for the Diaspora.

“There’s always conflict all throughout the continent because of colonialism and neo-colonialism,” Chance said. “So the way everybody showed up for us [Black Americans] in 2020, and there were protests all around the world, we got to go up like that for Sudan. We got to go up like that for Ethiopia. You know what I’m saying?”

To be honest, the whole vibe of his “Child of God” release, along with this sense of pan-Africanism in working with the tribe of Black artists filling his inspiration wall at the House of Kicks, is super Black and super proud. This time around, rather than creating art to market to the tech bros and suburban hip hop critics, it feels like he’s making music for us. Yet Chance was hesitant to confirm that. Rather, he says, he is broadening his reach.

“I’m talking to the children of God,” he says. “Child of God,” Chance continues, “it’s a universal idea and understanding.”

is the editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE.