Chance the Rapper is ranked No. 3 in his class of hip-hop stars in their creative and professional primes. Just above Future, below Kendrick Lamar and Drake.
Lamar is critically heralded and Drake boundlessly popular, but the 24-year-old Chicago artist born Chancellor Bennett is the most purely talented. Saturday night while headlining a festival, Jmblya, that his star power helped sell out to the tune of 25,000 tickets sold at a Circuit of the Americas parking lot, the imminent Austin City Limits Festival Headliner headliner played youth pastor.
Joined with a backline worthy of Kirk Franklin, Chance donned a powder blue cap and shirt, church-on-Sundays khakis, and a denim jacket that lasted two-and-a half songs. His band, the Social Experiment, brought along gospel singers; drummer, Stix, a fill-happy whiz; keys; and trumpet player Nico “Donnie Trumpet” Segal, blasting parking lot C with jubilant triumph.
“I don’t know if you guys know, but today is part of national ‘Acid Rap’ week,” Chance deadpanned early, nodding 2013’s cult favorite album.
It was a homecoming show. Chance’s Central Texas concerts with local promoters Scoremore have been a constant, from Austin house parties to festivals. Now a Grammy-winning giant who released an exclusive album via Apple, this was a test run of sorts for October’s headlining ACL Fest engagement.
Opening with the breakneck “Mixtape,” and swiftly pivoting to “Blessings,” Chance showed the dense, young crowd his versatility: He’ll glide across the stage like Fred Astaire, rap in frenetic and melodic patterns about religion, then convince a sea of self-aware cool teens to yell out the phrase “cocoa butter kisses” in urgent unison.
Like the early work of mentoring Chicagoan Kanye West, a frequent collaborator, Chance’s subversive music wins by celebrating its gospel and soul roots, then rapping to his lived-in, crime-addled neighborhood. But he’s an optimist with a faith in God so unwavering that it breaks your heart.
“You should talk to him,” Chance sang as a refrain at the end.
He leaned on his adoring base during his hour-plus set, and was frequently rewarded for it. During “Blessings” he turned the mic to an onlooker: “You look like you’ve got a good voice.” Hell every hook was boosted in signal by fans.
Atlanta rap legend Gucci Mane and the surging pop singles of Migos dazzled earlier, sure, but the cult of Chance made its presence known throughout Jmblya. Fans in his signature “3” hats were inescapable.
“Angels,” from breakthrough 2016 album “Coloring Book,” showcased his technical range as a rapper, zooming into turbo while puncturing the muggy night with immaculate enunciation. Where many of his Jmblya colleagues indulged in call-and-response gimmicks to bloat the weight of their hooks, Chance played marching band director: metering out verses with hand gestures, and teaching cadences via their number of syllables.
“I’m the One,” a surefire summer hit with Justin Bieber and DJ Khaled released last week, made a roaring addition to the set. The most pathos stemmed from a trio of gems featured on Kanye West’s “Life of Pablo” album, which in February 2016 served as a showcase for Chance. The band stunned with a juiced version of “Waves,” an anthemic song that Chance reportedly insisted be included on the final “Pablo” tracklisting, even though he doesn’t rap on it. He added two more “Pablo” songs for good measure: “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” a searing aside of praise and love, and his jaw-dropping cameo from “Ultralight Beam,” which made its strings-tugging debut last year on “Saturday Night Live.”
“I’ve been coming to Austin for a long time, since 2012,” Chance reminded us, before doing one for the day 1 supporters. “I’m talking a lot, this song is called ‘Sunday Candy.'”
Playful and vibrant tracks like “Juke Jam,” about roller skating with your crush, unmasked his youth. Chance too often raps under the watchful eye of his elders, like he’s tasked with setting a good example every time out. He asks the ’90s kids to “make some noise,” and your jarred at how high he’s positioned his ceiling as a commercial property, but also a generational troop leader.
“We might have to start the show right now,” he said 30 minutes in, before going ahead and playing “No Problem,” his most popular radio hit.
Indeed the Jmblya pop-in, folded into his ongoing Be Encouraged tour, proved Chance has the chops, ideas and unsinkable melodies to dominate on main stages for the next decade. He can lean on a wide swath of student-age fans who loved streaming “Acid Rap” via SoundCloud, or chat onstage with Chappelle-like storytelling gifts that leave you hanging on every anecdote. And yes, make everyone jump up and down while losing their minds — this is the Jmblya, after all.