Author’s Note: I initially wrote this post in January of 2017 after pondering who might be behind the then meteoric rise of Chance The Rapper. This post was initially titled “The Curious Case of Chance The Rapper” I decided not to post but a couple of recent articles about Apple Music launching a music publishing company and Spotify reportedly signing artists I decided to post the original article, in it’s entirety, with an update.
Unless you were under a rock for the entirety of 2016, you know that Chance the Rapper had one of the biggest years in recent hip-hop history. From his breakout feature (among other things) on Kanye’s The Life of Pablo in early 2016, to performing on Ellen, to changing the rules about free projects at the Grammy’s to an astonishing Grammy night, it’s clear that Chance owned 2016. I mean, we all saw this coming in 2015, right? Well, that’s where it gets tricky, because we didn’t.
I first heard of Chance after the timeline was buzzing about his second solo mixtape Acid Rap, and while I liked Acid Rap and found Chance’s style to be refreshing, I never thought he would end up here. Honestly, after Acid Rap and his features on Justin Bieber’s Journals and Childish Gambino’s Because The Internet, I had honestly forgotten about Chance. Granted, I don’t keep up with most new music, but when I find an artist I like, I try my best to keep an eye out for new music. If Chance’s meteoric rise is a shock to me, as a fan and hip-hop head, I certainly know it’s a shock to your casual music fans as well. Most casual fans that I know had no idea who Chance was 12 months ago.
While hip-hop is in no means a predictable in terms of who will blow and who won’t, you typically see the signs of who is coming well before it happens. Drake, Cole and Kendrick all had a substantial period of simmering and buzzing before hitting the superstar status they currently possess. All of whom had co-signs by legends in the game as well. Drake had verses from Wayne (as well as a record deal), Trey Songz and Bun B; Cole had a record deal and co-sign from Jay Z; Kendrick had a co-sign from The Game and Dr. Dre. All three of them needed a couple of years on simmer before they boiled over into super stardom. Meanwhile Chance has gone from an up and comer to a superstar in less than 12 months.
This got me to wondering how this could happen. To be clear, I am not questioning Chance’s talent or his work ethic nor am I insinuating he’s a “plant” I am merely surveying the terrain of hip-hop and speculating as to the “who’s” and “why’s” behind Chance’s sudden rise. Sure, Chance as an “indie” artist has always had connections. Acid Rap had guest verses from Twista, Gambino and Action Bronson, among others, which is no small feat for an artist only on their second project. Chance’s father also works in the Mayor’s office and reportedly has ties to the 44th POTUS, Barack Obama. But even with those lofty connections, it still doesn’t explain him rising this fast, this soon.
So, who has the muscle to get Chance a national endorsement deal, a performance on Ellen with Titty 2 Necklaces and the Ghost of Lil Wayne AND convince the most prestigious award’s show in music to change their rules? Well, the most likely candidate is Apple. While Chance is independent of a “major record label” most agree he has some sort of agreement going on with Apple. But even with that deal, why would Apple go to such great lengths to help boost Chance’s profile this much, this soon instead of waiting for it to happen more organically? Well, here’s where I put my tin-foil hat on.
My theory, is that Apple is using Chance to both examine the perfect structure of an indie artist and their team (Chance reportedly has a mean legal team behind him) and to use him to lure indie artists into their fold as a shining example of what they can do for your career. In short, Chance is the virus to create the anti-virus. Chance, with all his connections, hasn’t had much use for a record deal. But Chance is an extreme exception among indie musicians. Most barely make enough to support themselves, let alone enough to buy features from big name artists. By having an up close view of Chance and his team, Apple can get the blueprint of how to build a team that caters to artists and we all know Apple is great at taking other’s ideas and improving on them (heh).
In addition to launching their juggernaut of a streaming platform, Apple has also reportedly been toying with the idea of getting rid of iTunes and only releasing music through Apple music (they’ve denied this). Apple has also been fighting a war of exclusives with other streaming companies, most notably Tidal and it makes you wonder if these “exclusives” aren’t the test run for something else. It’s no secret that record labels are losing money and most wonder how much longer they’ll be around. The internet has made it possible for popular artists to release music on their own but streaming has thrown a curveball at us all. It has made it easier for consumers to wait for it to appear on their app of choice and listen there than to download straight from the source.
The death of the major record label is something that, as a musician, I’ve wanted to see for years. Labels kill creativity and are only concerned about their bottom line, but what if what’s over the horizon is worse? If Apple truly is testing out these exclusives and studying artists like Chance and Frank Ocean for ways to exploit indie artists, what does that mean for music? Apple could approach an artist with popular music, but not the best team and not a lot of money and offer an up front sum of money in exchange for exclusive rights to distribute their music. Sounds like a label deal, right? Well, it is, until you realize that the label’s goal was to get the music as many places a possible and Apple’s would likely be to hoard it for themselves.
Apple, with no iTunes store to download from and a paywall for streaming standing between the consumer and music, could act as label, radio and distribution for music all while effectively eliminating piracy. Other streaming companies would have to pay them for the right to stream this music, which most probably couldn’t afford and would eventually die out as customers switch to Apple Music and competing with Apple for exclusive deals isn’t financially possible for an extended period. Apple is always looking for new revenue streams and while this is a long way from happening, the thought of it as both a musician and a fan of music is scary; the biggest company in the world controlling a ton of the music that we love.
Many in the media are calling Chance a savior and beacon of light for Independent musicians, and while I hope that’s true, part of me can’t help but feel like he’s being used by someone with a lot more to gain from his fame than the indie artists without his resources. I could be wrong and Chance may be the guy to kill the label and boost indie artists, but he could be the Manchurian Candidate (sans the brainwashing).
Ronnie and I often joke about how often we tend to predict things with little to no inside information, but it’s pretty scary how accurate I was a whole year and a half ago. I honestly didn’t think things would begin to show this fast, but it just goes to show how the digital age has changed things. It seems music is about to go through another battle for freedom and likely the only thing standing between keeping things how they are and living in a world where streaming services control access to music, is us. I’m all for bringing back Limewire and bootlegging everything again…j/k (kinda).