For a moment, Chance the Rapper slowed down his exuberant set to perform a duet with an old friend. The 23-year-old hip-hop artist adjusted his red baseball cap and walked slowly to a piano, where he began to sing “Same Drugs” in a quiet, scruffy voice. Sitting beside him, filling in the female vocalist's parts on the never-get-this-out-of-your-head hook – “We don't do the, we don't do the same drugs (do the same drugs no more)” – was an enormous, pastel-colored, owl-like puppet.
Chance the Rapper is his own puppet master, committed to controlling his destiny as an artist. The Chicagoan has insisted on remaining technically independent by not signing to a label, though his latest mixtape, the universally acclaimed “Coloring Book,” was released as an Apple Music exclusive. And last night, at a sold-out show at Denver's Fillmore Auditorium, he proved he could pull the strings of an audience like the best gospel preachers.
Plus, there were literally puppets. A whole robed choir of them, in fact. We got a sense of what was to come during opener (and Chance collaborator) Francis and the Lights' set, when the singer was joined by a larger-than-life, primary-colored lion that looked like it had strolled off Sesame Street. Francis and the lion then performed a choreographed dance.
The next puppet appeared in the first third of Chance's set: Carlos, a lion dressed as clergy (voiced by comedian HaHa Davis) that emerged from a pulpit at center stage to admonish the young artist to find the purpose of his music and “Don't forget the message, big fella!” The interactions with Carlos went on throughout the set, sometimes interrupting songs, especially ones focused on more secular subjects like sex and drugs – “All Night,” “Smoke Break” and “Juke Jam,” which features vocals from that dead-eyed idol Justin Bieber. These conversations framed the show and the mixtape as an internal struggle, allowing Chance to comment overtly on the trajectory rather than depending on listeners to read between the tracks.
The intentionality with which Chance the Rapper communicates was clear on multiple levels. His rapping skill is dexterous and versatile yet accessible, buoyed by his songs' undeniably pop-friendly melodies. He delves into stories of childhood and family, navigating syrupy tropes of nostalgia and faith with the realities of a city ravaged by violence – but he tells them in the jubilant, complex mode of a new gospel. It's a different archetype than we're used to, of the defiantly triumphant rapper (which often fits even self-doubting Drake), but Chance's narrative is still one of struggle, survival, strength and redemption. It's just told his way.
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Similar to the way he can change directions vocally while making the switch feel organic, Chance stopped and started the performance in just the right places. After "Cocoa Butter Kisses," he paused to encourage the congregation to jump in unison and “shake this bitch” before launching into an all-around ecstatic version of “No Problem.”
He proved more than capable of carrying the performance while basically alone, interacting with a bunch of muppets. But maybe the puppets stood in for the absence of humans on stage. He was backed up by longtime collaborators Donnie Trumpet and members of the Social Experiment on keys and drums, and they sounded fantastic. Yet they were above and behind the spotlight, and the sparse live instrumentation made me look forward to someday hearing the album's gorgeous arrangements fleshed out by a full band.
“Thank you for allowing me to do whatever the fuck I want,” Chance said at the end of the show, but who was he talking to? Was he referring to the crowd? Was he talking to God in public? Or was he talking to his “angels” – the puppets serving as avatars of community support? Maybe Chance the Rapper doesn't need a record label because he's got his church – literally and figuratively: his many talented collaborators, his loved ones and his core. All of this community, represented on this tour by escapees from Fraggle Rock, is what allows him to stay independent and committed to his distinctive vision.
This is the last time we'll see Chance the Rapper at a place the size of the Fillmore. It's not often that I wish to see artists in bigger venues, but with Chance, I can't wait for when he'll inevitably come through an arena near me. His performance chops can handle that stage. His collaborators can fill it. His music can shake a stadium's walls, and his vision deserves that illumination.