After losing his scholarship at his dream college in 2014, Denver rapper Trayce Chapman was in a funk. He'd been making music under the name June since he'd started rap-battling his friends in middle school, but he had yet to break through. So he returned to Denver from Prairie View A&M University and decided to get real.
Using his real name for the first time, he released a mixtape called Contraband and began to gain traction in Denver's hip-hop scene. Seven years and several albums later, he's returning to his roots and dropping Contraband 3 in September.
"For me, it was such a relief and a release to get away from that depressing chapter," Chapman says of making Contraband. "I flunked out of the dream school I wanted to go to, where I got my scholarship, and this was my getaway."
The next year, he dropped a sequel album, which he considers his real debut.
"Contraband 2, in my opinion, was my first really cohesive music project, in terms of [being] arranged in a way that was really pleasing to listen to. The songs aren't too long, the beats are great, the levels are great, the production is great," he says. "That was my first one where I felt good about the project. That was 2015, and I've not ventured back into Contraband since then, but now I've circled back to it."
"There's a certain brand or genre of my rapping style when it comes to Contraband. I tell my story in a specific way, and I'm more vulnerable. All my music on the Contraband projects has been brutally honest about my story, and this one is no different," Chapman reveals. "I questioned at times, like, 'Damn, am I too honest?' And that's when I know it's really my story and it's going to be felt by a lot of people. I take pride in being vulnerable on the Contraband projects and really letting the world know who I am. Vulnerability has always brought me good results in my career."
He also wanted to return to the Contraband series to highlight how far he's come since he started it.
"Earlier on, you have to reach a little bit as an artist who hasn't seen much and a person who hasn't seen much, up until the point where you are seeing these things — and then you have to not just see them, but you have to be able to put that on wax as something interesting to listen to," Chapman says of his personal and artistic development. "I'm at the point in my career where I can take in life as it comes, and I can really go paint that now, versus earlier in my career, [when] I was just rapping about what I wanted to be or what I thought was cool."
Since Contraband 2 was released, Chapman has become a father, performed on BET and SportsCenter, sold out shows in and beyond Denver, and amassed millions of streams on Spotify. His journey from then to now is the topic of his latest release.
"A lot has happened from Contraband 2 to Contraband 3, and I want to tell my perspective of it," he says. "I really do think I'm a storyteller by trade. All the fun rapping and stuff like that, I can do, but the storytelling really is what I want to do and where I shine."
Chapman skillfully juggles gut-wrenching narratives and head-nodding jams on Contraband 3. Covering everything from childhood traumas to adult trysts, he delivers the trademark candor we've come to expect on the Contraband projects, but with the elevated confidence that comes with experience. He poetically describes his music as a well-made layer cake — pleasing on the surface, but equally tasty inside: "You know, like what would catch me as a person eating a cake is how the cake looks. So you have my flashier styles, or more fun, turn-up styles that make a fan look my way — but once they were there, once they get to taste the cake, there's definitely ingredients that make it unique."
One of those not-so-secret ingredients is Chapman's versatile voice.
"I'm a rapper, but I'm melodic," he says of his multifaceted vocals. "So I sing in my ad libs, I sing on my hooks and things like that. I still sing the same lyrics I would rap, but I just sing them, and I think that adds a different element of storytelling."
No matter what the situation is, Chapman aims to be the soundtrack: "It's music that makes you feel, music that makes you vibe, music that can make you dance, music that can make you think, all in one."
The latest single from the upcoming album is "The Winds," which dropped with a hypnotic music video directed by Denver-based filmmaker Matthew Mooney, aka Moon, on June 25. While the lyrics play with the concept of "the winds of change," the song itself is a sonic departure from Chapman's past discography.
"It's really moody. I'm a really moody guy, I'll admit it. I wrote the song about the winds of change coming about," he says. "I feel like my life is really in a transition period, and I'm in between what I was and what I'm about to be."
He's both nervous and excited to give his longtime fans something new.
"It's one of those ones where it's not like a thug, trap, hip-hop record. So you're always kind of curious as an artist, and anxious, like, 'Damn, are they going to like this?'" he says. "I'm also very excited, because I think it's fire, and I love the texture of the song and everything."
Watching the video for "The Winds," you may wonder where in the world it was filmed — and that's exactly Chapman's intention.
"I cast my own locations, for the most part," he says. "So my main objective, always, as the location guy is to have people be like, 'Where the hell did you shoot that?' That's music to my ears."
Shots of Chapman sitting in the window seat of an airplane, keeping his cool while the plane tosses and turns, are spliced with disorienting neon visuals and footage of him rapping. In lieu of renting an airplane, Moon shot Chapman in front of a green screen and constructed the whole plane setting digitally in post-production. The director even made his own rain machine by poking holes in a carefully coiled garden hose.
"The thought behind it was being a passenger on this airplane that is in turbulence in a thunderstorm," Chapman explains. "For me, that's symbolic of my life, because you're not really in control. All you can do is weather the storm."
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