Without wading too far into the critical weeds, Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book is a triumph.
The Chicago rapper’s third mixtape is a more focused and fully realized expansion of the gospel excursions Kanye West took on The Life Of Pablo, crossed with the mix of joy and introspection that makes Chance so compelling. It’s another step forward for one of the most exciting rappers working. But with a new tape also comes another round of praising Chance as an indie hero for eschewing label support. And that claim needs some investigation.
The man born Chancelor Bennett’s rise to rap’s pinnacle since his 2013 breakout mixtape Acid Rap – with a starring role on Kanye’s Pablo, appearances on SNL and undoubted hip-hop A-lister status now to his name – has seen him hailed for his independence. When Acid Rap blew up, downloaded an estimated 1,000,000 times according to DatPiff, a bidding war between major labels ensued. Chance though, didn’t want to compromise. “It’s dope people want to partner up, but I’m a very tunnel vision guy,” he shrugged to MTV, explaining he was “not interested.” That was June 2013. By September, his resolve was even firmer. “It’s a dead industry,” he told Rolling Stone. “There’s no reason to” sign to a label, he reasoned.
Skip forward three years to the much-hyped Coloring Book and in the most literal sense, Chance is still independent. He still hasn’t signed a deal. But both Coloring Book and last year’s Surf (with Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment) were released exclusively through Apple. While there’s nothing to confirm Chance is in business with Apple, it would be consistent with the company’s reported $19 million deal with Drake.
It shouldn’t reflect negatively on Chance, but anyone with the backing of a company worth $700 billion — several times more than all the major labels combined — can’t be considered independent, especially when that company is an indispensable part of the music economy through Apple Music, iTunes, Beats 1 and the rest. Given the current cutthroat competition for exclusive streaming rights, with each platform fighting for the best exclusives to tip the streaming platform wars in their favour, it’s fair to wonder if Apple needed Coloring Book more than Chance needed Apple. But the truth remains: it is likely Chance has benefitted from backing by the biggest tech firm on the planet, while wrapped up in a narrative in which he represents a music industry milestone for independent artists.
The whole debate’s entrenched in a bigger question: what does it even mean to be independent in 2016? Our ideas about indie music appear to be frozen in the ‘90s, when the barrier to entry was much higher. The major labels spent decades monopolizing the production and distribution of music, and had the power to decide what music would break out. Few artists had the opportunity to sign a major deal, and those that did often found themselves locked into decade-long struggles with their label over money and creative direction – Prince, Michael Jackson, Toni Braxton and N’Sync, for example. For the DIY artists, whether you were a hardcore band pressing up 7″ singles or a rapper selling tapes out of your trunk, any kind of indie success was an anti-establishment victory.
A decade and a half of file sharing, social media and increasingly affordable technology later, the balance of power has shifted. Today’s independent artists are reaching levels of success that were previously unthinkable. But boiling down the dramatic changes in the music industry to artist empowerment is to oversimplify the situation. The straightforward world of radio has given way to an untameable hydra of listening options, culminating in today’s fight for streaming supremacy. And while that battle is ostensibly between Apple, Spotify and TIDAL, there are dozens of ancillary competitors affected by the clash. SoundCloud’s future is uncertain, while Mixcloud has been forced to adopt arcane restrictions in the US to stay alive. YouTube managed to become a major player in the music economy because it’s backed by Google, who could afford to pay what the labels demanded.
Chance is the baseball capped, raspy-voiced emblem of this power shift. With Coloring Book, he joins the likes of Future and Drake by more or less releasing his album exclusively on Apple (the album is expected to eventually go to other platforms, but has been so fiercely sought-after, fans are unlikely to have hung around). Labels still have something to offer most artists, whether it’s connections, additional money-making opportunities, a deeper collective knowledge of the business, or just straight up manpower. Chance’s decision to go it alone reflects a concern that contractual obligations might distract him from his twin goals of making rap music and helping Chicago. This is all admirable stuff, rooted in what it means to be independent.
But it’s time to break away from the myth of Chance as some kind of triumph for artists over labels. His independence has more to do with industry flux than his defiant spirit. Ten years ago, an artist in his position would have probably signed a deal by now. Given the current terrain, many rappers who signed deals in 2006 probably wouldn’t do the same today. To keep holding Chance up as an indie rapper is to sell him short, anyway. He’s a legitimate star, three albums into what should be a long, self-sustaining career. “I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail,” he rapped on ‘Ultralight Beam’. His unstoppable surge to rap’s upper echelons, however, will, likely have as much to do with the backing of a tech superpower as his friendship with Ye.