Chance the Rapper Let the Songs Breathe at Governors Ball

Ten minutes ago, a guy called Quinn—mid 30s, from Wisconsin—was standing near the main stage at Governors Ball, trying to explain his love for Chance the Rapper to me between draws from his electronic cigarette. He was making a point about nuance and complexity that required too much nuance and complexity to really come across at a bar at a music festival at 9:30 PM on a Friday. Eventually he became exasperated and resorted to mime. “Look, this is 79th Street,” he said pointing straight ahead. Then he split his hands to either side of the imagined Chicago and went one half at a time: “He understands this, and he understands this.”

People are still streaming into Governors Ball at 9:45 when Chancelor Bennett takes to the stage for his Friday headline slot. One in every three people seems to be wearing at least one piece of Chance merch and the other two in three just didn’t want to seem uncool by wearing Chance merch to a Chance show. It takes fifteen minutes to get a quarter-mile back from the stage and even then, back on the lawn behind the sound desk, it’s as crowded and rowdy as the front row at anyone else’s set. When the lights go down and the warped arcade synth of “Mixtape” slinks out over the crowd, there’s a brief roar before everyone’s hands fly up. From then on, every line comes back at Chance with interest.

Onstage, things are simple tonight. Chance’s balance of this and this—light and dark, rich and poor, pain and pleasure, depression and euphoria—has always been central to his music. In truth, his flashes of lyrical certainty—”I do not talk to the serpent,” “I know the difference between blessings and worldly possessions”—aren’t half as certain as they seem. They’re weighted by talk of rising waters, chemical imbalances, and the things we lose along with innocence. The positivity that he’s built into an aesthetic (and a brand) over the last year isn’t blinkered or solipsistic—it’s rooted in pain, just like the gospel choruses that he weaves into his tracks.

But for a while, Chance lost that balance in his performances. During his set at The Meadows—Gov Ball’s sister festival—last year, he brought his Magnificent Coloring World Tour with him. It involved life-sized puppets, scripted whimsy, endless special guests, and interludes in which Chance conversed with a giant, cuddly lion behind the decks. At its best, it could charm its way through like a kid’s movie without any jokes for grown-ups; at its worst, it neutralized the raw emotion of tracks like “How Great.”

Tonight, there’s none of that. Chance wears a white tee and a sheepskin denim jacket—no dungarees this time—and he’s backed by a pared-down version of his band, The Social Experiment. Every song on Coloring Book is a hit now, so there’s no need to overplay his hand (or muddle things as he did at last year’s Made In America, where he played out the majority of Acid Rap and excluded many of Coloring Book‘s highlights). He barely pauses between an opening quartet of Coloring Book tracks—”Mixtape” is followed by “Blessings,” “Angels,” and “Smoke Break”—and the audience follows him line-for-line. Forget the gimmicks and the puppets. These tracks always spoke for themselves, they just needed the space to breathe.

Maybe this is just Chance realizing the scale of his achievements. He plays three Kanye West tracks back-to-back with “Waves,” “Father Stretch My Hands Pt.1,” and the ever-perfect “Ultralight Beam,” but the crowd sees it more as a break than a highlight. Everyone will sing along to “Waves” and smile through it, but it’s nothing on the response to Chance’s “Ultralight Beam” verse. There’s a ferocity in the echoed lyrics—even here, a quarter-mile back—that’s more familiar at St Vitus hardcore shows. “You can feel the lyrics, the spirit coming in braille / Tubman of the underground, come and follow the trail” isn’t the easiest couplet for a mostly drunk crowd of 80,000 people to flow along with, but nobody misses a beat. The collective pull-up when he unleashes the “UHHH” before “I’m just having fun with it” is a perfect release.

On “All We Got,” the catharsis feels essential. On stage last year, Chance’s God-fearing happiness felt like a stubborn response to an increasingly paranoid, dangerous country, one marked by fresh tragedy and fear every day. Now, out on its own, the chorus of the Coloring Book opener feels like a powerful and celebratory statement of its own: “Music is all we got / So we might as well give it all we got.”

Special guests are at a minimum as well. Francis and the Lights pitches in some backing vocals and some lead on his own “May I Have This Dance.” Other than that, the closer falls to the multi-talented Ty Dolla $ign on the reprisal of “Blessings.” It feels natural, not contrived. And, as a result, an audience of mostly kids—mostly Godless, if I’m guessing—can absorb Chance muttering into the night sky that he speaks to God in public. And they can believe him when he says it.

After a year in which he’s become a global superstar, a remarkably influential philanthropist, and a well-crafted, independent success story, Chance the Rapper seems to have figured out who he is. He’s a Christian, an optimist, and a leader—this is called the “Be Encouraged” tour, after all. But now he’s realized that he can let that stand on its own. There’s no need for play-acting anymore, no need to paper over the difficulty or the pain when it needs to come through. He understands this and this. Finally, he’s getting them both across onstage.

Alex Robert Ross knows there’s no Twitter in heaven, but follow him there anyway.

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