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What “Free” Costs: The Business of Being Chance the Rapper

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Chance the Rapper has friends in high places. In their various ways, Kanye West, Apple, and — yes — God have all conspired to elevate Chance to an odd, artisanal sort of hip-hop prominence. Kanye has provided hometown-Chicago mentorship, and Chance has found success with an increasingly religious brand of gospel rap. But his best friend of all just might be Apple. The tech giant has thrown undisclosed but presumably vast resources behind the young Chicago rapper since 2014. Chance’s latest mixtape, Coloring Book, is an Apple Music exclusive. It’s also the first project that Chance has ever released with a price tag, though he’ll tell you it’s free — plus $9.99, the monthly cost of an Apple Music subscription.

Until now, releasing music exclusive to a single streaming platform — and the promotion that accompanies such releases — was a VIP level of stunting reserved for megacelebrities. Rihanna, Kanye West, and Beyoncé all released their latest albums initially as Tidal properties, and Drake’s latest album, Views, first went live on Apple Music. The exclusivity model helped each of them set new weekly streaming records in the past six months. But what works for Drake and Beyoncé may not scale so successfully to musicians at large.

With Coloring Book, Chance is proving that, well … maybe it can? He’s been at this for a while now: In 2013, following the great success of his breakout mixtape, Acid Rap, the independent rapper posed a few questions about the mixtape-album binary to Rolling Stone. “If it’s all original music and it’s got this much emotion around it and it connects this way with this many people,” he wondered, “is it a mixtape? What’s an album these days, anyways?”

Functionally, this distinction between albums and mixtapes is moot; both formats now typically include original song compositions, with raps over original beats. What Chance is stabbing at, however, is an industrial distinction: between (a) music made for cheap and then distributed for free — as a mixtape — and (b) music sponsored by substantial investment and then marketed at a premium — as an album.

Chance and Apple both insist that Coloring Book is a mixtape. It’s tough for me to agree with that characterization for a few reasons: The thing went through sample clearances, features expensive guest verses, and likely cost a boatload of money to produce. In any case, Coloring Book is hardly the first contemporary rap project to elude sure definition as either a mixtape or an album, much as Chance himself eludes easy categorization as independent or major. All terms are in flux, and Chance is making the most of that ambiguity.

In a marketplace where musicians are so rightfully skeptical of record labels and their standard contract terms, Chance the Rapper is toying with a model of autonomy that pays off for artists above all. A decade ago, the proliferation of 360 deals famously demoralized a few rappers and decimated artists’ personal income by claiming a chunk of all their revenue streams, at a time when global music industry revenues were falling to historic, irreversible lows.

Apple’s stake in Chance is a rare bet on a not-entirely-proven quantity, justified if only because Chance has executed such a captivating vision with precision and great care. (In contrast, there’s Atlanta rapper Young Thug, signed to 300 Entertainment, who releases new music with abandon and leaves the market to sort it all out.) Chance, a self-possessed and amazingly talented songwriter, might be the only not-quite-superstar who could pull this off. As he puts it on “Blessings,” he’s less interested in sales and label politics than in creative control: “I don’t make songs for free,” Chance raps. “I make ’em for freedom.”

This piece originally appeared in the May 18, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.