Last June, alone on the Metro North, surrounded by pregaming twenty-somethings and a blurry coastline, I was bound to my thoughts. There was a lot on my mind, mostly concerning one simple question: did I make the right decision?
Perhaps you assume that I was meddling over a momentous occasion, pondering why I chose to pursue an English degree or why I cut ties with an old, loyal friend. But my choice actually pertained to something as seemingly serious. I decided to go see Chance the Rapper in the West Village instead of watching Game Seven of the NBA Finals. To be clear, I say “actually” only to designate between your presumed assumptions and the reality of the moment, not to lessen the severity of the situation. This was big to me.
This past Finals series was between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat. Now, in case you don’t remember, the Heat have this guy named Lebron James. I, like many others in my generation, have followed Lebron from his high school days to his ninth all-star selection, which occurred just a few months before my train ride. That night, he was in pursuit not only of a second consecutive championship ring, but also the title best basketball player of all time.
But then there was Chance. At the time, his first big mixtape, Acid Rap, was only two months old. He had me and everyone else who filled the concert hall later that night convinced: the kid could rap. His whiney, raspy alliterations have an unsettling quality. They produce the same effect in me as works of art that I know I love, but just cannot understand. Maybe it was his receding hairline, maybe it was the LSD-tickled imagination, it didn’t matter. He was the wisest 20 year-old I had ever heard.
Lebron and Chance are very different. The former, under a national microscope since his youth, is now the face of modern basketball. Despite a consistent barrage of criticism that has haunted him throughout his entire career, Lebron achieved greatness with hard work, determination, and flat out, undeniable skill. He’s assuredly spent thousands of hours in the gym, perfecting his craft. As an athlete myself, I have always admired his focus and work ethic; and I still do to this day.
With only a mixtape and a few YouTube videos to his name, the latter, on the other hand, is completely unpolished. At the time, he was only on the radar of people who might care about seeking out and sharing new and interesting hip-hop. His nasally voice, quirky name and drugs of choice didn’t align with the traditional formula for rap success.
Despite their differences, King James and Chano have a great deal in common. Both strive for success in a way that aims to rewrite the history of their given disciplines; they just have contrasting strategies. Lebron—constantly compared to Michael Jordan and other basketball greats—is quite publically motivated to surpass the statistics of those who came before him. Chance’s angle is less conservative: he wants to be different than those who came before him.
As I anxiously entered SOB’s and made my way to the tap, I saw Lebron gliding through the lane on the bar’s seventy-inch flatscreen. All feelings of loneliness were alleviated by the dozens of sports fans, who on this night also found their attention caught between the conventional and the unconventional, all wondering if they had made the right choice.
While groupies and sweaty high schoolers settled for the opening acts, the rest of us turned the concert hall into a sports bar—high fives and spilled beers. Between possessions, we glanced back at the stage to make sure Chance hadn’t snuck on without our knowledge.
As Tony Parker and James traded baskets down the stretch, DJ Oreo—clad in his trademark tie-dye hoodie—bounced on stage. Now the tensions in the room were high; Miami clinged to a dwindling fourth quarter lead and Chance was due to make his entrance. Finally, Chitown’s newest prodigy quietly strolled to center stage. “Hi everyone, I’m Chance the Rapper, I’m twenty years old, and I’m from Chicago.” Nothing more; he launched into a raucous “Hey Ma,” the notable track from his debut mixtape 10Day.
He transitioned into a solemn rendition of “Everybody’s Somebody.” Despite the emphatic audience collaboration for his “middle finger Uncle Samuel” line, Chance was noticeably timid. SOB’s is known as a kind of proving grounds for aspiring artists. Kanye, Drake and Rick Ross all made their New York debuts at the unassuming salsa club on Varick Street. The gravity of the room was not lost on him.
But beyond the venue, Chance had another reason to be nervous; he was vaulted into the spotlight of hip-hop in a matter of months, and now he was standing in a room filled with devoted fans, hungry promoters, and curious record executives. On top of that, consider his competition: the 6’8” 250 pound Miami forward. He hit from 18 feet as Oreo’s beat faded out.
Even though Lebron hit shot after shot on the TV behind us, the spotlight was on Chance. The groovy bass of “Pusha Man” trickled through Oreo’s speakers and Chano started ferociously bobbing his head—like a Pez dispenser getting snapped to the beat. As he jumped into the verse, his wiry frame twitched back and forth. It appeared Chance was getting some “juice.” But not to be outdone, Lebron answered with a barrage of humiliating dunks and precision jump shots. As he zeroed in on a second NBA title, Chance gave the people what they wanted. The arrogant horns section on “Smoke Again” charged the crowd and Chance erupted into a flurry of karate kicks and ligament-tearing fist pumps.
Chance compounded the energy with a quick lesson in juking, followed by “Juice,” his three-million-view YouTube smash hit. The place went wild.
Drinks flew, jaws and elbows collided; this was live hip hop at its finest. Chance the Rapper had broken out of his shell and captivated an audience in a uniquely genuine, humanizing manner. He didn’t administrate a noise competition between sections of the crowd, and he didn’t ask “where my smokers at??” He just shook off his nerves and went to work.
Suddenly, the game in Miami was an afterthought. Chance the Rapper went one on one with Lebron James and walked away victorious. He ended by spraying the crowd with water bottles as his crew went apeshit to French Montana’s “Ain’t Worried Bout Nothin’.” As Montana does in the original version, they repeated the refrain enough times until they convinced themselves it was true. And I did too.