On Sunday night, Chancelor Bennett, more commonly known as Chance the Rapper, used his worship-filled performance to bring Jesus to the center of an awards show known for anything but its spiritual influence. After winning three Grammys this week—Best New Artist, Best Rap Album, and Best Rap Performance—the number “3” on his trademark flat bill hat seems nearly prophetic. And if you weren’t listening to his words before, you might want to start now.
The 23-year-old Chicago native began his career by recording his first aptly-named mixtape 10 Day, during a ten-day suspension from high school. With the mild success garnered from this effort, he went on to release Acid Rap, a mixtape showcasing his broader musical talent. The release of his third mixtape, Coloring Book, finally established Chance as a member of the popular music scene. This mixtape features worship-infused rap music describing the life of a young man learning about himself and his relationship with God. But the unpredictable path he took through the music industry makes the story from suspension to success even more remarkable.
After winning his three awards on Sunday Night, Chance has the distinction of having more Grammy Awards than songs sold. A line from the song “Blessings” succinctly explains Chance’s marketing methodology: “I used to pass out music … I still pass out music.” Chance is the first artist ever to have a streaming-exclusive album nominated for a Grammy, and his choice not to have a record label marks his disruptive approach to making and sharing music.
He released his first two mixtapes exclusively on SoundCloud, and it wasn’t until Coloring Book that users could listen to him on platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music. It is still impossible to purchase any song by Chance the Rapper—listeners can download his songs for free. He relies on performing and merchandise sales for income, nothing more. But this grassroots approach only makes him easier to cheer for.
Chance’s scratchy voice and catchy songs already influence influencers from Jimmy Fallon to Sasha Obama, and he continues to come up with creative ways to keep listeners engaged. He recorded the music video for “How Great” on an iPhone, requiring viewers to lock their phone screen in portrait mode to experience its full effect. And he recently premiered the video for “Same Drugs” on Facebook Live. He also released a holiday mixtape without warning (Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama) and has started his own line of Obama-themed clothing.
Everything Chance does feels new and exciting and people seem eager to join the culture he’s creating, good news for a rapper who relies on his community of listeners.
Without a record label, Chance depends entirely on the support of fans. And no matter how quickly his popularity grows, he seems to stay connected to those who have supported him all along. He portrays relatable emotions, and he seems as shocked by his success as everyone else. He shares his joy with his fans and they respond by sharing theirs with him. This mutually beneficial relationship Chance has formed enables his followers to celebrate his successes with him.
One look at Chance’s Twitter page, and his love for his fans becomes clear. Chance has turned himself into the people’s champion, and even with the Grammy wins, he is somehow still the lovable underdog. Despite his personal appeal, Chance asserts that he doesn’t make music for his own glory. Instead, he uses his platform to point others to God—a relatively new development in his life.
After Acid Rap, a mixtape full of content reflecting its title, Chance experienced a complete U-turn when his grandma prayed over him, saying: “Lord, I pray that all things that are not like You, You take away from Chance. Make sure that he fails at everything that is not like You. Take it away. Turn it into dust,” he told GQ.
This tough, but honest, prayer along with the birth of his daughter pushed Chance back into a relationship with God, one he had ignored for some time. With Coloring Book, Chance raps freely about his faith and speaks with raw honesty about the process of understanding God.
Chance presents the gospel in a way that’s unique to his personality. He follows the song “How Great,” a remake of a Chris Tomlin number featuring a full worship choir, with “Smoke Break,” a song with a vivid description of smoking weed. Chance puts his imperfections right next to his understanding of the importance of a relationship with God.
He doesn’t have it all figured out, nor does he claim to, and this invitation to join him in the middle of his journey adds power to his lyrics. His explicit language and content may not be “safe for the whole family,” but with each song Chance gives listeners the image of a man working his way toward God the best way he knows how. Chance raps honestly about an imperfect man’s imperfect relationship with a perfect God.
Isn’t that all of us?
We don’t find the answers to tough theological questions in his music, but instead we find the soul of a man processing the salvation offered to him by a great God. And as we listen, we will find joy, a characteristic overflowing from every song. Our culture thirsts for community, and Chance presents himself as a cool glass of water who connects others to both himself and, more importantly, the God he worships.
Often when people look to pop culture to satisfy intangible needs, they return empty-handed. Encounters with Chance’s music provide an exception to the rule. His presence in popular music offers people the answer to what they search for, and the answer is God.
Chance the Rapper opened his performance Sunday night for 26 million people with the truth we all need to hear. With the number “3” hat on his head, the mic in his hand and the choir at his back, he reminded us all that “God is better than the world’s best thing.”