By Mike Bertram
For years, mainstream rap music has had its formula for breaking artists. A rapper releases a few mixtapes, gets signed to a major big-name record label, and then releases several albums while under contract.
That is, up until a few years ago when Chicago-native Chance the Rapper bucked the trend by avoiding major labels and staying an independent artist. This decision is paying off well for him, as he took home three Grammys the other night for Best Rap Album, Best New Artist, and Best Rap Performance.
Acid Rap, his breakout mixtape, was one of the most important releases of 2013. It was here he developed his signature sound, blending local Chicago dance genres such as juke and footwork with Rap and Gospel. The mixtape featured a bright, positive, and fun sound while still touching on some of the violence and inner-city issues of his Chicago neighborhood.
Acid Rap was a huge success for Chance. It was placed in several Album of the Year lists put out by publications such as Complex, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and several others. Nearly everyone expected him to sign to a label so he could begin to sell music. Instead, he decided to completely change the music industry.
Chance decided to stay an independent artist and continue to give his music out for free, something unprecedented for an artist of his status. He opted instead to receive income off touring and merchandise for the next two years and was extremely successful doing so. He amassed a huge following very quickly.
Fast forward to 2016. Chance the Rapper gets the nod from his idol, Kanye West, to be featured on his new album, The Life of Pablo. Chance was heavily involved in the recording of Kanye’s album and stole the show with his feature on the opening song, “Ultralight Beam.”
In the song, Chance references the fact that in order to win a Grammy, the artist can’t be released for free, but must be sold. However, not long after the song was released, the Grammy committee decided to allow albums released for free to be eligible for Grammy nominations.
Then, in May, of last year, he released the Grammy winning album, Coloring Book. It continued his joyful, exuberant sound and also featured some of the biggest names he has worked with thus far, including Lil Wayne and Future. It also made its way to critical success, much like Acid Rap.
All this lead to the Grammy night a few weeks ago. Not many expected Chance to come home with any Grammys, but he left with three, something that wasn’t even possible a year ago. His formula to stay independent and achieve mainstream success by releasing music for free worked just the way he imagined it.
Chance’s win is historic. Not only did the awards change their rules almost exclusively for him and the release of Coloring Book, but his win will hopefully allow unsigned artists to continue to be nominated for music’s most prestigious award.
His win at the Grammys has already completely revolutionized the industry and allowed independent artists the opportunity to receive mainstream recognition. The Grammys have historically been slow to change, but with more music being released for free than ever before, these changes will ideally lead to new, up and coming artists not yet signed to labels a chance (no pun intended) to gain more exposure through the Grammys.