Chance The Rapper was cordially invited to perform as part of NPR’s Tiny Desk series and the brief live set is well worth the watch and listen. The Chicago-based rapper performed two songs, a mellowed (yes, even more mellow than the original) “Juke Jam” and a solemn cover of a Stevie Wonder track, “They Won’t Go When I Go,” and a brief poem that he penned on the way to NPR Music’s office, an emotional “The Other Side”. As a set, the performance was soft and sincere, with no performer getting anywhere close to stepping outside the chilled, melancholic mood. Chance performed the entire thing like a musical conversation, or perhaps musical storytelling. I’d say to get the whole emotional punch, you need to watch it as well to see Chance’s facial expressions and hand motions. There’s a lot expressed in how his body reacts with the music.
I at first thought Chance was nervous when he started “Juke Jam,” and he may have been. But as the set continued, I realized his energy was introspective and serious to match the theme of the performance. The original “Juke Jam” has a nostalgic sound and the guitar, strings, and piano give it a sad, soulful ambience. Like love or youth lost that you think about on late Thursday nights, sitting alone in a softly lit room. But the NPR performance of the track was nostalgic in a cute way–Chance sort of joked and smiled through the song and along with the lowkey synth and trumpet arrangement, it was if he was telling a story from his childhood, remembering a younger version of himself as a memory that he treasures instead of something embarrassingly disappointing (more the attitude of the original track).
From here, the set becomes even more nostalgic, emotional, and melancholic. After a small hiccup which Chance playfully laughs off, he reads his poem, “The Other Side,” a necessary segway into the final track, grounding us and holding our hand through Chance’s overall message of the set. Where “Juke Jam” tells the story of youth, “The Other Side” tells the story of growing up. And, like the performances of the songs, it plays as more of a conversation than anything else, talking about what he wanted–success, fame, money–and what there is where he ended up on “the other side,” a place more chaotic but full of love and family and deep emotion. At one point, it seems Chance gets choked up but more in happiness than anything else. It’s so especially sincere and authentic.
And that brings us to the last song of the set, a beautiful cover of a beautiful song, Stevie Wonder’s “They Won’t Go When I Go,” which Chance dedicates to a friend who has recently lost someone. And if “Juke Jam” was all nostalgic youth and “The Other Side” a contemplative meditation on how we grow, this final song sadly but firmly guides us through loss and recovery. For this performance, I especially love how Chance’s voice mixes and melds with the other singers, his voice disappearing and reappearing naturally when moving from verse to chorus (also shout out to the singers they were amazing). And like most of Coloring Book (and Stevie Wonder’s discography), the whole thing has a gospel feel, sad but conciliatory. Chance smiles towards the end, like a friend helping you get through a bad time.
In one very short set, Chance told a complete story from beginning to end and although I love fun, earnest Chance The Rapper, I can’t deny how moved I was in such a short time by mellow, warm, brooding Chance The Rapper. NPR Tiny Desk Concerts really bring out the authenticity of their featured artists and this set is no exception. You should check them out if you want to hear more! They’ve featured artists like Anderson .Paak, The Internet, and the delightful Tank and The Bangas (and so so many others).