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Chance the Rapper’s Grammys kick down doors for indie rap

By ANDREW FOERCH

“Let’s do a good ass job with Chance three, I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy,” Chance the Rapper rhymes on “Ultralight Beam,” the introductory track to Kanye West’s album The Life of Pablo. Like Babe Ruth pointing up to the center-field bleachers at Wrigley Field, this was Chance preemptively calling his shot.

Feb. 12, rap’s favorite independent artist followed through in major fashion, winning the Best Rap Album Grammy for Coloring Book, a project that sold exactly zero physical units – something no artist has ever done before. In addition to Best Rap Album, Chance took home Grammys for Best New Artist and Best Rap Performance, winning three of the seven awards he was nominated for.

Coloring Book, Chance’s third solo project, was released without a label cosign on May 13, 2016 to Apple Music before spreading to other streaming services on May 27. Physical copies were not produced, and fans were never charged for the music. Coloring Book is, by definition, a mixtape; that’s what makes its Grammy victory so groundbreaking.

For 58 years, the Grammys ignored mixtapes and other forms of unsold music. Before the mid-2000s, free, independent projects just weren’t valuable in helping artists break through to mainstream stardom. Ten years ago, if an artist wasn’t signed to a label or producing physical copies of their music to sell, it’s unlikely they would ever reach this level of success.

In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, Chance discussed how the explosion of his excellent sophomore mixtape Acid Rap begged the question, “Cause I didn’t sell it, does that mean it’s not an official release?” Perhaps, he said, he might never drop a for-sale project. “Maybe I’ll just make my money touring.” Three years later, he’s reached the top of the rap game by doing exactly that. In fact, since he hasn’t released a traditional album, Chance hasn’t made a single cent from solo project sales in his entire career.

When Coloring Book came out last May, streaming-exclusive releases still weren’t eligible for consideration by the Grammy association. The industry already had an answer for Chance’s question: an unequivocal “no.” If physical copies weren’t sold, the project apparently didn’t deserve attention from the awards institutions.

Today in the Soundcloud age, however, self-managed projects and mixtapes have become just as well crafted and just as far-reaching as traditional albums. With massively acclaimed projects like Drake’s So Far Gone, Wiz Khalifa’s Kush & OJ, Joey Bada$$’ 1999 and more, independent mixtapes have been established as a powerful way for emerging artists to build a loyal fan base and a professional reputation. Rappers like Drake, A$AP Rocky, Curren$y, Action Bronson, Migos and more have launched consistent and lucrative careers following this business model. In rap music particularly, direct and free distribution from artist to fan has become the norm. So why aren’t these mixtapes considered for awards and recognition alongside the rest of the music industry?

For over a decade, the Grammys have paid no attention to free music. In a time when streaming has become the most popular method of music consumption (according to a 2017 Nielsen Report), it felt counterintuitive for an institution supposedly honoring the year’s best music to ignore stream-only work, especially in a genre so deeply influenced by streaming services. Artistic merit and musical celebration shouldn’t be based on whose single went platinum first or who was on Billboard 200 for the most consecutive weeks – it’s the same reason the fourth Transformers sequel doesn’t deserve Oscar consideration despite grossing over $350 million. If a project is truly masterful, the artist should be recognized whether they had the label attention necessary to market it as a professional album or not.

Thus, Coloring Book’s victory is a sweet one for the new digital era of music and for independent hip-hop; a sign of possibility and optimism for the hopeful kids of rap releasing self-made songs and nonprofessional projects for free online.

Chance’s soulful mixtape first made history just two weeks after its release, when it became the first streaming-exclusive project to ever chart on the Billboard 200. Billboard’s formula equates 1,500 song streams from an album to one equivalent album “sale.” Coloring Book initially charted at No. 8, with 38,000 album sales – approximately 57 million total song streams.

Immediately, the project was in talks among hip-hop-heads as one of the year’s best releases. With Grammy season approaching after the summer, the technicality preventing Coloring Book from being considered due to the conditions of its release felt like a direct snub. The project was (is) overwhelmingly popular, and delivered some of the year’s best songs, such as “No Problem,” the catchy hit featuring 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne that would rule radio waves for the subsequent months.  

Passionate fans drafted social media posts and blog articles chiding the Grammys for falling so far behind the times and for once again ignoring noteworthy rap music outside of the top 40. Petitions went viral. The rap community wanted to see Chance get some deserved recognition for his hustle.

On Dec. 6, nominations for the 2017 Grammy Awards were revealed alongside the announcement of a categorical rule change to the awards procedures. Beginning that year, streaming-only content would be eligible for consideration by the Grammy association. Finally.

As the new rules state, “Any album released physically, via download or streamed, is eligible. It must be streamed by a service that has a full catalog (multiple artists, not just one), has existed for at least one year and has a paid subscription option.” In theory, this suggests that a platform like Soundcloud, which just launched subscription service “Go,” could see releases eligible for Grammy consideration next year – a huge step in legitimizing the market for independent rap, amateur or professional.

Seeing as the announcements were made in tandem and that Coloring Book was the only stream-exclusive album to earn a nomination, it seemed logical that the rule-change was a direct result of the project’s success. The Grammys claimed this was not the case, and that the rule change would have gone into effect anyways. Nonetheless, Coloring Book still feels like the defining factor, the single moment when the industry changed for good.

Chance has adopted a true independent agenda, answering to nobody but himself and releasing music on his own terms – he’s the perfect spokesperson for the indie movement. He’s been a pioneer, leading the way for authentic independent artists like Russ, Mick Jenkins and Run the Jewels. In any case, Coloring Book’s victory is a step in the right direction for the Grammys and an indication that independent, organic hip-hop might finally receive the commercial success it deserves.

Andrew Foerch can be reached at andrew.foerch@theminaretonline.com.

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