If we’re being honest, it’s worth saying that a lot of rap shows are the same. The hype man gets the crowd going, the rapper steps out a little nonplussed, and the crowd takes part in a lot of tiring arm-raising. It’s supposed to be a crazy night, but it isn’t that crazy. Even the most rambunctious, off-the-wall characters—Tyler, The Creator, Danny Brown, Andre 3000—aren’t as wild as you hoped they would be. Converse’s fourth night in this week’s Rubber Tracks free concert series wound up being rightfully hyped. Chance the Rapper, Action Bronson, and Michael Christmas all brought their personas onstage for a night of laugh after laugh, each one falling on an excellent beat.
When you put three of the biggest scene rappers in a show, you get a lot of smoke from weed — so it only makes sense for the evening to start with an emergency fire alarm evacuation. Already running half an hour late, the show took another half hour pause to shuffle every person outside to the streets. Cute the unofficial meet and greet. Dozens of kids flocked to Chance the Rapper’s tour bus and Action Bronson’s van. A firetruck came whirring, lights flashing, highlighting the cheekbones of college freshmen while they posed for pictures. Sharing a blunt with his crew, Bronson couldn’t care less. He signed anything thrown at him—notebook paper, concert posters, $20 bills—with the content eyes of a man enjoying his perpetual high.
Michael Christmas came in for the youth vote. He’s the ideal opener, getting the crowd rowdy and excited for songs they’ve never heard but can’t wait to download later. Don’t let the giant fizzy fro fool you. Christmas has been big on the scene ever since he was 16 years old. Now, about to turn 20, he’s honed his craft far earlier than those duking it out in the game. He runs around the stage, spitting songs from Is This Art? with the same delivery and pop culture slips as Das Racist, ripping his hat off, debuting new material, and tugging his DJ out to the front lines for an impromptu synchronized dance to “Buy U A Drank”. With a couple cameos from his crew (including a single by Cousin Stizz) and a monstrous jump to “Fuck Wit Me”, the Boston rapper turned on his toes and left the crowd head over heels for his charm.
Food and weed: the two things Action Bronson needs for a perfect life. The heavyweight foodie and ginger pothead walked out in a black button-down past his knees and inky leather sneakers, launched into “Brand New Car” and cut himself off for a drink. No matter how badly the crowd wanted him to spout heated retorts about Guy Fieri or mussles, he stuck to the lyrics, occasionally dropping a blunt line that got people chuckling or yelling at the crowd to stop chanting for him. Between the massive cheers for “The Rising” and “Actin’ Crazy”, it became clear something incredible was happening – all of his words were intelligible. The muddy mixing of rap and puffy delivery was gone. The self-proclaimed “250 lbs of rapping hurricane shit” was able to keep the focus on his words, even with the heat of the old school beat on “Falconry” going against him. So when he threw unopened Converse sneakers and $50 Converse gift cards into the crowd to the tune of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man”, he couldn’t have cared less. Action Bronson is a man who won’t waste your time with garbage words, garbage food, or garbage vibes. After closing with the cult classic “Easy Rider”, he flicked his wrist sharply, sending the microphone in a 15 feet arc across the air while he walked offstage not to a mic drop, but a mic throw.
With two remarkably memorable performances down, it seemed impossible that the 500-person venue would see an even greater name take over the stage, but luck (and excellent curating) was on everyone’s side. Chance the Rapper’s set made me forget the building almost burned down, which, really, should never be something you forget. It was that good. Right from the get-go, he won fans over with “Pusha Man” and the slick look of his letterman jacket. Caught in the fury state of his own mind and smooth voice, he took a step back several songs in to acknowledge the over-ecstatic crowd. “Nice to meet you all,” he laughed. “I just realized I got way too excited.” That excitement is what kept his set running. Explosive horns mirrored Chance’s moves. He frequently danced his way across the stage, getting as much delight from his own music as the crowd, especially during “Sunday Candy”. An impromptu take on the full version of the Arthur theme song led to equal delight. The trumpet grew remarkably loud, drumming up hand claps from the crowd that melted into the seamless back and forth of a collective wave, an reoccurring image that felt vaguely comforting.
Perhaps the peak of Chance the Rapper’s set came from his short monologue prepping “Cocoa Butter Kisses” on independence at shows. “This is your own kind of weird music,” he said to the crowd. “This is your music. This is your song. This is your show. This is the only place where you can come and jump as high as you can, where you can scream as loud as you want to, where you can sing as high as you want… You’re not going to let someone next to you stop you from jumping, or screaming, or laughing as hard as you can. I’m going to play your song from your iTunes, from your room, right here. Don’t look around. This is your shit. This is yours.”
In case it isn’t evident enough, missing Chance the Rapper is a big mistake. His appeal comes in the form of his live setup. Hip-hop gets criticized for being a bunch of quick words over the same looped beat. To challenge this, or generally disprove it altogether, Chance raps with support from a full band, the Social Experiment. The live energy of his keyboardists, trumpeter, and drummer (and the thin ringing of his cymbals) push Chance’s words into a realm far beyond the ones his albums create. There’s a momentary unity, singular mood, and large-hearted empathy extended through their music. When the group came back for an encore of a new song, they extended the music to keep hanging in the air, all the way through “Chain Smoker” and into the evening’s 1 AM wrap.