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Making this playlist shows me just how wide the distance is between most of the music I enjoy listening to and the music I can sing. Hip-hop is a case in point. I love listening to it, but I sound too much like Niles Crane to really participate. Also, rap is not generally a very lullaby-friendly genre. Or so I thought, until I encountered the mellifluous sounds of Chancellor Johnathan Bennett, better known to the world as Chance The Rapper. I first heard him a couple of years ago when one of my music technology students presented “Sunday Candy” in class. That song is credited to Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, a band that includes Chance but isn’t centered on him. So, much as I enjoyed the song, I didn’t put a name to the voice until last year, when Kanye West released “Ultralight Beam.” 

It’s technically true to say that Chance did a guest verse on “Ultralight Beam,” but that doesn’t begin to convey how thoroughly he owns the song. He raps and sings for a minute and half, which is more of the track than anyone else takes up, including Kanye himself. The verse is such a spectacular musical achievement that I ended up memorizing and transcribing it . My colleagues at the NYU Music Experience Design Lab  love Chance too, and lead software architect Kevin Irlen walked in one morning having memorized his verse on “Blessings 2.” I haven’t learned that one yet, but I’ve sung the chorus to my daughter at bedtime, just the one phrase repeating over and over, and it sets the mood beautifully. I’m probably the least Christian person on earth, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a good gospel song.

Beyond his delightful music, Chance is a significant figure in the music industry because he has managed to become one of the biggest rappers in the world without being signed to a label. All of his releases have been self-funded mixtapes that he gives away for free on the internet. He makes his money touring, doing guest verses, and doing branded content (what they used to call advertising jingles.) By funding his recordings out of his own pocket, Chance retains a degree of artistic freedom that most popular rappers can only dream of. He’s taken advantage of that freedom by doing some wild experiments with vocal timbre, for example by blending natural crooning with Auto-Tuned warbles, live and sampled backing vocals, and computer-generated artificial harmony with the Chicago Children’s Choir. I can’t wait to hear what he does next.

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About the Curator - Ethan Hein

Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at New York University. He teaches music technology, production and education at NYU and Montclair State University. With the NYU Music Experience Design Lab , Ethan has taken a leadership role in the creation of new technologies for learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza . In collaboration with Soundfly, he has developed a series of online music theory courses . He maintains a widely-followed and influential blog , and has written for various publications, including Slate, Quartz, and NewMusicBox.

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