Grammys flashback: Chance the Rapper’s Best New Artist win was a game-change for the industry

Some years there’s no clear favorite to win Best New Artist at the Grammys and you get complete and utter chaos trying to predict the category (kinda like this year). Other years, though, it feels like everyone in the industry is unanimously riding behind a breakout talent and the win is pretty much locked from the start. We’ve seen it with artists like Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo, but don’t forget about Chance the Rapper in 2017. His Grammy victory for Best New Artist was so assured that he led Gold Derby’s odds with almost three times as many users predicting him as his closest competitor. Everyone knew it was Chance’s moment to shine that year, but how did he go from a viral sensation to a three-time Grammy winner seemingly with such ease?

Before his big break with “Coloring Book,” his Grammy-winning mixtape, Chance the Rapper was building up hype with collaborations with acclaimed rappers like Childish Gambino and Mac Miller and singers like BJ the Chicago Kid. It didn’t take long for Chance to amass a following online, with his mixtape “Acid Rap” being one of the most buzzed-about hip-hop albums of 2013. More exposure, opportunities like performing on “Saturday Night Live,” and continued online buzz led Chance to feature on some high-profile releases, like Kanye West’s “The Life Of Pablo,” furthering his visibility. “Coloring Book” came in 2016 and completely changed Chance’s career, earning mass critical acclaim with an 89 on Metacritic. The album had so much hype that it entered the Billboard 200’s top-10 purely on streaming units, a first in the chart’s history.

That online availability was likely a major factor when Grammy time came around. To many, Chance the Rapper was a defiant giant against the corporate music industry. Not only was he very successful at making music his own way, he was also an independent artist, which was even rarer in 2016. On top of that, Chance didn’t sell his music, but instead distributed it on free platforms while trying to earn money from tours and merch alone. This narrative was so inspiring for many music creators that, not coincidentally, the Grammys allowed streaming-only albums to compete for the first time ever that same awards year. So Chance was not only massively popular, but he was actively making a change in the music industry that few artists — old or new, hip-hop or otherwise — have ever managed to do.

On top of all of that, which would’ve been enough for a win, Chance did a lot of campaigning. When he wasn’t on TV hanging out with Jimmy Fallon or being interviewed on “Good Morning America,” you would’ve seen him covering Billboard’s Grammys 2017 Preview being hailed as a leading Best New Artist contender. He was everywhere. Another artist in that Billboard issue was country breakout Maren Morris, who might have been considered Chance’s biggest competition. But she might’ve lacked the cross-genre appeal needed to win, and it didn’t help that fellow country starlet Kelsea Ballerini was also nominated, likely splitting votes.

Also nominated were The Chainsmokers, who had an absolutely massive year and could have been runners-up too. In their case, though, they might’ve ultimately lacked passionate support, something that was always on Chance’s side. The final nominee was Anderson .Paak, who just last year swept the Grammys alongside his Silk Sonic collaborator Bruno Mars. You might think Paak was a huge threat back then, but this was his debut year; he wasn’t as well known then and wasn’t expected to even get the nomination, which was ultimately his reward.

Ultimately, Chance the Rapper had something that the others lacked: a narrative. Voting for Chance the Rapper wasn’t just to reward his acclaimed work, but to also stand behind an independent artist who put the music before money and sales. This is massively important when you remember that Grammy voters are musicians, engineers, songwriters, and other artists in the industry; most of them aren’t big names, but rather lesser-known, often indie artists who simply love music and what it represents. So everyone knew Chance had it in the bag, and everyone cheered it as well.

Chance the Rapper proved that hip-hop can win in the big leagues, and that there’s a place for independent artists in the industry; he even took home two additional Grammys that year. In the end, voters love narratives, and an artist like Chance the Rapper allowed them to make a statement about where the music industry was, and where it was headed.

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