On the cover of Chance the Rapper's Acid Rap, the 19-year-old rapper is lost in the woods, purple sky looming, his eyes wide, mind contorted. This is what one of hip-hop's most elite word-for-word, bar-for-bar rappers looks like in 2013: incredibly young, existentially confused, undoubtedly tripping balls, and rocking a tie-dye tank top. He's from Chicago — the notorious South Side, to be exact — rather than the traditional spitter center of New York City, and he is, along with a number of other youthful word nerds (and long-gestating veterans), pulling "lyricism" out of the codified pit of "real hip-hop" cliché and throwing it across every nook and cranny of the rap landscape.
Acid Rap (no. 2 on our 50 Best Albums of 2013 list) is an impressive, arresting display of furious styles, but it's also a well-observed and deeply empathetic album about growing up and trying to be decent — a good kid in a mad Midwestern city — whose songs inhabit a series of lost and half-found characters: wounded addicts, lusted-over high-school lab-mates, feckless dealers, a sweetheart dad, and young couples in love. It's got an open-eared palette of sub-regional sounds, crooned hooks, and vivid storytelling — one of those sprawling masterpieces you can't ignore. But a key element to its success is unquestionably old-fashioned, pen-and-pad writing and verbal acrobatics.