Critical Voices: Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book

May 24, 2016


When Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly was released in March of last year, it was immediately apparent that the music world was witnessing something extraordinary and revolutionary. Already, Chance the Rapper’s mixtape Coloring Book is creating similar seismic waves.

Lamar’s innovation was retrospective, as he sought to recapture various sounds from the pantheon of black music, from John Coltrane to James Brown. Chance is following suit, but where Lamar channeled jazz and funk, the Chicago-born MC turned his attention to gospel. And good news: gospel and Chance are a match made in heaven.

Gospel might be the only type of music that can match Chance’s signature feel-good energy and positivity. Gospel choirs possess a particular type of raw, soaring power and an uncanny ability to make people want to jump out of their seats and praise the Lord, atheists and agnostics notwithstanding. Naturally, the highlights of the mixtape come when the gospel choirs shine through.

A jubilant chorus is sampled and looped on “No Problem,” an early contender for certified banger of the mixtape, in which Chance sends a pluckily gleeful warning to record labels: “You don’t want no problem with me.” But this glimpse of gospel is merely a precursor to what follows.

The first three minutes of “How Great” exclusively feature a gospel choir singing a hymn. This isn’t hip-hop, rather wholly gospel. Making a track like this requires some daring, but Chance pulls it off. When the beat finally drops, he delivers one of his greatest verses ever. At one point he addresses his decision to abstain from a record deal: “Don’t believe in signin’ I’ve seen dollar signs color white collar crime.” Lines like this one showcase Chance’s magical lyricism and his superior command of the English language. He might be the first rapper ever to use the word “skullduggery” in a rhyme. A few lines later he mentions rappers “losing custody,” as if his words were his own children. The comparison speaks to the amount of artistic care and poetic awareness present in Chance’s verses. After he silences himself with a “shh,” Jay Electronica materializes and delivers an equally strong verse. He echoes Chance’s anti-establishment sentiment by dismissing the lucrative new streaming movement: “I spit on the Tidal in tidal waves; I spit on the apple and kill a worm.” Exceptional lyricism and the risk/reward factor of this track make it a standout on the mixtape.

The finishing one-two punch of “Finish Line” and the reprise of “Blessings” packs a walloping dose of gospel. Amid soulful piano and pulsating organ, The Chicago Children’s Choir sings on “Finish Line” along with gospel giant Kirk Franklin. With a joyful melody that worms its way into your subconscious, “Finish Line” might be the catchiest track on the mixtape. Just as Kanye sampled soul and Motown classics, Chance is harnessing the power of gospel music to define his own sound.

The choral nature of Coloring Book extends to its extensive list of featured artists; the mixtape feels at times like a huge family gathering. The result is a warm environment of inclusiveness. There are some interesting and questionable cameos on the mixtape, which includes contributions from current stars like Future and veterans of the industry like T-Pain (turns out underneath all that auto tune, he can actually sing). But for the most part, everyone at the family reunion does their part, even the old, weird uncle who doesn’t really belong anymore (*cough* Lil’ Wayne *cough*). Besides, you can’t blame everyone for wanting to make music with Chano. Here, like a good pastor, he welcomes everyone into his church.

The abundance of gospel on the mixtape renders it decisively religious in feel, but Chance certainly isn’t the first to rap about God. Kendrick Lamar’s verses are filled with religious allusions and references to scripture; his album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City centers around an audio clip of young men converting to Christianity. Nevertheless, differences exist regarding the tone of each rapper’s faith. Whereas Lamar is obsessed with repentance and salvation, Chance is all about graciousness and eternal love. One notices similar nuance in their political views, as well.

Both Chance and Kendrick make music that is meant to have a social impact. Nearly everything about To Pimp A Butterfly is explicitly political. Coloring Book is loose and unfettered, but don’t think for a second that Chance isn’t politically conscious. The mixtape is acutely aware of the political and racial issues gripping the country, with allusions to the Black Lives Matter movement (“Jesus’ black life ain’t matter”) and the chronic gun violence in Chance’s hometown (“There’s too many young angels on the south side”). Chance is more subtle in his delivery of political bars, which are often disguised by exultant, upbeat music and his characteristically youthful, innocent flow. And much of the message is symbolic; the Chicago Children’s Choir singing in peaceful defiance while bullets riddle their city is a statement in and of itself. In effect, Chance manages to remain positive in the face of injustice and tragedy. “Don’t forget the happy thoughts,” he reminds us.

His ascent into the highest tier of current MCs creates an interesting duality: Lamar, the militant cynic and Chance, the ever-grinning optimist. While the two aren’t as ideologically divergent as Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, their approaches resemble the same struggle for a shared political goal by contrasting methods. Yet both Chance’s and Kendrick’s styles are effective, and if they ever decided to work together, I don’t think anyone would be opposed to a collaboration.

Aesthetically, Coloring Book eclipses most, if not all, of Chance’s past work. Resonant vocal harmonies, a healthy dose of brass courtesy of Donnie Trumpet, and sprinklings of church organ and shimmering strings add sonic depth that we never heard on 10 Day or Acid Rap. The changes reflect a general theme of the mixtape: Chance is maturing; he is evolving. And yet, in some ways he’s still the same kid from 79. Coloring Book is tinged by the same sepia filter of nostalgia that has become Chance’s trademark. He addresses his hometown on “Same Drugs,” a reflection on his own maturation and the changing tides around him: “When did you change? Windy, you’ve aged./ I thought you’d never grow up.” The theme continues through his second verse. “Don’t you miss the old days?” he asks wistfully.

As with previous songs, the mixtape is full of instances where Chance reminisces on childhood memories. He raps about the Lion King, his “Momma’s hands,” Michael Jackson, and, awesomely, Harry Potter. Not many rappers would consider rhyming about something as tame and innocuous as a young adult book series, but that is what makes Chance so likable. He’s relatable. He’s modest. He raps about real life, instead of indulging in egotism or pretending to be someone he’s not. His music is an expression of his individuality, which is refreshing in a genre where many just spew the same monotonous drivel about money, hoes, and cars. Chance has taken his fame in stride and has remained seemingly unchanged, staying faithful to his roots. In Kendrick’s words, he’s been “A1 since day one.”

As quick as I am to dole out praise, the collection is sadly not without its weak points. On “Mixtape,” we catch a glimpse of a trap version of Chance that we probably wish we didn’t see. The track is oddly out of place on the album, and guests Young Thug and Lil’ Yachty offer verses that are lackluster, to say the least. Future seems similarly out of his element on the slow, grooving “Smoke Break.” And a squandered cameo by Justin Bieber on “Juke Jam” falls a bit short. Coloring Book is at its best when Chance stays true to himself, and when he does so, he shines.

As a whole, the sound Chance has captured on Coloring Book is fearless, euphoric, and undeniably free. Chano himself affirms as much: “I don’t make songs for free, I make’em for freedom.” The decision to make a mixtape rather than an album is in line with this emphasis on unrestraint. Coloring Book lacks the cohesiveness and vision of an album, but achieves a level of pure expression that might have been encumbered by a more disciplined approach. Listening to the mixtape, one is subject to the fact that his good-naturedness is as reassuring as it is contagious. In this way, the real value of Coloring Book can perhaps be distilled to a simple truth: it makes you feel happy. And those disappointed by a few outlying tracks can take solace in knowing that the flaws fail to detract from the dazzling, glorious gospel-rap exuberance that is Chance 3. (He did a good-ass job.)

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