When Chance the Rapper’s third solo mixtape, Coloring Book, dropped, the internet was abuzz. The young rapper already had an expansive catalogue of two solo mixtapes, a collaborative free- jazz and hip hop album, and a number of impressive featured verses, most notably on “Ultralight Beam” from Kanye West’s 2016 release, The Life of Pablo. This verse, perhaps the standout on the album, would be a sort of prelude to Coloring Book, in which Chance takes his “God dream” to a whole new level.
The project has been almost universally hailed as a masterpiece. In their review of the album, Pitchfork called it “one of the strongest rap albums released this year…”, but while there is no doubting the fact that it is undoubtedly this: a rap album, what makes Coloring Book so special is that it is more. In his third solo project, Chance has created a piece of art that moves past the traditional realms of hip- hop. Coloring Book doesn’t just have gospel influences, it is in fact a gospel album.
This is what Kanye promised on The Life of Pablo, and while Kanye provided an album grand in its scope, any piety available was lost by his promise to “f**k the church up by drinking at the Communion”. Due to the proximity of their releases, comparing West’s Pablo to Coloring Book seems like the natural step, with Chance living up to his promise of a gospel album and Kanye failing. However, when the scope of time is broadened, Coloring Book seems more and more like a natural progression from West, a sort of College Dropout 2.0 that builds on the themes that West has spent most of his life working on.
That the two artists both hail from Chicago is no coincidence; the city’s proud tradition of music is one that rivals any other in the world. Chicago lays claim as the start of popular gospel music, and the significance of this fact has not been lost on Kanye and Chance, the city’s most creative sons. Coloring Book was not created in a vacuum. It is the next step in a progression of Chicago artists as old as gospel music itself. What makes Chance, and this album, so great, is that he builds off of the struggles and risks taken by artists before him, creating art that is as confident in its religiosity as it is in its musical prowess.
100 years ago, a young Thomas A. Dorsey arrived in Chicago, the city that he would call home for the rest of his life and the place where he would eventually change the trajectory of African-American music. Like Kanye West who would come after him, Dorsey was born in Georgia. His father was a minister and his mother the church organist.
Although his parents’ occupations seem to make Dorsey’s eventual path in life seem obvious, his early work was entirely secular. During his early days in Chicago, Dorsey played under the moniker “Georgia Tom”. He was an incredibly successful blues musician who played alongside some of the most famous singers in the city. His 1928 hit “It’s Tight Like That” recorded alongside fellow Chicagoan Tampa Red would go on to sell 7 million copies.
Even with all of his musical successes, Dorsey was not without his own struggles. He went through his two different nervous breakdowns that left him unable to play or write music for long periods of time. During the first of the two such stretches, Dorsey returned home to Atlanta where his mother begged him to stop his blues music and to turn to service to God. Dorsey would not listen, returning to Chicago to play music. In his second breakdown, Dorsey sought out the advice of Bishop HH Haley, a faith healer that ignited Dorsey’s passion for religious music.
It was after this encounter that Dorsey turned his life towards the creation of “gospel music”, a term he coined. He published “If You See my Savior Tell Him You Saw Me” in 1932, his first piece of explicitly religious music. Dorsey’s mix of secular music styles with religious lyrics was new at the time, and it was not received with open arms by many in the Christian community. As Dorsey would say later, “I’ve been thrown out of some of the best churches in America.” To some, uncomfortable with the idea of such a mixture, his songs were bastardizations of the word of God.
Dorsey had expected this; upon writing his first gospel songs, he was unsure of how the faithful would respond. Although some people and churches would look down on his work in the beginning, Dorsey’s gospel music was soon accepted into the Christian world, and in 1932 he became the choir leader at the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago’s South Side. In this same year, his wife and son would die during childbirth, a tragedy that provided the context behind his most famous work “Take My Hand Precious Lord”, a personal favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King. This song would go on to be recorded by countless artists and stands as perhaps the most influential gospel song ever written. Its most famous recording was done by Mahalia Jackson, another Southerner in Chicago and one of the world’s most famous gospel musicians.
Dorsey’s journey is telling of the very nature of gospel music itself. A nature that is in a constant struggle to find balance between the worldly and the spiritual. In his early work with gospel music, Dorsey’s initial struggle to be accepted by the Christian world is more than just a sign of some sort of rigid zeitgeist. It is the first of many hurdles that artists would have to leap before the sort of gospel- rap that Chance performs in Coloring Book could come into fruition.
Decades later, after the so called “Golden Age of Gospel” ushered in by Dorsey, another Chicago artist would attempt to strike the balance between spiritual reverence and worldly music. In 2004, Kanye West released The College Dropout, his first album as a rapper. With this project, West challenged the boundaries of the hip- hop genre, focusing less on gangster rap and more on an introspective, self- aware look at the world. West originally came into the music world as a producer, and on his 2004 album he created a number of beats with clear influences from soul, gospel, and the long history of African-American music.
The most obvious example of gospel in the album is “I’ll Fly Away” a traditional Christian song that West puts in as the fifth track on the album. The other, which is Kanye’s original, is “Jesus Walks.” On it, West delivers his catechism, claiming that Jesus walks “For the hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers, even the scrippers”. West references Psalms 23:4, and the entire song is full of biblical references.
The most telling part of the song comes in the second verse, when Kanye discusses what the song’s content means for its ability to be played and to succeed. Kanye raps:
“They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/That means guns, sex, lies, videotape/But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?/Well if this take away from my spins/Which’ll probably take away from my ends/Then I hope this take away from my sins/And bring the day that I’m dreamin’ about/Next time I’m in the club, everybody screamin’ out”
With these lines, Kanye describes just where he feels he is on the worldly/spiritual balance. 2004 ‘Ye seems more than willing to give up on radio time, so long as his praise to God can help act as a penance for his sins. It seems as if West’s struggles were the exact opposite of those that Dorsey dealt with; was a world full gangster rap ready to hear a rapper talk about God?
Eventually, West would prove that it was. The song would rise to #11 on the charts, and the album would launch West’s career as a rapper and bring him to the superstar fame he receives today.
Over his seven studio albums, Kanye has continued to play with the balance between the world he lives in and the world of God. Twelve years after The College Dropout, the debate surrounding religiosity in Kanye’s music has changed. After the release of such projects as Yeezus, conversations have shifted to whether or not West’s music could even remotely be called “gospel” at all.
All this makes it easy to forget just how radical Kanye’s message was in 2004 with the release of “Jesus Walks” and The College Dropout. West took a risk in turning to God with his raps when all his peers seemed to do anything but. His success showed that it could pay off.
All of this leads to 2016’s Coloring Book, an album in which Chance explores his relationships with his family, his city, and God. Throughout the hour long work, Chance expresses a series of emotions. He goes between boastful, reminiscent, and hopeful as he raps about his work, his childhood, and the future of Chicago. While these attributes may change, there is one that is consistent: Chance is confident. On an album that features both Kirk Franklin and Young Thug, Chance fears neither critic nor pastor. Thomas Dorsey proved that you can please the faithful with secular music. Kanye West proved the masses can be moved by spirituality. On Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper has done both.