On Kanye West’s ‘Ultralight Beam’, Chance The Rapper boasts, “I made ‘Sunday Candy’, I’m never going to hell / I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail.”
The lyric and the song set the tone for Chance’s first solo project since his 2013 breakthrough Acid Rap, Coloring Book, a mixtape that focuses the rap-meets-gospel aspirations of The Life of Pablo into a ray of sunshine that illuminates concerns both worldly and heavenly.
On last year’s Surf, Chance subsumed himself into the Social Experiment, trying his best to step out of the spotlight, highlight his collaborators and be a bandleader. It was a pleasant experiment, but those hoping for a proper follow-up to Acid Rap were probably disappointed; Surf belongs to the collective, not Chance. Thankfully, even as he’s brought in more collaborators than ever, balancing legendary (Kanye, Lil Wayne), contemporary (Future, Jeremih) and compatriot (Towkio, Saba, his cousin Nicole) without losing focus. His voice and personality are so strong that even when Justin Bieber does a bridge and Jay Electronica drops a verse, both are treated like NBD afterthoughts. There is no doubt that Coloring Book is Chance’s record.
Coloring Book is the Gospel according to Chance The Rapper. Not only is it built upon a rock of contemporary gospel music – praise Jesus lyrics, church choirs, Kirk Franklin – but Chance knows who he is and what he wants to give to the world, even more so than he did on the wise-beyond-its-years Acid Rap. Gone is the acid-washed meandering of that mixtape; fame, fatherhood or simply a few birthdays have sharpened Chance’s art into arrows aimed at a handful of targets.
Of those targets, armchair industry experts will probably latch onto the music biz BS: a grinning Chance threatening label execs with “dreadhead niggas in ya lobby,” keeping “the industry in disbelief” by forgoing beef by collaborating with Chief Keef and wondering if he’s “the only nigga still care about mixtapes.” That last question comes amid a push to get the Grammys to consider freely-released music (which Chance has co-signed), and it comes on a song that features Young Thug and Lil Yachty – the two latest artists to continue the mixtape-only innovation of figures like Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane, Lil B and Future. In that regard, Chance sees himself on that list, and he’s not wrong (see also: that mixtape of based freestyles).
But in the scheme of things – both on the record and in real life – music industry shenanigans don’t amount to much. Chance is more focused on his family, his city, his soul. He’s raising his baby daughter and “tryna turn my baby mama to my fiancée”; he’s not concerned with four-minute songs, he wants to give his girlfriend “a four-hour praise dance” every morning. And as with anyone from Chicago, the city looms large. After a spell in Los Angeles, he has returned to his hometown and found the same city in pain that he rapped about on Acid Rap, but rather than asking where the media is like he did on ‘Paranoia’, he wonders why the police are expanding when “summer school get to losing students” on the moving ‘Summer Friends’. Apart from politics, Chance proudly carries the torch of the city’s music tradition, too, nodding to early period Kanye, interpolating R. Kelly on a tribute to roller rink dance parties (‘Juke Jam’) and writing a love letter to the city on the juke-inflected, slang-slinging ‘Angels’.
There’s a vein of nostalgia for childhood throughout, which isn’t surprising from an artist who once covered the theme from Arthur. The 23-year-old looks back at not-so-long-ago days of catching lightning bugs, reading Harry Potter and dancing with girls to Chris Brown; the touching ‘Same Drugs’ uses an extended Peter Pan metaphor for an ‘I Used To Love H.E.R.’-type song that is either about old friends, a time before Chicago was Chiraq or both.
As with all nostalgia, there is pain here, but for all the heart-wrenching moments (‘Summer Friends’, ‘D.R.A.M. Sings Special’, ‘Same Drugs’), there are ones of pure joy. Along with the irrepressible ‘Angels’, there’s ‘All Night’, an undeniable, Kaytranada-produced dance track that puts an upbeat spin on the themes of songs like ‘Where Ya At’ and ‘Benz Friendz’. As he raps on ‘Blessings (Reprise)’, “I speak of wondrous unfamiliar lessons from childhood / Make you remember how to smile good.” With that as its mission, Coloring Book succeeds, even if listeners might be smiling while crying like a springtime sun shower. Because no matter how cloudy the skies, we have hope that the sun will come out tomorrow; until then, there’s Coloring Book. Chance rightly proclaims himself “Kanye’s best prodigy,” and as his mentor says on the opening track, “Music is all we got.”