Album Review: Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

Life and death bring the young star's prayers into clearer, stunning focus

Chance the Rapper 3

“And we back, and we back,” Chicago’s Chance the Rapper begins on “All We Got”, the opening track on his long-awaited third full-length project, Coloring Book. It’s not only reminiscent of Acid Rap’s “Good Ass Intro”, but also just enough Kanye worship from Freshmen Adjustment Vol. 2. Looking back at everything that’s happened since the release of Acid Rap three years ago, it’s much more than typical braggadocio: It’s a testament. So much has happened, some sad but mostly good. Chicago still suffers from police and gang violence. Chance partnered with a non-profit to raise nearly $100 thousand for the homeless. He continued to host after-school open mics for the youth and spearheaded the #SaveChicago campaign to prevent violence in his hometown. His grandmother passed away. He became a father. All that volatility, all that life and death led to Chance’s faith manifesting more clearly in his music.

Gone are the days of the Chance of 10 Day and Acid Rap. The former brooded with a charming adolescence, sharing blunts with high school classmates. On Acid Rap he was a wide-eyed but cautious young adult with a subdued panic in the face of the future, both within his tumultuous city and the music industry. Now, on Coloring Book, Chance takes us to church and uses the word of God as his guide. The first glimpse of this new focus came on The Life of Pablo cut “Ultralight Beam”, as the younger Chicago rapper raised a preacher’s sermon at the pulpit: “This little light of mine, glory be to God.”

If you’re expecting a straightforward hip-hop album with seething, pop-off verses, you may be disappointed. Coloring Book is a gospel album that coalesces hip-hop, spoken word, soul, jazz, and funk. As if hands clenched, eyes closed, praying, Chance remains in the pews during Sunday service in “All We Got”: “I get my word from the sermon/ I do not talk to the serpent/ That’s the holistic discernment.” Languid percussion, a bluesy horn, and lamenting organs ruminate as Chance raises his arms high in praise — “It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap” — while testifying to God: “He has ordered my steps, gave me a sword with a crest.” If this isn’t enough, “How Great” features a rendition of the popular worship song “How Great is Our God”, and the album incorporates modern gospel musicians like Kirk Franklin (“Finish Line/Drown”) and Byron Cage (“Blessings”), making everything that much more explicit.

While Coloring Book successfully channels the musical conventions of African-American church tradition without sounding dated or pastiche, the album also subtly chronicles black history and uses it as inspiration for artistic freedom. In “How Great”, Chance references the Nat Turner Rebellion: “Hosanna Santa invoked and woke up slaves from Southampton to Chatham Manor.” Highlight “Blessings” posits a parallel between slavery and the music industry. “I don’t make songs for free, I make ‘em for freedom,” he drops, also reminiscent of his “Ultralight Beam” verse: “You can feel the lyrics, the spirit coming in braille/ Tubman of the underground, come and follow the trail.”

Not bound to any record label, contract, or boss, Chance’s success is fully his own. And, like Tubman, Chance encourages others to walk the same path to freedom. Perhaps this is why his musical family has grown, including famous (Young Thug, 2 Chainz, Justin Bieber), acclaimed (Eryn Allen Kane, Jamila Woods), and hometown (BJ the Chicago Kid, Knox Fortune) artists alike. That light shines brightly on swirling single “No Problem”, as he notes his staunchly independent approach — “If one more label try to stop me/ It’s gon’ be some dread-head niggas in ya lobby” — even recruiting Lil Wayne, who references his own label problems with Birdman and Cash Money (“Free Tha Carter.”)

Amidst the heavenly imagery, Coloring Book is optimistic even in the face of lingering pain and the dark realities of his hometown. Akin to Acid Rap’s “Paranoia”, “Summer Friends” paints a bleak picture of the violence rates that raise with the temperature in Chicago, destroying childlike innocence: “Summer friends don’t stay around/ Our summer don’t get no shine no more/ Our summer die.” But serving as a stark antithesis to the drill movement, Chance’s gospel worship doesn’t seek to hold a mirror to the daily horrors of Chicago, but instead to uplift, empower, and heal its people.

Just as faith has offered Chance redemption and resilience, he plans to alleviate the collective trauma that plagues his city. As a first step, the album brings together a community of friends and family like Noname, Saba, Knox Fortune, Chicago Children’s Choir, Towkio, and even Chance’s cousin Nicole. “They never seen a rapper practice modesty, I never practice, I only perform,” Chance offers on “Blessings (Reprise)”. This project is rooted in camaraderie, a radiant pedestal not only for himself but the burgeoning talent of the city. Coloring Book is for his home: “I got my city doing front flips/ When every father, mayor, rapper jump ship,” he raps on the show-stopping “Angels”.

It’s fitting that West recently dropped The Life of Pablo, as both albums disrupt hip-hop conventions through modern reinvention of gospel and offer an extensive exposé of vulnerability and faith. But faith didn’t come easy, as Chance raps in “How Great”: “I used to hide from God/ Ducked down in the slums like ‘shhh,’” he offers, reflecting on the dark contemplations of Acid Rap. This time, it feels like Chance’s prayers are being answered.

Essential Tracks: “Angels”, “How Great”, and “All We Got”


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