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Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book is one of the strongest rap albums released this year, an uplifting mix of spiritual and grounded that even an atheist can catch the Spirit to.
When Chicagoan Chance the Rapper delivered his verse on "Ultralight Beam," the opening song from Kanye West's The Life of Pablo, there was a lot going on—sly homage was being paid to West; rappers were being put on notice ("This is my part/Nobody else speak"); and, most importantly, Chance was encapsulating his past, asserting his present, and telegraphing his future. He was finally positioning himself as a rapper to be reckoned with from a mainstream podium, but he was also delving deep into Christian ideology, with allusions to Noah's Ark and Lot's wife, with his "foot on the Devil's neck 'til it drifted Pangaea."
That verse rolled out the red carpet for Kanye's long-awaited album, but it doubled as an announcement of Chance's new Coloring Book (then given the working title Chance 3), which may very well be the most eagerly-anticipated hip-hop project this year that doesn't come attached to an actual record label. West billed his album as "a gospel album with a whole lot of cursing on it," but The Life of Pablo wasn't that; it was a rap album with some gospel overtures. Coloring Book, however, fits the billing, packing in so much gospel verve that it sounds like Hezekiah Walker & the Love Fellowship Crusade Choir are going to drop into half the tracks and recite 1 Timothy 4:12 in chorale. Instead, we get Kirk Franklin promising to lead us into the Promised Land, alongside appearances by demonstrated materialistic heathens like 2 Chainz, Lil Wayne, Young Thug, and Future—and the result is an uplifting mix that even an atheist can catch the Spirit to.
Thematically, *Coloring Book *is a far cry from Chance's previous efforts. His debut mixtape, 10 Day, was a small, heavy-lidded odyssey of being suspended from high school "for chiefin' a hundred blunts;" his breakthrough, 2013's dilated Acid Rap**, contained songs about being a "Chain Smoker" and confessions of "cigarettes on cigarettes/My momma think I stank/I got burn-holes in my hoodies." But here, on Coloring Book, Chancelor Bennett observes that "we don't do the same drugs no more" over acoustic piano and choristers backing his sentiments. He says the song is not about drugs, but it still comes off as a sobering admission from a rapper who once dedicated a small travelogue to taking acid south of the U.S. border.
"Music is all we got," Chance professes on "All We Got," the inaugural number featuring the Chicago Children's Choir and West returning the "Ultralight Beam" favor—but it's clear from the outset that this is Chance's show. His vocals—elastic and taut, all jerky grace, full of word-sound collages that hearken back to his spoken-word genealogy— are now almost fully dedicated to God and being high on life. "I get my Word from the sermon/I do not talk to the serpent/That's a holistic discernment," he raps before threatening to "give Satan a swirly." Although his puerility remains intact, his fervor is amplified as never before.
On "Blessings," poet-activist-singer-songwriter Jamila Woods comes through with the hook: "I'm gon' praise Him/Praise Him 'til I'm gone," while Chance drops sanctified tweetables: "I don't make songs for free, I make 'em for freedom/Don't believe in kings, believe in the Kingdom" and "Jesus' black life ain't matter/I know, I talk to his daddy." He also manages to mix in heavenly faith, the joy of fatherhood, and redemption in a couplet and a half: "I know the difference in blessings and worldly possessions/Like my ex-girl getting pregnant and her becoming my everything/I'm at war with my wrongs." It's a heavy message delivered lightly, with tongue aflame.
Coloring Book is not all about transcendence, however. Despite asking "when did you start to forget how to fly?," Chance still has his feet firmly planted as one of the biggest independent rappers of the moment. On "No Problem" he raps, "If one more label try to stop me/It's gon' be some dread-head n-ggas in your lobby." (In a sublime stroke, the song features Lil Wayne, stretching and compacting his flow to approximate Chance's delivery while speaking on his own ongoing contractual issues with Cash Money Records.) "Mixtape" features Young Thug and Lil Yachty—two rappers who have found growing success by upending traditional music industry norms like Chance—to speak on their outsider stances. Thug doesn't get specific enough to make the song as heavy as it might have been, but Yachty's verse is strong ("Time and time again they told me no/They told me I wouldn't go…/Fuck them reviews that they put in the paper/Did what I wanted, didn't care about a hater/Delivered my tape to the world as a caterer") and helps the hook shine through: "Am I the only one who still cares about mixtapes?" (It's worth noting that Chance, who has never released a project for sale before, also released a real-time mixtape last year with fellow outlier Lil B.)
The bars here are so hard that it ain't one gosh-darned part you can't tweet, but the tracks carry their weight like their brother's keeper. "Summer Friends" hisses with soft humidity; "Juke Jam" is the soundtrack to a candle-lit bedroom; "All Night" moves its feet to Chicago house, courtesy of a roller-rink jam from Kaytranada. But the bulk of this record is handled by musical ensemble the Social Experiment. They're Chance's trusted collaborators—together they released last year's Surf, spearheaded by Donnie Trumpet*—*and they've been refining a sound of expansive but intimate live jazz-indebted soul for the past few years. Here, they take listeners to church with organs on "How Great," steel drums on "Angels," and choirs, choirs everywhere. On the "Blessings" reprise that closes out the album, there's an uncredited "All of the Lights"-esque group harmony courtesy of Ty Dolla $ign, Raury, Anderson .PAAK, BJ the Chicago Kid, and others.
Coloring Book is one of the strongest rap albums released this year, and is destined to be on year-end lists aplenty. It's a more rewarding listen than Drake's recently released VIEWS; it's nearly as adventurous as The Life of Pablo. In execution and focus, it comes as a joyful, praise-dancing rejoinder to Kendrick Lamar's *To Pimp a Butterfly**. *It feels a bit silly to compare Coloring Book to Butterfly, but it feels even sillier not to. When music comes like this—personal and panoramic, full of conversations with God, defying hip-hop norms while respecting them, proving that the genre can still dig deeper into its roots—it needs to be contextualized as what it is. This is an ultralight beam; it's a God dream.
|A1||All We Got||3:23|
|A4||D.R.A.M. Sings Special||1:41|
|D2||Finish Line / Drown||6:46|
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