Every now and then, a hip-hop artist emerges and produces such resplendent artistry that it becomes nigh on possible to ascertain that they are, indeed, a hip-hop artist. Chance the Rapper fits that category as well as any other artist working today. Infused, at various times, with such profound influences as jazz, gospel, blues, soul, sounds of the Caribbean and the soul of Chicago streets, Chance the Rapper has carved out a niche in the hip-hop market which seems otherwise untouched. Perhaps it is Chance’s utter refusal to be signed to a music label and, indeed, to even release an album for sale. Or perhaps it is Chance’s seemingly tireless efforts to advocate for safer streets in his beloved home city of Chicago, which suffers (as much of the US does, even though arguably more than any other city, or region) from an epidemic of gun crimes and youth violence. Whatever the reason, Chance the Rapper has emerged over the last two to three years as a man of the people, lending well to the huge amount of hype surrounding the release of the artist’s latest work. His first solo effort since his breakthrough second mixtape Acid Rap, released in 2013, the latest Chance the Rapper project (originally believed to be titled simply Chance 3) Coloring Book enters at a different time for music, culture, and for the artist himself, than Chance’s previous solo effort.
Having put in solid (to extraordinary) guest verse after guest verse on tracks by artists such as Kanye West, Madonna, Skrillex, and many more, as well as joining forces with friend Donnie Trumpet to form a band (of sorts) known as The Social Experiment (who in 2015 released Surf), Chance has been a steady presence in the music industry constantly and rapidly improving before the eyes of the music world. That, only earlier this year, Chance the Rapper was so easily able to steal Kanye West‘s opening album track – for The Life of Pablo – away from the fellow Chicago artist, by the means of one of the better guest verses produced and heard in recent years, is as true a testament to Chance the Rapper’s ability as anything else. All of which leads to Coloring Book seeing its release this past Friday, via a collaboration between Chance and Apple Music streaming service, with high anticipation and early (premature?) acclaim.
Chance opens Coloring Book with a familiar sound, as trumpets announce Chance’s arrival on a song unabashedly Chicago – featuring both the aforementioned Kanye West, and the Chicago Children’s Choir. With both gospel and orchestral influences, and a cameo by Kanye West circa 808s and Heartbreak, album opener All We Got is as confident and astute an introduction as one might imagine for a hip-hop album. Coloring Book’s second track, No Problem featuring hip-hop heavyweights Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz, sees Chance continuing his tirade and campaign against record labels. Repeating warnings “you don’t want no problems, want no problems with me” over a typical Chance gospel/choir backing track (and a gloomy undertone sounding oddly familiar to previous Chance collaborator James Blake), the Chicago man manages to rouse two of the more solid efforts from both of his established featured guests. Which soon emerges as fortunate given that Chance’s own offering on No Problem is, by his standards, comparatively weaker.
Whatever backwards step Chance may have taken on Coloring Book’s second track, however, is soon amended by an emphatic leap forward in to familiar emotional territory for the artist – returning to his beloved Chicago to speak on his own upbringing in the city, amidst all of the violence. Enlisting both Francis & The Lights, and another fellow Chicago artist in crooner Jeremih, Chance the Rapper utilises both his trademark artistry and charisma to lyricise earnest over a bass-led, distant backing track for Summer Friends. A track well befitting the artist’s reputation, it is easy to see Chance striking many a raw chord with his lyrics and subtly solemn delivery, which given the seriousness of Chicago’s gang violence, and statistics, would seem the inarguable end goal. As though to enforce the sentiments of Chance’s music, the Chicago man enlists a Virginia native D.R.A.M. for a brief interlude with D.R.A.M. Sings Special where, yes, the guest artist sings quite sincerely – “everyone is special”.
Blessings, the track Chance the Rapper performed live on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon only one week prior to the album’s release, appears next. With jazzy piano keys and trumpets, in addition to a Jamila Woods aided hook, Blessings again sees Chance the Rapper foraying in to uplifting gospel music. A testament to his God, the track sees Chance seemingly a far cry from the artist on Acid Rap, sincere in his admiration and adoration for his religion and his life – what he calls the blessings falling in his lap. Same Drugs would, by title alone, seem at least superficially connected to the content of Chance’s past, but soon proves itself otherwise. Utilising themes of Peter Pan, Chance the Rapper sings/raps about a girl from his past, and how they have grown apart from each other as adults. A low burner track, the most life to emerge from it occurs towards its tail end, as a Prince-like guitar lick leads the Chicago native out and the largely forgettable track onwards.
How Chance saw fit to transition from here in to the trap anthem Mixtape, featuring trap mainstay Young Thug and buzzing artist Lil Yachty, is unknown – but the track’s beat alone allows it to stand apart as one of the album’s highlights. Trippy seesawing tones back the trio of exciting artists formulating a love song dedicated to the art of the mixtape, and a plea to allow its continued significance in the industry. The lesser known, but steadily rising, Lil Yachty may well have the track’s stand-out line, however, with “am I the only one who really care about cover art” which even saw a later shout out by Chance himself. With Chance lowering his voice to match his featured artists and the moody beat, the track stands out as one of the album’s best in terms of both content, delivery and sound. The previously released Angels featuring another Chicago artist Saba plays in next, with a distinctly familiar Chance sound. The production connection between The Social Experiment, and electronic mastermind Lido, perfectly carries Chance’s flow to rapturous heights – with particular love going to the Calypso steel drums sparsely used throughout the track as if to reinforce its lightness.
The lightness soon fades, however, for Juke Jam featuring both SAVEMONEY (and Chance the Rapper) affiliate Towkio and previous Chance collaborator Justin Bieber. An ode to the artist’s teenaged years, and seemingly his introduction to both women and romance through this time period, Juke Jam is very minimalist and, at times, sounds particularly brooding for a track repeating the word Juke (which in Chicago essentially means when a female dances on a male by grinding her ass on them, an act regrettably known here in Australia primarily as the ‘Slut Drop’). Nonetheless, the track is smooth, and all three of the artists connect well to offer up a solid ode to a, somewhat, familiar story Chance transmits out in to the cosmos. How this fits in to the Gospel theme of most of the album, however, one cannot think to say. Unless…? No. Moving on. All Night sees Chance enlisting Knox Fortune and a groovy electronic beat crafted by Kaytranada to make a purely danceable track, in which it is easy to lose the sentiment of mistrust and the shortcomings of fame that Chance communicates throughout the track. Especially when Chance quips “start dancing, ho” and you’re naturally forced to become the ho in question, and happily stomp your feet to the groove. Another step away from the album’s predominant Gospel theme, All Night is a confident effort that could see many appearances in a club setting and on the radio airwaves in times to come. The same cannot be said however of the track which follows it, How Great which sees there album’s direction swiftly return to its Gospel focus. Enlisting his own cousin to sing about the greatness of God, Chance the Rapper doesn’t necessarily stick to a religious only narratives but rather seems to thrown constant shouts out to his religion and his faith in God. The song’s limelight is stolen from Chance (and perhaps even God?) by a guest verse from the elusive and mysterious Jay Electronica, who is notably a practising member of the Nation of Islam, but no less offers exaltations to Jesus Christ and the same Christian God to which Chance frequently refers and worships.
Smoke Break, featuring hip-hop superstar Future, sees the pairing quite literally take a smoke break (not tobacco) from both the album’s content, and their busy lives. The groovy, swooping beat does good things for both Future and Chance, but the collaboration seems no less bizarre given how audibly, and creatively, different the two artists are. It could well have gone awry, but instead turns in to one of the more refreshing and enjoyable offerings on Coloring Book in its entirety. While much of the responsibility for that could be heaped on the shoulders of either, or both, of the two hugely talented artists, I would instead gift the honour to the well formulated production offered by Garren Langford on the track. The break is brief, however, before Chance returns with the gospel theme for his album’s spiritual closer Finish Line/Drown. Broken in to two parts, as implied by its title, the first half of the track sees Chance joined by T-Pain (!) for an upbeat, joyful track praising the God of their choosing. It would be a failed track merely by how precisely it sounds like so much of the album’s other content were it not for the second instalment, where the tempo and mood is taken down, and Chance is joined by Chicago rapper Noname (formerly Noname Gypsy) and hip-hop preacher Kirk Franklin (who was earlier this year heard on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo). The album’s true closer however, Blessings (Reprise) featuring Ty Dolla $ign (and a slew of familiar, but uncredited, voices). As though Chance sitting down to present a summary of the album’s content, and offer his final contemplations before the album’s close, the track is a fitting end to the project presented here. “I made it through, made it through, made it through” Chance offers, affirming the album’s end, and acknowledging his own immense accomplishments against the odds in the process.
A fitting end seems only right for an album so befitting who Chance the Rapper is as an artist. He is boisterous, but not braggadocios. He is blessed, but imperfect. Not only that, but he has successfully achieved something his own idol, Kanye West, had earlier this year set out to achieve himself but eventually fell short. While Kanye West declared his 2016 album The Life of Pablo to be a Gospel album, it is increasingly clear how unlike a Gospel album that body of work is, particularly now with the release of Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book – a true Gospel hip-hop album. It is the way of the world, however, that faith and religions cause conflict and unrest. So as to how successful Coloring Book will, ultimately, be – one cannot be truly sure. It is an album both inclusive and, somehow, simultaneously polarising, and may well prove itself to be more forgettable for some than all the project’s anticipation had predicted for it. Which, in retrospect, seems sad – because this is a happy album.