Every week, we tell you about an album we think you should spend time with. This week’s album is Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book.
It’s very rare that you get to watch someone become a star in front of your eyes on national television. Most of our heroes arrive fully formed; there’s Kanye stealing scenes in the background of a Common performance, Julian Casablancas falling over shit on the Late Show, and I can’t pinpoint Beyonce’s network television debut but I imagine it was #flawless. The point is, by the time someone is beamed into your home, they’re usually ready for mass consumption, ready to be as big as you’ll allow them.
Chance the Rapper had been on TV at least twice before he sauntered into Kanye’s LED wonderland to step on the devil’s neck till it drifted Pangaea on SNL in February, but watching him be the most magnetic thing on a stage that included The-Dream, Kelly Price, Kanye West and a choir led by Fonzworth Bentley(!) felt revelatory. Sure, he was great on Acid Rap (his standout 2013 mixtape) and was fun on the sometimes dragging Surf, but I don’t think anyone could have expected him to swing through SNL and run off with the whole show. He danced, he made sure people knew the name of the cop who killed LaQuan McDonald in cold blood in Chicago, he got Kanye to smile, and said “this is my part nobody else speak” on a Kanye song. There isn’t going to be a televised musical moment in 2016 that even approaches it.
As if that appearance, and his verse and co-writes on The Life of Pablo, wouldn’t be an incredible half-year under anyone else’s metrics, here comes Chance with Coloring Book, the foretold Chance 3, a mature mixtape that delivers on every promise back to Chance’s debut 10 Day. The gospel rap that Chance and Kanye perfected on “Ultralight Beam” is the tape’s sonic centerpiece, and Chance himself has become the dexterous, thoughtful lyricist everyone always assumed he could be. Unlike many of the other Class of 2013 mixtape hypes, he’s actually grown into the best possible version of himself. If you’re vaguely familiar with Chance’s last two mixtapes, you know both were directly influence by drugs. 10 Day was famously recorded while he was on a 10 day suspension from school for being caught with some marijuana. His second one, Acid Rap, was fueled by his dabbling with psychedelics and finding out the world was bigger than himself. Coloring Book is also fueled by two intoxicants: fatherhood and religion. Chance had a daughter between Surf and Coloring Book, and he found that having a kid was bigger than taking acid, and it has him deep in his feelings on Coloring Book. Fatherhood also turned him religious; he’s talking to god and sending him praises (both “Blessings”) and he’s talking about angels, and rapping over church choirs singing, “How great is our god?” (“Angels” and “How Great”). It remains to be seen if the college guys in snapbacks who fill out the bar area at Chance shows will follow him down the path to eternal salvation via kids and Jesus, but it’s a testament to Chance that he has such a unique position right now that they might consider it. He’s both a part of the firmament of major musical culture, but also his own, distinct thing.
Like all Chance tapes, his choice of guests is nonpareil; Kanye is here, and he’s not even in the top 10 performances on the album, that’s how stacked this is. Here, we have Justin Bieber floating over “Juke Jam” like he’s a disembodied gigantic head singing in the Wizard’s chamber in Wizard of Oz. Jay Electronica stops trying to network with heiresses long enough to rap a verse that is at least part of the plot of Lion of King (seriously) on “How Great.” Future puts the perkys down and sings his most beautiful verse since Honest on “Smoke Break, and Chance trades Auto-Tune warbles with Lil Yachty and Young Thug on “Mixtape.” Instead of vampiring D.R.A.M. like Drake did, Chance hands him an entire song here (“D.R.A.M. Sings Special). Some guests work better than others; Jeremih is beautiful on “Summer Friends,” while Francis & The Lights do an unconvincing Bon Iver impersonation on the same song. But the highlight guest is 2 Chainz, who comes through “No Problem” with the most quotable run on the entire album (“I’m so high, me and god dappin’” deserves to replace “I’m stoned” in the American stoner vernacular).
But like Acid Rap, those guests are defined by how willing they are to dive into Chance’s sandbox. This is his show, through and through. That’s maybe the thing he’s taken most from Kanye, beyond the love of microsoul; his collaborators are used like instruments to fill in where Chance can't. There are choirs, there are guest rappers and singers, and there are brass sections and string arrangements filling out his coloring book here. But Chance’s performance is the strongest it’s ever been too: He’s never stretched his voice as far as he does here, going from spoken word on “Blessings” to a convincing Atlanta trap house Auto Tune skronk on “Mixtape” to a lyrical miracle on “Finish Line.” He even gets to a tender, broken croon on “Same Drugs,” a song that frames a breakup as two people who don’t like the same high anymore.
The narrative around Coloring Book has mostly devolved into arguing over whether Chance is independent or not; this tape, like Surf, was released for free through Apple. Sure, he’s not just sending this out via his own site, so he’s not strictly independent, but it seems doubtful that Apple had much input here; they wanted to work with Chance because he’s an incredible artist to be associated with. His insistence to remain sans label remains an inspiring part of his hustle. He’s fighting to not be boxed out by the Grammys this time—and probably will be, since this was given away for free-- but I’m betting the check from the makers of iPhones is sweet consolation.
But the fact that Coloring Book’s distribution is the thing people are arguing over is telling; the tape is so good, everyone has moved on to fighting about something else. In a year when the entire rap internet has gone to war over Drake’s VIEWS and Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, the one thing we can agree on is that Chance is great, and so is his album.
Andrew Winistorfer is Director of Music at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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