Chance The Rapper comes into his own on the vibrant "Coloring Book."
Save for a cluster of Chance The Rapper's most dedicated fans, I imagine that everyone has considered him corny at least once. Maybe it was when he rapped something as throughly un-hip hop as "Everybody's somebody's everything," perhaps it was when he covered Coldplay's "Fix You" or the "Arthur" theme song, or maybe it was when he helmed a project that played more like day-glo jazz than any sort of rap music. Chance has never seemed interested in macho posturing, sullen negativity, or presenting a shallow front that resembles what a rapper should look and act like-- he's unabashedness personified. I doubt he ever blushes unless he's being complimented, and I'd be willing to bet that he's never once thought that he's taking things too far.
The surprising thing is that it hasn't taken the rest of hip hop very long to catch onto Chance's (I was about to write shtick, but implying that he's anything less than 110% honest is clearly misguided) unique charm. While 2013's Acid Rap found him working very much within an environment of other guys willing to get goofy and introspective-- Action Bronson, Childish Gambino, Twista, Ab-Soul-- the following year saw him making in-roads with artists whose careers would be in jeopardy if they even thought of releasing their own versions of children's TV theme songs. Lil Wayne tapped him for Dedication 5, Eminem brought him on tour, Lil Herb got him on a remix, Quavo went on record saying that Migos fucked "with him the long way." At the same time, pop icons like Madonna and Justin Bieber were giving Chance co-signs. The only person who had anything negative to say was Troy Ave. By the time this overwhelmingly posi, gleeful rapper began work on Coloring Book, he had the entire rap game on speed dial. Who else can call the biggest pop star in the world "Auntie 'Yoncé"?
Chance doubles down on his vision to become even more uncompromising on his third legitimate mixtape. He remains Chicago as fuck while moving beyond the familiar sample-deploying and Slum Village-interpolating boom bap of Acid Rap, allowing strains of drill and Southern rap to filter into otherwise gospel-dominated sounds. If this sounds familiar, it's because Coloring Book is to The Life of Pablo as Man On The Moon was to 808s & Heartbreak or Owl Pharaoh was to Yeezus-- Kanye always rewards his latest "best prodigy" (as Chance calls himself on the outro track) by using them as inspiration for his latest sonic incarnation. Coloring Book and TLOP are very different albums, and we're not here to compare them, but suffice it to say that "Ultralight Beam" set the stage for Chance's new material, even though most of Coloring Book's songs probably predate it.
Coloring Book solidifies everything that's ever made Chance sound like Chance, while doing away with any lazy musical touches he cribbed from his forebears and peers. The warm, jazz-sampling Midwest rap sound he pursued on Acid Rap has mutated into something simultaneously more organic and futuristic-sounding, where horns squawk rather than hum and drums owe more to juke than they do to Dilla. Save for a few arresting slow jams, this is music that slaps you in the face, the furthest thing from passive. Chance's personality leapt off the page on everything before Surf, and after finding a way to blend in and out of that project's instrumental swirl, it meets its match with Coloring Book's quirky arrangements.
Just as he's managed to bring the music into a tight orbit around his vibrant self, Chance surrounds himself with guests that somehow all fit perfectly despite their differences. Stars like Kanye and Justin Bieber are set-dressing backing vocalists, distinctively-voiced singers Anderson .Paak, Ty Dolla $ign, T-Pain, and Jeremih flit in and out of their tracks like members of a choir, and Chance elicits better verses from rappers who are often lambasted by "real rap" fans than those cypher-circle mainstays he called upon on Acid Rap. Respected lyricists like Action Bronson and Ab-Soul were rapping about club feet and kissing girls where they "potty" on Acid Rap; on Coloring Book, we get real, admirable, heartfelt verses from guys like Lil Yachty, who many hip hop fans still regard as a joke. Chance rapped "I just might share my next one with Keef" last year on "Angels," and although the Chicago rapper who's often presented as the yin to his yang doesn't appear here, that mentality persists in a powerful way.
Chance has strong messages on Coloring Book, but he doesn't couch them in signifiers of "conscious" rap or bygone eras that are often cited as golden alternatives to the perceived nihilism, violence and drug references in today's music. It seems funny to say about an album that's so influenced by gospel, but Chance never sounds like he's preaching, and that makes his music's religious overtones all the more palatable to non-believers. Just as guys like Lord Jamar and Troy Ave often seem like hip hop's version of the Westboro Baptist Church, Chance represents the genre's progressive unitarian or Quaker sects. The overtly theological passages on "Blessings," "How Great," and "Finish Line" are capital-C Christian, but in decidedly non-confrontational and universally-understandable ways-- the way he talks about his newborn daughter on "Blessings" should appeal to any new parent, regardless of faith. For someone who has a hard time getting through entire Lecrae albums, Coloring Book's Christian rap is an easy, and often life-affirming, pill to swallow.
The more I think about it, considering Chance's actions "corny" seems like a necessary step on the road to accepting him as one of the most creative, talented individuals currently working in any discipline of music. Just like it took everyone outside of Gucci Mane a few listens to understand and appreciate what in the hell was going on with Young Thug's vocals, enjoying Chance requires us to set aside some of the preconceived notions we all bring to first listens of new hip hop. Maybe you're an exception, and you heard the "Arthur" song and immediately thought that this is where rap needed to go next, but for everyone else, we needed that as a moment of uncomfortable unabashedness to fully prepare ourselves for Surf and Coloring Book.
Some of my current favorite people in the world gave me horrible first impressions until I realized that their genuineness was so foreign to me, so against the grain of how I expect people to behave, that I assumed they were putting on an act. Once you see that someone's identity is actually that uncompromising, that unconcerned with the way things usually are, and in favor of the way things should be, there's a level of respect that goes beyond understanding and acceptance. I don't pretend to see eye-to-eye with Chance on everything, or comprehend a fraction of his brain activity, but he's made a project that leaves me awestruck.