Review: Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book

Chance sticks out by infusing his music with an unbridled joy that few other artists, hip-hop or otherwise, come close to emulating.
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Every word that comes out of Chancelor Bennett’s mouth comes from a place of love—love for himself, love for his family, love for his friends, love for his city, love for God. You can hear it in his voice. With every clever rhyme he spits, you can envision the smile on his face in the recording studio. You can see it in his stage presence, the way he seems like he’s always on the edge of exploding into an unashamedly undignified dance as he raps. And his lyrics—I mean, this is the guy who made a song about going to church with his grandmother into one of the best hip-hop tracks of 2015. How is that even possible, if not through pure love?

It’s for this reason that I consider Chance the Rapper one of the very few consistently pleasant hip-hop artists in the game. In a genre saturated with pointed social commentary and minor-key bangers, Chance sticks out by infusing his music with an unbridled joy that few other artists, hip-hop or otherwise, come close to emulating. Whether it manifests itself as giddy overconfidence on the intro to 2013’s Acid Rap (“this your favorite fucking album and ain’t even fucking done”) or total awe at the prospect of sharing the mic with Kanye West on “Ultralight Beam” earlier this year, Chance continually embodies the mantra that his idol has been pushing for most of 2016: all positive vibes. There’s virtually no malice present on Coloring Book. Chance loves what he does, and he wants to share that love with everyone else. That’s a goal everyone should be able to get behind.

Coloring Book is at its best when this all-encompassing love is on full display. “Put your head on my shoulder”, Francis Farewell Starlite sings softly in the background of the melancholy standout “Summer Friends”, while a subdued Chance repeats “city wide, city wide, city wide, hey” over the end of the line. He’s not just comforting one specific person; he’s extending the offer to the entire city of Chicago. If he can’t give everyone rest, he’ll still give whatever respite he can. It’s the most beautifully calming moment on the mixtape, and maybe in Chance’s entire oeuvre. Meanwhile, “Angels” showcases Chance at his most energetic, his impossibly high “ah!” ad-libs sounding as good as ever. Even as the song commemorates the “too many young angels on the south side”, his bright vocal timbre and the tropical instrumentation turn it from a eulogy to an exuberant celebration of life. Angels they were, and angels they forever shall be. It’s not the only track to utilize religious imagery, either; Chance’s Christian faith informs a large portion of the mixtape, culminating with “How Great”, my personal favorite track. The first half of “How Great” features his cousin Nicole (rather endearingly credited as “my cousin Nicole”) performing a gospel rendition of Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God”, which any regular Protestant churchgoer should instantly recognize. Chance and Jay Electronica playfully reference Harry Potter, the Bible, three separate music streaming services, and The Lion King in the track’s latter part, rapping over a gentle, gospel-influenced beat. It’s a simplistic song, but love, especially when presented as childlike faith, doesn’t have to be complicated. The other explicitly faith-based songs on the record are the two tracks titled “Blessings” (because that’s not confusing at all), the first of which premiered on The Tonight Show a week before Coloring Book dropped. On it, Jamila Woods sounds lovely as usual, and Chance’s verses are some of his most touching yet (his shout-outs to his girlfriend and Donnie Trumpet are positively adorable), but when taking the earlier live version into account—perhaps fallaciously, I’ll admit—it’s hard not to be a little disappointed. The studio recording is considerably shorter, and ditches the gospel choir, impromptu sermon, and instrumental climaxes for a more bare-bones sound. The song’s quite good (a highlight, even), but one wonders what it could have sounded like if Chance had taken it even further.

It’s a shame that Jamila and Chance ended up being the only ones we hear on “Blessings” (the first one, at least; the closing track of the same name actually ends with seven different singers trading off on the refrain), because one of Chance’s most impressive qualities on this tape is his ability to bring the best out of his guest features. That’s why “No Problem” works so well; the presence of 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne might make some listeners apprehensive, but both of them go above and beyond the top of their respective games, the latter in particular sounding the most sincere I’ve ever heard him as he sympathizes with Chance’s distaste for record label culture. The tastefully auto-tuned chorus and the soulful women’s choir sample that the song builds its beat around are notable assets, too. On a related note, “Juke Jam” is the weakest track on here, but it’s surprisingly not Justin Bieber’s fault. His and Towkio’s contributions are fine (Justin even manages to squeeze something resembling emotion out of his chorus), but the song is far too slow for its own good (I’m reminded of “Pusha Man” on Acid Rap), and the lyric about making “all the kiddies stop skating/to see what grown folks do when they grown and they dating” is unnecessarily uncomfortable. “Mixtape” is another track that stays dishearteningly stagnant, and it doesn’t help that Lil Yachty’s verse is the only feature on the album to fall completely flat; hearing Young Thug on a Chance track is a treat (even if his verse has virtually nothing to do with the rest of the song), but Yachty takes the self-esteem that Chance exudes and channels it into self-importance. (“They fuck with me ‘cause I’m different”? Don’t get ahead of yourself there.) The track might’ve made a good interlude of sorts, but five minutes is pushing it.

There’s a great deal more to talk about on here, and I’m sure that hip-hop message boards in the coming weeks will be awash with topics like how Chance’s relationship with drugs has changed since Acid Rap (the track “Same Drugs” is the obvious candidate for discussion, but the line “I know them drugs isn’t close, ain’t no visiting Heaven” on “Blessings” intrigues me more), his curious trend involving Kanye West and intro tracks (sampling a Kanye vocal melody on “Good Ass Intro”, guest starring on Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam”, and now featuring the man himself on “All We Got”), and whether or not the subpar mixing ruins the overall quality of the tape (the only time it really bothered me was the inexplicable loudness of the chorus in “All We Got”, but I can see it derailing the listening experience for more sensitive ears). What matters in the end, though, is that Chance has made something that he loves. “This for the kids of the king of all kings/this is the holiest thing”, he raps, bursting with vitality, in his first verse on Coloring Book. I won’t argue with that assertion. This is a vibrant, uneven, irresistibly likable, and occasionally transcendent release from an artist who shows no signs of falling off anytime soon. Chance the Rapper obviously loves this project, and if you don’t love this project, he still loves you. I love that. You did a good ass job, Chance. You did a good ass job. B PLUS