Much has been made of Chance the Rapper’s label-free rise to the upper echelons of contemporary hip-hop. Having long since left the underground within which he continues to operate, Chance has popped up on a host of high profile releases — chiefly among these being his scene stealing verse on Kanye West’s Life of Pablo — and largely found himself part of the mainstream. So much so that he even found himself the musical guest on this past year’s Saturday Night Live, playing to a national audience and making history by becoming the first unsigned artist to perform on the show. Given this level of exposure, it’s clear Chance is poised for great things, most of which will hinge on how he handles his career moving forward.
On his breakthrough 2013 mixtape, Acid Rap, he sounded insular and constantly on edge, the jittery product of the South Side of Chicago’s often unforgiving streets. As a clearly thoughtful and sensitive teenager, his words carried a narrow focus that found him largely documenting his day-to-day and the ins and outs of being a young black male in a city with a soaring death toll. Fast forward several years and numerous critical plaudits and Chance now sounds far more quietly controlled, shifting his focus to that of a more universal approach. Much like Kendrick Lamar, arguably his only peer at this point in the game, Chance’s work has gone from the intrapersonal to the interpersonal, using his platform to push for a better world in which we can all live together as one.
And given the marketing campaign and push for community within the city of Chicago behind his latest release, Coloring Book, it’s clear that Chance is not simply paying lip service to an idealistic impossibility. Instead, he’s looking to bring into the world around him the basic sentiments behind his music and persona. On “D.R.A.M. Sings Special”, something of a soulful lullaby of reassurance intones: “You are very special / You’re special too / Everyone is special / This I know is true when I look at you.”
It’s this type of positivity and optimism that has informed Chance’s work from the start, but with his latest solo release he has taken this basic idea to the next level. “I don’t make songs for free / I make songs for freedom,” he assures listeners on “Blessings”, the first of many explicitly religious tracks on Coloring Book. Where Lamar tends to remain secular, Chance takes us to church, sometimes literally with gospel-informed arrangements and scripture quoting verses.
But rather than sounding like an impossible plea for universal understanding and togetherness, Coloring Book’s theology is based in the personal satisfaction that comes from being at peace with the world in which we live, being able to see through all the bullshit for the pockets of good scattered about and knowing that loving one another can make a literal world of difference. To do so, Chance pushes for a return to childhood optimism. It’s an approach more associated with a hippie mentality, but Chance manages to appropriate that camp’s less cloying aspects to create a modern doctrine of personal and communal harmony that he seems intent on bringing to his beloved city and beyond.
Throughout, there’s a certain levity and airiness to Coloring Book that plays as Chance having transcended the secular and emotional trappings that informed Acid Rap, something only hinted at with last year’s Donny Trumpet & the Social Experiment release Surf. Here he has largely abandoned his vocal ticks and twitches in favor of a smoother, more laidback and quietly confident approach that finds him in complete control of not only his here and now, but with a clear vision for his future. This change — arguably for the better — is brought to the fore on “Same Drugs”. Chronicling a list of changes, the majority associated with the maturation process, Chance works to come to terms with his new world. “A shadow of what I once was,” he sings with a sigh, moving forward and beyond to become that to which he aspires.
And while there is a newfound level of maturity and sensitivity to be found on Coloring Book, it seems to come at the expense of Acid Rap’s immediacy. Where that release often played as something of a mainstream, pop-influenced release designed for mass appeal, Coloring Book forgoes swinging for the fences in favor of a more nuanced approach that requires multiple listens for the overall significance of the album to sink in. Throughout, tempos expand and contract, giving the music an elastic quality that belies the methodical nature of each track’s construction and execution.
As with Lamar’s recent releases, Chance places focus on collaboration to create a musical community that proves and extension of his own. By enlisting friends and high-profile guests including T-Pain, Justin Bieber, Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, Kanye West, Kirk Franklin, and Future to name but a few, Chance helps point the way to a brave new world within the music industry in which the music returns to being for, by and about the people, thus strengthening the overall sense of community. Whether or not this approach will succeed remains to be seen. But in the meantime Coloring Book is another exceptional release from a vital artist only now coming into his own. In that, the future for Chance the Rapper is wide open to seemingly unlimited potential. Let’s hope he continues to capitalize on it, bringing positivity to the masses.