COLORING BOOK by Chance the Rapper
Genre: Conscious Hip Hop
Favorite Tracks: “All We Got (featuring Kanye West, Chicago Children’s Choir),” “Summer Friends (featuring Jeremih, Francis, The Lights),” “Same Drugs,” “Angels (featuring Saba),” “How Great (featuring Jay Electronica, My Cousin Nicole)”
It’s impossible not to love Chance the Rapper. Even the most cynical, jaded, hardened hip hop heads have got to lighten up a little when Chance bursts out with his witty, light-speed rhymes and make-your-soul-smile singing. It may have been three years since the Chicago MC dropped the absolutely stellar ACID RAP, but his fanbase has only grown more and more rabid as the full impact of that tape has been felt on the Chicago scene and on hip hop as a whole. Not only was the tape on point, but in the past three years he’s proven himself to be a goosebump inducing live performer , a humble collaborator, and a dedicated activist for his deeply troubled city. The hype has been beyond real for the third tape from Channo from the 79th, and you’d be remiss to say he didn’t damn well earn it. Whether or not he lived up to it is much trickier to say.
With ACID, Chance proved himself as one of those rare multifaceted MCs capable of rapping in a wide variety of styles and tones, equally comfortable being hyper-active and goofy as he is getting really sincere and earnest about his love for his family and his community. It was that dynamic range of emotion that really made ACID stand out, and what makes it still one of the greatest mixtapes of the 2010s. Not only was the tape jazzy and fun, it had a sincerity and heart to it that hip hop often avoids. Chance proved he wasn’t interested in making bangers; he wanted to make joyful, happy songs that sometimes coincidentally banged. As Chance has dropped singles and collaborated with a number of other artists over the past three years, it’s become clear that he wanted to expand on all the strengths of ACID and push himself into a more religious realm with tracks like “Angels,” the track he did with the Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy,” and even his feature on Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam.” When Chance premiered the essentially gospel track “Blessings” on the Tonight show last week, it was pretty clear Chance wanted to take us all to church.
This is what ultimately makes COLORING BOOK a bit of a head scratcher now that it’s finally here. High-energy, gospel-infused, life-affirming tracks make up half of this tape, and when they’re on, they’re pretty impressive (overall). But the other half of the tape, the half that plays out as a more straightforward rap tape, albeit with Chance’s trademark production, feels lackluster in comparison. There’s a lot of fantastic, innovative stuff happening on COLORING BOOK, but it definitely doesn’t hold up to the consistent excellence of ACID RAP or a lot of the releases from Chance’s contemporaries from this year.
It’s funny, because the real fault in this tape can be narrowed down to Chance’s attempts to branch out to those very contemporaries for features on this tape without compromising his overall sound. While it’s fantastic that Kanye, 2 Chainz, Lil Wayne, Young Thug, Lil Yachty, Future, and T-Pain all respect Chance enough to want to be on his mixtape, absolutely all of them sound misplaced and forced onto the tracks they’re on. At the end of the day, most of these rappers have a distinct sound and only really sound good when they’re accompanied by the right kind of beats. On “No Problem,” 2 Chainz sounds like he’s still trying to fit his flow to a DJ Mustard beat and Lil Wayne sounds like he’s phoning in his verse like he’s done with pretty much every verse for the past six or seven years. “Mixtape” features Chance, Young Thug, and Lil Yachty pensively wondering if anyone still cares about mixtapes (ironic considering they’re three artists who’ve built their whole careers on tapes, but whatever). The track is jarring because at the end of the day, Thugger just isn’t supposed to go with mellow pianos and snares, and Lil Yachty damn well shouldn’t try to get as thoughtful and verbose as Chance. Similarly, it’s off-putting to hear T-Pain try to help close out the album by singing gospel on “Finish Line Down.”
It’s hard to hear all the good on COLORING BOOK when it’s stuffed with so many bad features. Each track with a big name feature feels distinctly like it distracts from the neo-gospel sound Chance is really focused on creating on all his solo tracks. As a result, the attempts to commune with God and take the listener to a more holy place feel cheapened when slammed up against party songs like “Juke Jam” and “All Night.” In a sense, it’s almost a reminder of what an innovator Chance is; he’s so outside the Game that he’s basically playing his own game entirely, unable to fit in with the other MCs out there. It’s just extremely disappointing that it took half of a mixtape three years in the making to realize that.
All this being said, there’s no point in fixating on the downsides of this record, because there really is a lot of great packed into its nooks and crannies. On “All We Got,” Donnie Trumpet kicks off the tape with such a bright burst of sound, followed by Chance triumphantly declaring, once again, that “we back,” and the infectious energy is absolutely undeniable, radiating down to your toes. “Summer Friends” has Chance at his more melancholic and thoughtful, reflecting on the friends he would make in carefree summers before they would eventually grow up to become drug dealers and get caught up in the violence endemic to Chicago. It’s an exceptional piece of rap storytelling and one of the best tracks Chance has ever done, hands down. “Angels” was a single Chance teased with Sabba last December and remains a highlight, with Chance absolutely destroying his bars declaring himself the loyal savior of his city.
In general, these are the moments when COLORING BOOK works best, when Chance is backed by a righteous gospel choir, declaring how good he has it and reminding us how determined he is to save his city. Chance is a self-made rapper who’s ducked conventional avenues to success, has seemingly managed to win over his baby mama, has had a daughter who he loves deeply, and is humble enough to be grateful for all of this. There’s so much to admire, respect, and value on COLORING BOOK, despite all the rough patches where Chance colored outside the lines.