Chance the Rapper Coloring Book

[Self-Released; 2016]

Styles: hip-hop, gospel, R&B, soul
Others: “Ultralight Beam,” Surf, Johanna Basford

There was one late night in 2015 — probably about a year ago now — that I spent bumming around the internet, somewhat tipsily stumbling from link to link. That night ended with a viewing of Mr. Happy, a short film starring Chance the Rapper that was released by VICE earlier in the year. In Mr. Happy, Chance plays an anxious, awkward, lonely guy who wants to end his life but can’t work up the nerve to do it himself, so he outsources the job to a mysterious online service. Think Jack Kevorkian meets TaskRabbit and you’re in the ballpark.

That was a dark night, but there was at least one positive takeaway: more than anything, Mr. Happy reaffirmed my already strong sense that Chance the Rapper is a star in the most classic sense of that word. I was impressed that Chance’s innate charisma, so evident on record, translated seamlessly to film. And I was more than a little bit thrown that this young guy who I had previously associated with a kind of indomitable joie de vivre was able to portray crippling sadness so convincingly. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but I had built up a very particular association with Chance in my mind.

When Chance the Rapper’s brilliant second mixtape Acid Rap came out in 2013, I was in the midst of a solid four- or five-month block of depression in the wake of turning 30. During this period, I would wake up and set out on my morning commute, plug my headphones firmly into my ears, and more often than not, put on Acid Rap. It sounds melodramatic to say it, but that spring and summer, Acid Rap made my life just a little bit better. Even now, three years and countless listens later, I still can’t get through Chance’s verse on “Cocoa Butter Kisses” without breaking into a smile or listen to “Smoke Again” without laughing out loud.

When you’re 16, or even 20, every new musical encounter has the potential to change your life. But this kind of transformative impact is much harder to find as we grow older. Undoubtedly, it was Chance’s own youthful energy — his exuberance in making this music and coming into his own as an artist — that I was keying into. In an interview with Hot 97 last fall, Chance said that Acid Rap and his first mixtape, 10 Day, were about “this feeling of adolescence,” that they were expressions of his youth, vibrancy, and potential. When Acid Rap was released, I was like a vampire feeding off these very qualities.

But what’s important to note about the inherent joy in Chance the Rapper’s music is that, despite his relatively young age, it is not the result of naivety, dumb fun, or a blinkered perspective. Chance is about as sharp, thoughtful, and engaged an artist as you’re likely to find today. One of the highlights on Acid Rap was “Paranoia,” a creeping four-and-a-half minute meditation on violence in Chance’s hometown of Chicago. Next to “Paranoia,” the ultimate optimism of songs like “Everybody’s Something” and “Interlude (That’s Love)” comes across as a heroic act of willpower and positive thinking. The joy in Chance’s music is all the more affecting, because it’s clear he knows there are so many reasons to be sad.

It feels indulgent to write about myself in the context of a record review, but I do so to make clear that I came to Coloring Book — Chance’s third solo mixtape and the proper follow-up to Acid Rap — with high expectations and more than a little emotional baggage. In the three years since Acid Rap, a lot has happened politically, socially, and culturally, and a lot has changed for Chance. He’s performed on national TV and turned in guest verses for Big Name Acts like Justin Bieber and Kanye West, not to mention up-and-comers like Rapsody and SZA. He’s released a mixtape with Lil B and a big, gorgeous group record called Surf by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment. He has no doubt been offered a lot of money by a lot of different people, and most importantly, he has become a father. This all left me coming into Coloring Book wondering how the passage of years and the major life changes would show through in the music of a guy whose image was built on an idea of adolescence.

The natural place to start is “Same Drugs,” the sixth track on Coloring Book. It’s a song about two people growing up and growing apart, and it’s arguably the heart of the record. Following in the footsteps of Mary Martin and Robin Williams, Chance casts himself as Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, singing to a Wendy Darling with whom he has fallen out of sync. The song has a musical theater quality in its dynamics and narrative clarity, as Chance sings:

When did you change?
Wendy you’ve aged
I thought you’d never grow up
I thought you’d never…
Window closed
Wendy got old
I was too late, I was too late
a shadow of what I once was

It’s a beautiful, moving song about the simplicity and wonder of childhood, and the bittersweet inevitability of people drifting apart as they age. As Chance sings “Don’t forget the happy thoughts/ All you need is happy thoughts,” it feels like he could be addressing himself as much as anyone. And when he asks, “When did you start to forget how to fly?,” I can’t help but feel that an unspoken sadness here is that Chance may be destined to the same fate.

In this sense, Chance’s optimism on Coloring Book sounds a little more forced to me than it did on Acid Rap, like he’s trying to hang on to something that’s already slipped out of his grip. While Chance expresses happiness with his life and an admirable equanimity about the uncertainties of his future — on opening track “All We Got,” he proclaims, “Man my daughter couldn’t have a better mother/ If she ever find another he better love her” — songs like “Smoke Break” and “Summer Friends” display a new kind of world-weariness. Some of the best material on Coloring Book is an expression of Chance’s faith, backed by a bracing mixture of hip-hop and gospel music.

In addition to the themes of faith and growing older, the other major narrative strain on Coloring Book has to do with Chance’s independence as an artist and his role as a one-man challenge to the music industry. Following the success of Acid Rap, Chance did not sign to a record label and so far has avoided putting a price tag on his music. (Coloring Book was released exclusively on Apple Music, a subscription service, but it is supposed to be available elsewhere beginning May 27.) In December, Chance became the first independent artist to perform on Saturday Night Live, and Surf was the first full record to be released on iTunes at no charge. Coloring Book is now the first streaming-only release to appear on the Billboard 200 chart, and Chance is also spearheading a campaign to try to get the Grammy Awards to change their rules concerning the ineligibility of free music.

So it’s undeniable that Chance has been something of a game-changer, even if it is at a moment when game-changing seems to be the rule rather than the exception. On Coloring Book — which Chance has very consciously dubbed a mixtape because of its status as a free release — he refers to himself as a “pre-currency” “people’s champ,” and he gives us songs like “No Problem” — a diss track aimed at record labels — and even a song called “Mixtape” (ft. Young Thug and Lil Yachty) that celebrates the form.

Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, my biggest criticism of Coloring Book is that it sounds like a mixtape in ways that are, I think, to its detriment. The volume levels on some of these tracks sound a bit off to me, and the whole thing has something of a grab-bag quality to it. “Mixtape” and “Smoke Break,” both great songs in their own rights, sound more like Chance guesting on Young Thug and Future (circa 2014) tracks than the other way around, and “All Night” — a fun, dancey song produced by Kaytranada — doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the record.

In that same Hot 97 interview referenced above, Chance made a distinction between mixtapes and albums: mixtapes, he said, are aspirational free releases made for the people, and albums are records made from a place of confidence and certitude, with one distinct idea behind them. Chance is no longer quite coming from that place of adolescence that was essential to 10 Day and Acid Rap, but on Coloring Book, he doesn’t yet sound comfortably settled into whatever it is that’s supposed to come next. I’m very happy to have this new release from Chance, but if we have to wait another three years for the next one, then I’m hoping for an album.

Links: Chance the Rapper

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