By David Dark
On Chance the Rapper’s third mixtape, Coloring Book, the heart of the 23-year-old Chicago MC is very much on his sleeve. But we’ve seen Chancelor Bennett’s heart before. Love requires a context, like lust needs a setting. For Chance the Rapper, the context (classroom, church, family, neighborhood, fans) is never far away. There’s no life to be lived without one. On Coloring Book, heaven — like hell — is always other people.
While the giving of thanks and praise to God in hip-hop can often appear perfunctory, Chance is going further, and he knows it. He embraces the role of self-conscious psalmist with relish, teasingly preempting the protest of anyone who might front when he lifts up his praise (“Don’t be mad!”). With Coloring Book, there’s a vibe to be had that blissfully overcomes the cordoning off of God’s righteous demands from the rest of human experience. Chance’s faith won’t be reduced to a side issue that comes and goes. Because the earth and everything in it is the Lord’s, it’s all God’s loving business. This is the deep-down freshness anticipated on his debut, 10 Day. He envisions his music, his crew, and his fans as all engaged in God’s group activity, “Kids of the Kingdom singing about freedom.”
There’s a way of separating God and gospel from the fact of lived reality, divinity from the everyday, prayer from bodies, praise from protest. See yesterday, today, and tomorrow’s news cycles. Like the prophetic community that formed him, Chance will have none of it.
Heads down, eyes shut, time to play Seven Up
Heads bowed, hands clutched, bottles gone, Heavens up
Smiles come through, though my eyes might cry
Through chorus and verse, the promise of longed-for restoration in the future is forever tied to the land of the living, a seeking-out of righteousness within — and in spite of — the beleaguered present. While the 10 Day of the title refers to Chance’s 10-day suspension for on-campus marijuana possession during his senior year of high school, even here Chance’s sense of vocation as a neighborhood conjurer, an articulator of much-needed perception, is in play. Witness “Brain Cells”:
Here’s a tab of acid for your ear
You’re the plastic, I’m the passion and the magic in the air
The flabbergasted avalanche of ambulances near
The labyrinth of Pan’s Lab is adamantly here
Amid the reigning dysfunction and disinformation, this is the shape his lyrical attentiveness will take. Passion and magic will have a representative (“Verse is a metaphor / A metamorphosis, and Imma fuckin’ Animorph"). Chance will give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.
So into our fevered labyrinth comes Coloring Book. And there’s so much to feel good about. Salvation, we’re made to see repeatedly, is a this-worldly process. And blessedly so. The work of holistic discernment, Chance’s phrase, involves a spirit of mirth ("I was baptized like real early / I might give Satan a swirlie") as well as Harry Potter–like perseverance (“Scars on my head, I’m the boy who lived”). And music — all we’ve got — is the vehicle of love, insight, and energy.
Meanwhile, the righteousness for which he hungers and thirsts has nowhere else to happen but in his life on earth. He prayerfully insists that the mother of his child will increasingly have in him a righteous partner and lover (“We in a marathon we could build a marriage on”). Here, too, the thriving he has in mind is inescapably communal, because the Chicago inextricably connected to his fame (“I got my city doing front flips”) is the space he wants to keep safe for the sake of his daughter, the campers for whom he volunteers his time, and the elderly of his Chatham neighborhood. As “Finish Line/Drown” envisions the end of days, there’s a final righting of creation when God’s kingdom comes on earth as it already is in the heavens, with Kirk Franklin intoning, “Someday we’ll all be free.” But the universal hope is preceded by the local concern: “Someday Chicago will be free.” The context of later is now or not at all. The word must put on flesh.
With “Blessings,” Chance voices a state of mind reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s response to the question of his own happiness, put to him by Rolling Stone in 1991 on the occasion of his 50th birthday. Dylan refused the terms: "You know, these are yuppie words, happiness and unhappiness. It's not happiness or unhappiness, it's either blessed or unblessed. As the Bible says, ‘Blessed is the man who walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.'” Blessedness is a very different game from the pursuit of happiness. Similarly, Chance lays out a sacred economy that flips the script on power, prestige, and profit as they’re popularly conceived: “I don’t make songs for free, I make ‘em for freedom / Don’t believe in kings, believe in the kingdom.” And for what appears to be a purposefully slow jam, “Blessings” does an awful lot of work, placing a punchy, James Brown–like “Good God!” directly next to a smoothly crooned, slowly enunciated “Good God” as if mulling over the wide spectrum of emotions out of which the goodness of God might yet be evoked. A sound bite won’t do. A life of praise takes time, and you’ll know one by its fruit. As Chance puts it: “I’m at war with my wrongs … They want four-minute songs / You need a four-hour praise dance performed every morn.” True praise is a long haul, a lifelong embodiment of ups and downs. We’re never not worshiping in Chance’s world.
And in this sense, the blessing game will require a relentlessly tender imagination of self and others. The question of lived tenderness, of holding oneself, everything, and everyone dear is at the center — is, in fact, the moral heft — of Coloring Book. Hence the inclusion of “D.R.A.M. Sings Special,” which features Shelley Massenburg-Smith, a.k.a D.R.A.M., singing a rounding blessing over the listener: “Everyone is special / This I know is true / When I look at you.” But again, Chance has offered this insight before. Recall “Everything’s Good (Good Ass Outro)” from Acid Rap, and even more recall “Everybody’s Something,” which strikes the same insistent note of human kinship in the context of white-supremacist violence: “Everybody’s somebody’s everything … Nobody’s nothing.” On both albums, it’s as if a universal law of tenderness, an ancient imperative of mutual affection often instilled in children, is being brought to the singsong surface like a forgotten catechism, a long-distance call from our best selves.
We might begin to spy a deep orderliness in Chance’s work when we recall an adage sometimes attributed to Ursula K. Le Guin that holds that an artist, a truly creative personality, is a child who has survived adulthood. Like the busy, enlivening Animorph he promised he’d be on 10 Day, Chance brings out of his treasury items ever ancient and ever new:
I speak of promised lands
Soil as soft as momma’s hands …
I speak of wondrous unfamiliar lessons of childhood
Make you remember how to smile good …
I speak to God in public …
He keep my rhymes in couplets
He think the new shit jam, I think we mutual fans
There’s a boldness here, a kind of chutzpah, that might challenge popular conceptions of piety, but Chance’s faith in a God who accepts every emotion and welcomes every form of candor and good humor is every bit biblical. His expression defies marketing and genre, but this, too, is a blessed thing. The divisions of sacred and secular dissolve upon contact with the way a heart really works. But we’ve already received that wisdom from one luminary after another, right? Prince knew it. Johnny Cash knew it. We forget so easily. True witness knows no division. Labels be damned.
Coloring Book won’t be boundaried up. It’s made up of songs of innocence and experience, and full humanity requires both. We need a profound and ongoing recognition of both to keep from becoming hopelessly estranged from ourselves. It’s a process Chance the Rapper chronicles with wit and wonder: “You must’ve missed the come-up, I must be all I can be / Call me Mister Mufasa, I had to master stampedes.” In Chance, we have a chronicler determined to be a living and loving witness to his own experience. We also have, on the authority of Irenaeus of Lyons, a second-century Church father, that a glory of God is a human being fully alive. Maybe there’s glory to behold here. Maybe there’s glory everywhere. Are you ready for your blessing?
David Dark teaches in the College of Theology at Belmont University and among the incarcerated communities of Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, Everyday Apocalypse, and most recently Life's Too Short To Pretend You're Not Religious.