'Coloring Book': A Chance the Rapper Reaction Roundtable
By Molly Lambert, Ira Madison III, Sasha Geffen, Meaghan Garvey, Doreen St. Félix, Simon Vozick-Levinson, Charles Aaron, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Adam Fleischer, Hazel Cills, and David Turner
Lambert: How mad is Drake right now? Does Drake get mad? How bad does it make Drake feel that 23-year-old Chance sounds more mature than him? This album sounds like a block party on the best summer night.
Madison III: This album ... it's a gift. It's a reward for surviving life. We've lost Prince. We've lost so much in this year alone. Coloring Book gives us the sermon we need. It's a passage from the good book, and I am ready to convert. I was not a believer, but now I am.
Geffen: Coloring Book carries a lot of the same energy that Chance brought to his set at Pitchfork Festival last summer — tons of guest spots, devotionals, restlessness. There are feel-good vibes for miles here, but this is the kind of positivity that only comes out of struggle. Faith rises from doubt — because of doubt, not in spite of it. And there is plenty of doubt on Coloring Book, from relationship doubt on “Same Drugs” and “All Night” to self-doubt on “Smoke Break.” But self-doubt gives way to a transcendent confidence that Chance is eager to share. The opening refrain of “at the end of the day, music is all we got” speaks to the power of his art; it also speaks to the chronic uncertainty that plagues everything that isn’t his art. Here, music is a conduit for God, whose light shines brightest in the darkness that necessitates it. I think it’s telling that Chance ends this piece on a question mark: “Are you ready for your blessings? Are you ready for your miracle?”
Cills: Listening to Chance at his most nostalgic moments on this record you'd think, at this stage of his life, that he was so much older than he is. I had to keep reminding myself that he's somehow only 23, especially when he's out there singing devastatingly about Wendy from Peter Pan closing the window on "Same Drugs." But something small I’m loving about this album is how Chance balances these massive, truly "adult" changes in his life — parenting with his partner, his success, his social work in Chicago — with some pretty relatable, lighter, twentysomething nostalgia. Little lines like "you can keep the nose ring" after his "growth spurt” on "Angels" or tossed-off references to missing Blockbuster, Harry Potter's pets, or needing the water from Space Jam on "Finish Line." Those moments when Chance is using the language and references of his childhood to frame his feelings are weirdly powerful, subtly underlining the weird "adult but not totally ADULT" feeling of being in your early twenties, let alone being a father at that age. And I think there’s also a bit of permission-giving here, in Chance’s lyrics, to let young people get nostalgic about dancing in high school or catching lightning bugs in the backyard or their neighborhood being the extent of their world.
Willis-Abdurraqib: I think on this album, more than any of his others, the direct link between Chance and Kanye is really clear. Beyond just Kanye in general, too. This album pairs so well as a child of Late Registration. The gentle and careful production on “Same Drugs” really took me back to 2005-era Kanye/Jon Brion work. It's an album of location and lineage more than anything else. I appreciate listening to someone who is proud to be a direct descendant of an artist from their city who, in some ways, raised them and help them find their voice. He’s almost like a hybrid of Kanye West and Kirk Franklin, both artists who fit into the black gospel tradition in very different ways. Chance is, seemingly, running on that same path, with the resolute vision of Kanye and the reverent choir-director tone of Kirk.
Garvey: I don’t think Chance is the next Kanye, nor does he intend to be. If Ye’s mission is to make life as grand as possible, Chance’s is to fill the one you have with as much meaning as you can. But more than any of Chance’s records so far, this one gives me the kind of feeling I had listening to Kanye in Chicago in 2004, full of optimistic pride. Hearing this, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kanye took his cues from Chance on TLOP, not the other way around. Anyway, more than a block party, I’m looking forward to getting up early this summer and listening to this album with headphones on before anyone’s awake, like I did this morning.
Aaron: Like Hanif, I see Chance as part of a lineage that includes Kanye, but on “All We Got” he shouts out Beyoncé and Andre 3000 (and, by extension, OutKast), and it’s not a reach to link him to other artists, from the ‘90s forward, when hip-hop’s center moved beyond New York and Los Angeles and eventually to the South and the Midwest. The entire Dungeon Family, The Fugees, The Coup, The Roots, Common — artists who have attempted to address larger issues. But most of all, in terms of musical reach and collaboration and ambition, it reminds me of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (though Lauryn had some problems when it was time to fully acknowledge the collaborative effort). You feel the narrative of a kid growing into an adult who feels a responsibility to his community to speak and maintain/continue a history and be a leader who doesn’t leave the less fortunate behind, and the African-American church provides the only reasonable model for that. As a result, it’s like a long praise song, with the voices of a gospel choir running throughout, from “All We Got” and “No Problem” to “Blessings” to “Angels” to “How Great” back to “Blessings” again.
St. Félix: Chano is a conscious rapper. Whether it was a subgenre or more of a posture, the conscious rap of the ‘90s didn't age well. But Chance has revived it, in the style of a revival. He has the polysyllabic words and the wholesome preacher cadence, but the pontificating is more like soft advising. That's what Kanye's gesturing to on the "entrée," that promise he made over a year ago on The Breakfast Club: to make block party music. This is block party music, and make no mistake that the block is in Chicago.
Turner: Doreen, you got it right: Chance is a conscious rapper. But the dichotomy that Kanye used to harp on so much in his earlier work — the Benz or the backpack — just isn't an issue with Chance. His outlook is so bright, so welcoming, so inclusive, so warm. All I can fall back on at this moment is the same feeling I had when listening to The Life of Pablo: This makes me wanna go to church. And there is no higher praise I can give to black art.
Aaron: Though I completely hear Doreen’s point, I hope he doesn’t get burdened with the “conscious rap” tag, since that’s now viewed (understandably) as a world of failed ‘90s Hotep hypocrisy. Maybe we could just say “post-conscious” — see Kanye’s early aesthetic, but not — in that he’s hyper-aware of the problems of being a “message rapper” or simply a guy with a strong preacherly voice (especially a guy) who thinks he’s got to educate oppressed people, including women, about how they should live their lives. That’s not Chance; he’s not pedantic, he’s excited. He’s rapping, singing, dancing, doing front flips through the Southside.
Fleischer: I can't ignore the way Chance treats his heavier moments — something like "Summer Friends." He's alluding to a darkness that clouds the city during what should otherwise be a carefree time of year, and it's beautiful and tragic all at once, much like its Acid Rap thematic cousin, "Paranoia." The way Chance is able to change lanes between these moods, and take us with him — it's one of the many things that makes him a special artist.
Cills: There is just so much JOY in this record. It really does feel like a gift — but it also feels like a relief. Not to dis the radio, but between Bey and Drake and RiRi, music is so dour right now. “One Dance” is killing it for a reason, DRAKE. It’s finally getting to be spring in New York City, and I’ve been chasing music that feels right for the occasion. Clearly, it’s arrived.
Aaron: Yes! When “All Night” comes on and Kaytranada’s house beats drops, it’s immediately hands in the air and windows open and, finally, the world is being reborn!
Vozick-Levinson: There is so much to celebrate in this music of celebration, but I want to talk for a moment about Coloring Book as a new-dad album. When artists try to capture the experience of welcoming a new life into the world through music or paint or words, the results can often feel sappy or unconvincing. Being a new parent is corny AF! You're all of a sudden overwhelmed by waves of universal love and positivity that you might have smirked at just last week. It's a feeling so big, it's hard to get across without using clichés. But Chance leans all the way into that wide-eyed vibe here, and it works. "It feels like blessings keep fallllllling in my lap," he sings, and his voice lets you know he's not being hyperbolic, just being real. He shows us that cynicism is what's really corny.
Lambert: Fatherhood clearly suits Chance. I’ll leave it to the Chicagoans to run down all the local references here, but the R. Kelly–riffing, roller-skating slow grind “Juke Jam” is gonna raise hormonal temperatures internationally.
Willis-Abdurraqib: I’m also very taken by the collaborative efforts on the album. Midwest artists take to collaboration in a way that produces better results than artists from other regions. What I like about Chance’s approach to collaboration, which you can hear all throughout this album, is that he meets his collaborators where they’re at. Chance is versatile, sure, but on a track like “Mixtape,” he’s definitely meeting Yachty and Thugger in their lane and not attempting to push them into his. He seems to know when to exist and when not to exist while working with someone: to let Jay Electronica shut down “How Great,” or getting out of the way for 2 Chainz and Wayne even though the idea of Chance solo on that beat seemed like a great idea. Rap is, without question, less collaborative now than it was in the ‘90s, even in the early 2000s. Listening to this album, I felt a real vintage spirit of collaboration, Chance pulling enough seats up to the table and breaking off enough bread for everyone, even if he eats the smallest portion. Which is also biblical.
St. Félix: And there's a delightful dissonance to the spirit of collaboration on Coloring Book that Chance deliberately stokes, a dissonance that I think begs us to expand our idea of church. There’s The Church, and then there’s church — the groups of people who gather outside of any idea of a god. The people who gather while still staking claim in their lane, like you say, Hanif. Chance lets everyone in, and regardless of whether they’re invoking The Spirit, you feel a spirituality come in. I really get a kick out of Lil Wayne going on about Percocet or Yachty’s verse right before “Angels.” Or “Smoke Break,” where both Chance and, more staggeringly, Future, reminisce about how substances can manifest the greatest glory of the spirit: a child.
Aaron: On “Blessings,” Chance calls himself a “force to be reconciled,” and that’s how I hear the powerful, evolving musicality and urgently spiritual yearning of his entire career. How can he reconcile being a middle-class black kid with access in the midst of a Chicago hip-hop scene that reflects the city’s brutal abuse of poor, abandoned black people? He’s wary of being a Talented Tenth chosen one, set apart as a member of a gifted elite of magical Hollywood ghetto wunderkinds (his father is a political success story, having worked in the Obama administration). He’s got a very palpable, sweat-spraying, cigarette-stank-in-your-face eagerness to inspire people. To do what? Well, to not do drugs and not get shot and other general dumb shit, but that’s more implied than explicit (except maybe on “Same Drugs,” which is like a sequel to “Lost” from Acid Rap). Of course, he’s well aware that he’s good at inspiring people, but he wants to do more than brag, though if he didn’t brag, he wouldn’t be much of an MC, and for a community that’s still being treated like shit — especially in Chicago — the bragging is part of the uplifting. That should be obvious by now, but with racism still so perniciously embedded in white people’s souls, it’s not. Chance may become, like Kendrick Lamar, a guy white people or lefty culture warriors champion as a voice of resistance, a sign that hip-hop ain’t dead, an artist who transcends hip-hop, blah blah blah. But Chance knows that he wouldn’t exist without all of hip-hop and all of African-American history and Chicago history and the church and the skating rink and 79th Street and the cops and drugs and gangs and prep school and Chief Keef YouTubes, et al. He’s made it through so far, but that’s no guarantee of anything to come. Coloring Book, at its best, at least on first impression, celebrates that in-progress self-knowledge and, perhaps, blessings to come. “We’ve got so much history, baby!” he sings, wistfully, hopefully, on “Juke Jam.”
Garvey: I can’t listen to this album and not miss Chicago. Every time Chance puts out new music, the first thing I do is text my little sister, who still lives there. Usually it’s just like “OMG I’m crying,” or she’ll text me excitedly to tell me how someone we went to high school with did the choreography for the “Angels” video, because even being a few degrees of separation from the guy who’s becoming the soul of the city feels like you’re part of something important. And even though anyone from Chicago will tell you how deeply Chicago Chance’s music has been this past year, I really appreciate the subtlety with which he tucks in these hometown touchstones on this album — the little flashes of footwork drums on “All We Got,” or how “Juke Jam” flips the melody from R. Kelly’s “Feelin' on Yo Booty” into a late-summer lullaby, like Molly said. When I hear “Finish Line Drown,” I think about flipping on the local-access channel on Sunday morning, where steppers would dance in a church basement after the service.
Willis-Abdurraqib: I didn’t grow up in the church, but I grew up in the church. To grow up black in America means that, in many cases, it’s hard to be too far removed from gospel and church elements in your daily life. We are a few ancestors away from a time where the church was, first and foremost, a place where free black people could feel safe. We are even fewer ancestors away from a time where the church was feared because it was a place where free black people could feel safe. We are less than a year away from churches being set on fire, churches being bloodied by terrorists. The black reliance on church and gospel, I think, sometimes has so little to do with the church itself or the gospel itself. I know that someone black who loves me, somewhere, is looking at the world and is so worried about it all that they are praying for me, or hanging my name at the end of a prayer. The knowing of that is my gospel, and my church, the church that can’t burn, that buries no one. I listened to Coloring Book on a Sunday morning, specifically “Finish Line/Drown,” and I felt like this album was made as a reminder for anyone black who maybe hasn’t taken to prayer in a handful of years. Someone, somewhere, has always got us covered.