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Review: Chance The Rapper’s “Coloring Book” Is A Remarkable, Religious Celebration

Chance the Rapper dropped his new mixtape last week and it’s been sinking in over the past few days. Coloring Book is a stunning, gospel-laden musical melting pot, a testament to not only Chance’s talent, but to where hip-hop is shifting to in 2016. The album is both on-trend and trendsetting, which is rare, but quite frankly, it was expected of 23-year-old Chancelor Bennett.

It is remarkable to note the effect this release is having in 2016, a year that has already spawned huge new releases from the biggest and most powerful names in the game, most obviously Kanye and Drake. To many, the hype surrounding this release was just as big as TLOP or Views, and far more crucial in terms of his own career trajectory, as well as the increasing relevance of the free mixtape within the commercial hip-hop world.

“Let’s do a good job with Chance 3,” he dropped in his limelight-stealing verse on The Life Of Pablo’s opening track Ultralight Beam. It sent the hip-hop community into a frenzy, and the hype had been brewing, with increasing volume ever since. Coloring Book is spacey, melodic and and vibe heavy, but at times erratic, showing Chance as a man at a crossroads, both lyrically and creatively. He’s spoken about how he can spend hours on end perfecting a single verse, and his lyrical dexterity shows on every single track.

Coloring Book opens with huge name collaborations. The Kanye-featuring All We Got is a wonderful place to start, although it somehow strangely feels more like a Chance-featuring Kanye track, not the other way around. No Problem, featuring heavyweights Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz follows. The track (and much of the subsequent songs) focuses on Chance’s main gripe with the music industry: the music industry. “If one more label tries to stop me,” he threatens, “there’s gonna be some dread-head n*ggas in the lobby.” A fiercely independent artist, he spends a great deal of the mixtape talking about his anti-label approach. “I don’t make songs for free, I make ’em for freedom,” he reaffirms later on Blessings. He spits his anti-label ideology atop a huge beat and glorious gospel backing vocals. Weezy’s verse is a standout, understated and fairly playful – I love the descriptive line, “Codeine got me moving slower than a caterpillar race.”

The tape really hits its stride with Summer Friends which is slick, chill and features well-produced contributions from Jeremih and Francis & The Lights. This is where Chance is himself, pushing a fresh sound but calling back to the days of his first mixtape 10 Day.

D.R.A.M Sings Special may only be 100 seconds long, but it’s a glistening, uplifting lullaby (obviously) featuring the upcoming D.R.A.M., while Blessings is absolutely gorgeous. Again, a gospelly track featuring slinky keys, Donnie Trumpet‘s trumpet and Jamila Woods‘ beautiful backing vocals, this is exactly what I love about Coloring Book: it makes you feel good. It’s filled with warm and fuzzies, which is so atypical of so much hip-hop. “It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap,” he croons.

While some, like Kendrick, are re-infusing jazz into their raps, there’s a huge surge of R&B-infused releases from Anderson .Paak, BJ the Chicago Kid and the like; these musical infusions are signifying a real change among the heavy trap beats, predominantly electronic production, and auto-tuned intensity of their many contemporaries.

Mixtape is a lovelorn, heartbroken ode to the mixtape. It’s also probably the first Young Thug verse I’ve ever loved. Thug’s line “I’m ridin’ like a panda” also officially cements the term as the official description for Desiigner‘s favourite car, the BMW X6.

Angels is a perfect example of how Chance is able to splice and blend those soul and gospel elements with harder-hitting beats. Norwegian wunderkind Lido had a hand in the production here, injecting his own stratospheric, tropical sound into the richly good-vibes track. While some rappers reflect on their careers with arrogant braggadocio, hearing Chance talk about his own come-up, including jokes about working with Chief Keef and signing to Drake’s OVO, exudes a genuine feeling of excitement and pride. Saba‘s hook is wonderfully rich – I challenge you to not wanna have a boogie to this one.

Juke Jam features Justin Bieber. At this point let’s just take a moment to remember that this is a free mixtape – one that’s slated to be the first ever record to hit the Billboard top ten based on streaming numbers alone. A free mixtape from an artist with no label backing, with competition from the absolute biggest names in the game, with the bang-on mindset that records don’t sell – so why try sell them? A free mixtape that scored features from Kanye, Lil Wayne, Future, Bieber, T-Pain and others, alongside a huge slew of names from across the entire hip-hop spectrum, including Anderson .Paak, Jamila Woods, Jay Electronica and Raury, not to mention production from Kaytranada, Lido, and even Mount Kimbie.

Anyway, Towkio’s chorus is hazy and laid back, backed by an exquisite guitar countermelody, while Bieber’s verse is pure honey. Kaytranada-produced All Night (featuring Knox Fortune) is a catchy, bite-sized break ahead of How Great, one of the most stunning tracks on the album, with a full three minutes dedicated to a powerful rendition of the Christian hymn, How Great Is Our God. This one holds a special place in Chance’s heart, who recently explained that the track, performed by his cousin Nicole, was recorded a few weeks after the death of his grandmother. “It crushed me,” he wrote during a Reddit AMA. “Recorded her and Francis did his harmonizer thing. It’s so close to my heart.”

Chance himself annotated some of his heavily religious lyrics on Genius, and Jay Electronica’s verse is incredible. Both biblical and poignant, he opens by referencing the Lion King; “I was lost in the jungle like Simba after the death of Mufasa, no hog, no meerkat, hakuna matata by day, but I spent my night time fighting tears back.” This minute long verse only makes us crave his long-awaited album that much more.

The heavier trap elements come through on the Future-supported Smoke Break, which blends the two rapper’s styles together in a way that’s still firmly rooted in Chance’s camp. This is followed by the euphoric, gospel sounds of Finish Line/Drown, which could have served as the tape’s opening track but works just as well as the closing song before Blessings (Reprise), this time featuring Ty Dolla Sign.

This album is remarkable in a number of ways. We get to know Chance the Rapper through his lyrics, at times painfully intimate, at others, reflective and fun. It is a musical melting pot that’s impossible to pinpoint. While anchored in gospel, it not only infuses a plethora of styles of popular hip-hop in 2016, but features the artists doing it best. Much like TLOP, this thoroughly collaborative release makes Chance feel more like a curator than the main star. Although his own life threads through each track, he also invites everybody else in to understand, to relate, and most importantly, to celebrate.

Written with Chris Palmer

Image: Chance the Rapper