ALBUM REVIEW: Chance The Rapper | Coloring Book

He said let’s do a good-ass job with Chance 3
I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy
Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard
That there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet

***

Ever since 2012’s Acid Rap, Chance The Rapper has been billed as the Next Big Thing, a genre-transcending successor to Kanye’s Chicago throne. He’s Kanye’s protégé, but has never existed in Yeezy’s shadow. Chance’s talent has never been in question — but to date, it hasn’t quite translated into full-length projects that are quite on the level of hip hop’s greats. 10 DaysAcid Rap, and Donnie Trumpet’s Surf have all been excellent affairs, but there’s always been something off. For 10 Days, it was the muddiness and unrefined production. For Acid Rap, it was the complete lack of cohesiveness in themes. And for Surf, well, Surf wasn’t really a hip hop album, so much as it was a neo-soul jazz record. Once Chance started promoting Chance 3, we all speculated: could this finally be his definitive rockstar record that firmly cements him in rap’s upper echelon?

Coloring Book isn’t quite there yet, but it’s the closest Chance has come in his short career. Keep in mind, despite his already massive discography, he’s only 23 years old. He still has decades of work in front of him, and I can tell he’s perfectly content to keep dropping incredible features and releasing his music for free. And as long as he’s comfortable with that, I am. It’s just that because of his immense personal talent, his releases will always be graded on a curve. And that curve tells me that Coloring Book isn’t Chance’s creative peak, unlike Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly.

Highlights are plenty on Coloring Book, whose gospel theme helps cement an aura of spirituality around the mixtape’s 15 tracks. More specifically, themes of family and fatherhood pop up all around the album. Chance is in a place of extreme personal peace — he discusses how he’s been clean from his Xanax habit for a long time now, how his daughter is his everything, and how his daughter’s mother is re-entering his life after a long time apart. “Angels”, the mixtape’s lead single, is a joyous exclamation of Chance’s love for Chicago, even with its flaws and shortcomings. He talks about how he needs to “Clean up the streets so my daughter can have somewhere to play.” He shouts out local radio stations that he listened to waking up. He and frequent collaborator Saba bust out some local lingo (“woo wop da bam!”) and compare it to the bustling cities of Alexander the Great’s empire. It’s a lovely tribute, especially in today’s hip hop scene, where city boundaries are breaking down every year.

The gospel-oriented “Blessings” (both of them — there are two tracks titled “Blessings) and “How Great” are genuine church-gospel hymns that have more in common with Byron Cage and Marvin Sapp than they do with anything that showed up on Acid Rap. The latter track, especially, is so genuine in its love that even if the listener has a lack of faith, they can still relate and enjoy it greatly. “How Great” is bookended by two of the best moments on the entire tape: at first, a soulful rendition of the classic church song “How Great Is Our God”, and at the end, perhaps the best verse of Jay Electronica’s young career. He could genuinely hold his own with today’s great Christian rappers, should he want to go in that direction. Later, T-Pain adds some classic soul on “Finish Line / Drown”, providing one of the best features I’ve heard from the formerly AutoTuned crooner. Like all of hip hop’s best artists, Chance always has had a knack for getting the best out of his guests and features. Coloring Book is no different.

Not everything on Coloring Book is entirely gospel. “No Problems”, with 2Chainz and Lil Wayne, is a challenge to those who don’t believe in Chance’s greatness. It’s also a warning to record labels, an entity that Chance has generally managed to avoid so far, but still has to deal with in issues of guest appearances and sampling. The hook (“You don’t want no problems/ want no problems with me“) is among the catchiest I’ve heard all year, and even with the hostile lyrics, Chance sounds like he’s grinning the entire time. Later, “Juke Jam” is bar none the sexiest damn song Chance has ever put out. It’s a bona fide slow jam, and the vocals from Towkio and Justin Bieber(!) are deft and sensual. Variety has always been a little bit lacking from Chance’s full projects, so it’s great to hear him explore some different sounds.

Still, I’d be lying if I said that the project is without flaws. “Mixtape”, with Atlanta’s Young Thug and the infallible Lil Yachty, is a pretty solid track on its own, but it would have fit far better on Thugga’s and Yachty’s recent Slime Season 3 and Lil Boat. The track exhibits trap production, themes of personal independence, and Atlanta features, none of which fit very well on a community-based gospel album. It’s an outlier. Many of Coloring Book‘s tracks have great moments, but there’s just something about them that feels off or unfinished. The first half of our opener, “All We Got” (featuring Kanye himself), is stunning! It’s a throwback to Acid Rap‘s “Good Ass Intro”, but when the hook rolls around, Kanye sings in these horrid vocoder vocals that completely take the soulfulness out of the song. “D.R.A.M. Sings Special” is beautiful and emotive, a solo effort from D.R.A.M., one of rap’s great up-and-comers. But it’s so short, and had it been a full song, with two verses, a bridge, and a hook, it had the potential to be one of my favorites of the year. The first “Blessings” sounds like it should explode into a full orchestral symphony at the song’s center, but the final chorus just sounds anti-climactic. There are moments like this all over the record, where I feel like if they had used just a couple more weeks on the project, it could have been transcendent.

My favorite track on Coloring Book is “Same Drugs”. It’s the only track on the entire mixtape that is almost entirely Chance, and it’s an absolute heartbreaker. An extended Peter Pan metaphor is used to show what it’s like when people who were once so close (friends and lovers) can grow apart. “What did you do to end up back here? What did you do to your hair? When did you forget how to fly?” Chance implores. Songs like these show why Chance isn’t your average up-and-coming rapper; he’s destined to be a pop star. He promised to do a “good-ass job” with Chance 3, and in Coloring Book, he has. It’s just that for someone with Chance’s talent, “good” is a slight disappointment. It’s not a bad project — in fact, it’s one of my favorites of the year. But Chance has yet to reach his full potential. Here’s hoping that with Chance 4, “good” can turn into “great”.

Coloring Book is available for free at Apple Music.

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