By: Emmett Robinson Smith –
Chance The Rapper’s ascension on the hip-hop totem could be seen coming from a mile away. His landmark 2013 mixtape, Acid Rap, showcased a command of both musicality and artistic vision that usually takes artists years to hone, from the flamboyant jumpiness of “Good Ass Intro” to the perpetual build of “That’s Love.” Acid Rap earned considerable critical acclaim, a dedicated fanbase, and an even more dedicated onslaught of record label execs seeking to capitalize on Chance’s singular talent – a prospect that Chance is adamant against. “I don’t make songs, I make ‘em for freedom,” he raps on his new project Coloring Book.
The artistic freedom for which Chance advocates has become a selling point for those who criticise the shackles that restrict just about any other artist signed to a major label. Indeed, the mere fact that Chance has achieved this level of relevance and popularity without the backing of any label is worthy of applause. But the only reason Chance has gotten this far on his own is simply because he’s so damn good at what he does. Coloring Book is a triumph and a near-masterpiece, a work overflowing with virtuosity and positivity.
The most immediately noticeable difference between Acid Rap and Coloring Book is the guest list, though that’s to be expected following his steady rise in profile in the last two years. The line-up here is star-studded, with features from Kanye West, Young Thug, Future, Justin Bieber, Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, and more. At first glance, the disparate styles of each contributor may raise a suspicious eyebrow, but Chance manages to fit these contributions within the margins of a unified sonic canvas. Future sounds uncharacteristically sprightly on album highlight “Smoke Break” even as he tries to assess the ambiguities of his relationship troubles through a haze of marijuana. The beat is a pleasure as well, all church organs, flitting basslines, pizzicato strings and trap drums. Most importantly, “Smoke Break” also exemplifies Chance’s rare ability to pay homage to the styles of his collaborators while simultaneously sounding unmistakeably like himself.
As a vocalist, Chance has improved leaps and bounds. His innate sense of timbre, dynamics and delivery is sharper than ever as he jumps from one mode of delivery to another in the blink of eye, ensuring that every verse he constructs is as unpredictable and engaging as possible. This fluidity is probably only rivalled by rap’s other resident genius, Young Thug, who makes an appearance on mid-album trap banger “Mixtape.” It’s a treat to hear hip-hop’s two most exciting and wildly talented personalities trade verses on the same song, but up-and-comer Lil Yachty is clumsily tacked on at the end, spitting a verse that lacks the subtlety and refinement of his peers’.
Indeed, the most remarkable quality of Coloring Book is Chance’s rapping: it’s jaw-droppingly good. “Magnify, magnify, lift it on high / Spit it Spotify to qualify a spot on His side / I cannot modify or ratify, my momma made me apple pies / Lullabies and alibies, the book don’t end with Malachi” is one of the more mind-bending passages on the album. Perhaps non-coincidentally, his rapping is most intricate when he imbues it with biblical references; faith is a prevalent motif on the album. But Chance knows how to balance topics of religiosity with subjects of broader appeal, and Coloring Book is nothing if not a guide on optimizing the combination of personal expression and audience accessibility.
Chance the Rapper is the biggest unsigned artist working right now, but his situation is neither common nor recommendable. The reason he’s made it this far is because he possesses musical gifts of which most people can only dream. With Coloring Book, Chance has matured without showing signs of abandoning the infectious energy that got him here in the first place. It’s hard to predict what his next move will be, but at only twenty-three years of age, it’s safe to say that he’s just getting warmed up. And that’s the biggest gift of all.
Essential Tracks: “Smoke Break”, “Mixtape”