As I write this, I’m in a New Orleans hotel. My wife is napping next to me, and our terrier, Willie, is likewise asleep. It’s one of those unspeakably happy moments where time seems to ooze, seeping from one second to the next, lazily yet perfectly paced. I don’t want to say too much, because trying to put the whole thing into words almost spoils it, and all the words that feel accurate also feel terribly cheesy.
So how does Chance the Rapper do it so well? The Chicago native who went from buzzy indie rapper to new and notable contender to — one “Ultralight Beam” verse down — rap royalty has made a career out of conveying the sort of exuberance and positivity that supposedly crashed with the stock market in 2008, leaving a millennial generation awash in cynicism. It’s not a wholly unfair assessment, let the record show:
But you wouldn’t know millennials are “the worst” if you listened to Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book. It’s not just that it’s optimistic. It’s euphoric. It’s bursting with, joy, love of life, family, music, and God. “Man, I swear my life is perfect,” he shouts on the opening track “All We Got.” “I could merch it. If I die, I’ll prolly cry at my own service.” These bars don’t stand out with lyrical proficiency or technical prowess — although both are in peak form — but Chance’s emotional delivery does. Chance the Rapper is having the time of his life, and it’s a marvel to behold.
2016 has been a banner year for hip-hop, so it’s saying something that in the midst of it all, Coloring Book still sounds like something special. Earlier this year, Kanye proclaimed that gospel music was back by including it on Life of Pablo, and the gospel influences there made for Pablo‘s strongest moments. But here, Chance goes all-in. Gospel isn’t grafted onto Coloring Book — it’s seeping from every verse. This makes it less of a puzzle than Pablo, but more of a cohesive statement.
Joy shouldn’t be mistaken for naivety. Chance isn’t turning a blind eye to the problems facing him or his Chicago home. “Blessings” might be the year’s most jubilant track, but on it, Chance raps that “Jesus’ black life ain’t matter” and muses about wealthy men hurling themselves from the 59th floor. There’s a line between shutting your eyes to societal ills and letting them overwhelm you, and Chance flirts with it. But ultimately, his buoyant attitude seems strengthened by the things he sees — his determination to hope and persevere is made more evident in the face of struggle, not in spite of it.
Sometimes, Chance funnels this positive energy into more conventional tropes, like on “No Problem,” in which he relishes the chance to rub labels’ noses in their much-discussed failure to sign him. To add insult to injury, this song boasts guest verses from 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne — two superstars relegated to orbiting Chance’s sun. It’s a masterful use of potent guests to substantiate your own claims to greatness, and it elevates “No Problem” from a fist-pumping anthem into a career turning point. Chance’s preening ballad, “Juke Jam,” features a tender chorus so delicate and modest, you could be forgiven for not recognizing that it’s being sung by Justin Bieber.
These are calculated moves, but they don’t sound like it. One of the true joys of Coloring Book is how breezy and effortless it all comes across. “Same Drugs” is plaintive and lovely — gifted with a melody so obvious and perfect it’s amazing nobody’s discovered it till now — and you almost miss the meticulousness of the production and the vocal layers that go into making the beats land. “Smoke Break” is Chance’s ode to continuing to make time to smoke weed with your baby’s mama, and it sounds like far more of a trifle than it actually is.
But those are the delicate grace notes to some of the show stoppers. “Blessings,” which already took Fallon by storm. “Angels,” a tour-de-force beat with the most exquisite chorus you could ask from a song in 2016. And where to even begin with “How Great”? If you were raised in the church like myself, you’ve sung this Chris Tomlin anthem so many times you’d thought your brain would turn to mush if you ever heard it again. What fills this cover with so much force? And how did Chance come up with the line “Any petty Peter Pettigrew could get the pesticide”? Only God knows.
It’s all confirmation that Chance is as good as we’d all hoped; the hype is very, very real. It also confirms something else. American politics are in the gutter and, yeah, 2000 years later, black lives still don’t matter the way they ought to. The Toast is shutting down, for crying out loud! Things are bleak.
But Coloring Book has a pulse on the macro perspective and focuses on the particulars of small moments. His daughter, learning to color inside the lines. A moment of peace with the love of your life and some weed hits on the back porch. Simple, Mr. Rogers-esque thoughts like “Everyone is special, this I know is true, when I look at you.”
And, like I said, my wife is fast asleep, here in New Orleans, after a beautiful day of exploring the city. And to talk about how good that makes me feel would sound a little cheesy but then, what beautiful things aren’t?