Chicago’s Chance the Rapper just released 2016’s richest hip-hop album. Though Kanye said The Life of Pablo was a gospel album, Coloring Book delivers on that promise in much more than fits and spurts. Gospel choirs are the backbone of the LP, rocketing heavenward in the background the same way soul samples did on Kanye records, James Brown breaks did on Public Enemy records or disco interpolations did in the Sugar Hill catalog. Reaching back to the very beginning of black music in America, Chance recontextualizes one of the most enduring African-American art forms for 2016’s most urgent one.
Coloring Book comes at a time when the biggest rap and R&B stars are looking deep into African-American heritage, a trend that’s perhaps unsurprising in a country where policemen regularly get away with murder, a presidential candidate refuses to disown the KKK and the water is poisoned. On their recent albums, Dr. Dre and Vince Staples revived Nineties gangsta rap, Kendrick Lamar searched for the spiritual core of To Pimp a Butterfly in Seventies jazz, Beyoncé sampled Forties prison songs on Lemonade and now Chance the Rapper finds freedom in gospel music that goes back centuries.
There is no shortage of direct praise to God in Chance’s lyrics — think West’s “Jesus Walks,” but without the core of Yeezian frustration. But most everything here seems to take on a spiritual hue: Even though “No Problem” is full of industry-bucking threats (“If one more label try to stop me/It’s gon’ be some dreadhead niggas in your lobby”), Chance is too busy milly-rocking over his blessings. He can paint a vivid picture of growing up in his beleaguered Chicago (“Bunch of tank-top, nappy-headed, bike-stealing Chatham boys/None of my niggas ain’t had no dad/None of my niggas ain’t have no choice”), but New York alt-soul songwriter Francis and the Lights testifies through a vocoder and a prayer is given during the bridge, lending a bluesy dirge an aura of warmth and hopefulness. D.R.A.M., the man behind the giddy viral hit “Cha Cha,” comes by for a beautiful interlude somewhere between Sly Stone and Animal Collective with the chorus “Everyone is special.”
While gospel icon Kirk Franklin plays hypeman, a choir sings one of the most important lines on the album: “Take me to your mountain/So someday Chicago will be free.” Chance reports live from Chicago, a city with nearly 500 homicides last year and the real and terrifying possibility that local government tried to cover up the police shooting of black teenager Laquan MacDonald. Chance’s hope for salvation is obviously not limited to himself, and he opens the doors to his city in many ways. “Angels” speaks for a desire to “Clean up the streets, so my daughter can have somewhere to play,” “Blessings” states “I don’t make songs for free, I make ’em for freedom.” Even though “Juke Jam” speaks to more earthly pleasures (a slow song about fast dancing), he still shouts out regional music styles and interpolates Chi’s own R. Kelly. Similarly, an ode to drinking, “All Night,” reaches back to Chicago house — a Saturday night celebration before the Sunday morning church service of “How Great.”
And, as a rapper, Chance is everything we love about hip-hop in 2016. The convoluted and conscious-minded bars of Kendrick Lamar, the melodic gymnastics of Young Thug, the Oculus Rift ambitions of Kanye West. He’s indebted to no record label on Earth, using the mixtape grind of Future and Lil Wayne to turn the ambitious rhymer into the most famous unsigned artist in America this side of Keyboard Cat.
Mixing American music at its most vintage, today’s most cutting-edge rhyming and the emotional vocoder music that symbolizes our future, this lush, powerful album attempts to move hip-hop past Planet Rock and into the Heavens.