Mixtape Review: ‘Coloring Book’ – Chance The Rapper

The boy from 79th brings us the gospel music we’ve been waiting for


Chancellor Bennett, known most commonly by his stage name Chance The Rapper, has slowly but surely proven himself to be a worthy contender with the ‘big dogs’ of the hip-hop game ever since the release of his highly acclaimed mixtape ‘Acid Rap‘ way back in 2013. Since then, his name along with his music have conjured such a buzz that people have more than often cited him as worthy to sit beside modern greats like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and even Kanye. Whether it be touring, releasing projects alongside The Social Experiment or dropping some stellar feature verses, this label-free, independent Chicagoan has been feeding the flames of excitement long enough for his third solo mixtape. Rightly so too, as ‘Coloring Book‘ might just be the biggest release in hip-hop this year that isn’t tied to a label. 

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Keeping up with his previous tapes, the cover art pictures the MC alone in a kaleidoscopic universe.

It’s surely a testament to Chance’s ability (and perhaps the power of SoundCloud) that he is yet to release a commercial project or sign his name away to one of the many hip-hop labels, yet can still find himself compared to the living legends that ‘run’ the game today. Sure, he’s dabbled in the mainstream from time to time with features on songs with the likes of Justin Bieber and Tinashe, but he’s yet to release a definitive ‘album’ to introduce himself to the commercial world. It’s only fitting then that the track that was released hours before the full tape was dropped was ‘No Problem‘, one that addresses this very issue. Chance opens with the lines “If one more label try to stop me, it’s gon’ be some dreadhead niggas in ya lobby” and if that isn’t showing his dislike for them, I don’t know what is. The song isn’t some cold-hearted diss to the labels however, as the instrumental shows. A blend of these powerful, sampled choral vocals and a simple percussion line provides more than enough energy for Chance and the two ‘dreadheads’ (Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz) he’s employed for the features to add the rap component to this gospel anthem, all 3 coming through with solid verses. The track is an ideal overture for the mixtape, one which would tackle the challenging task of infusing hip-hop, R&B and Chance’s Christian side with gospel sound.

It’s a tough act to keep up, because (as you’d imagine) all these respective genres encompass generally opposing values, and blending them into one project is a big ask. The mixtape often shifts from one to another, epitomised by the track ‘Mixtape‘ and its follow-up ‘Angels‘. The first is (by a country mile) the weakest on the tracklist; a bland, mediocre trap beat that would hold weight on any one else’s project, but doesn’t do Chance any favours here. The two features, Young Thug and Lil Yachty (although I rate neither) both show they’re more adept when it comes to this sort of sound, juxtaposing Chance’s lack of energy with their own personalities; Thugger himself coming through with his ever-beautiful wordplay; “I came from the sewers, they love all the slime ball“. ‘Angels‘ thankfully supersedes all of the previous shortcomings with enough energy to power all of the flips he’s got his city doing. The instrumental is brimming with horn licks and bright organ sounds (even throwing some steel drums in with the hook), setting itself up as both a dance track and an ode to his city. In fact, Chano is at his most inspiring here lyrically, professing that “I got my city doing front flips, when every father, mayor, rapper jump ship, I guess that’s why they call it where I stay, clean up the streets so my daughter can have somewhere to play“. It’s a much more refreshing and upbeat take on the windy city rather than the usual ‘Chiraq‘ description you hear.

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I’m in love with my city bitch I sleep in my hat

If he had the choice, I sense that Chance would (nowadays) much rather produce a humane, soulful track than anything that you could bump in you car. Most of what can be found on ‘Coloring Book’ is pretty low-key when compared to most of the hip-hop tracks found in the charts today. The track ‘Same Drugs‘ may come to the more seasoned Chance fans as a spiritual sequel to ‘Lost‘ (found on Acid Rap), a tale of how him and his childhood love grew apart due to their change in interests, not just their use of narcotics. He brilliantly uses the analogy of Peter Pan and Wendy to represent this relationship, frequently alluding to the 90’s movie ‘Hook‘ and how the both of them have lost the ability to be imaginative and ‘fly’ as they grew up, regretting how they’ve grown apart over time; “I was too late, I was too late, a shadow of what I once was“. It’s a wonderful piece of retrospective soul, Chance himself incorporating both his signature raspy-voiced singing and his rapping over a delicate piano and string sections throughout. It’s much of the same story with the track ‘Summer Friends‘, one where he reflects on growing up in West Chatham and the violence it inhabited being all he knew; especially with the spike of crime in the summer leading to the sudden deaths of friends. Jeremih also hops on the cut for a wonderful outro, highlighting how hard it would be to lose a friend to the summer; “When I was so young before I could remember, I would always treat my gang like family members“.

Then of course there are the times when the record goes all out on its gospel attributes. The track ‘Blessings‘ is charming in its instrumental simplicity and its hook “When the praises go up, the blessings come down”, managing to embody the charisma of a typical Chance tune while maintaining the spirit required for its subject matter. Further down the track list you get the song ‘How Great‘  which features a fully fledged gospel choir for the first half of its over-5-minute runtime (plus one of the feature verses of the year from Jay Electronica in the second). When it eventually ditches the choir for the introduction of a host of heavy kicks and this warm, inviting melody; it perfectly sets up Chance to spit some of the most memorable lines on tape. Paired with production from The Social Experiment he’s lyrically untouchable here: “Shabach barak, edify, electrify the enemy like Hedwig till he petrified, any petty Peter Petigrew could get the pesticide, 79th, 79th, I don’t believe in science, I believe in signs“. And I can’t mention gospel influences without mentioning the dual-track ‘Finish Line / Drown‘, comprised of the most extensive list of features on the tape. From T-Pain to Noname to Kirk Franklin the track is an amalgamation of artists from different aspects of hip-hop and it works so well to create a two-part epic that delivers both a soul-filled, choir-driven anthem alongside a low-key, slower and deeper cut.

Where the album falters is not actually in its content and character (for the most part), but in its mixing. The opening track ‘All We Got‘ is aesthetically brilliant, its crisp snares complimenting the horns and the vocals well, with Chance pinning his best flow onto the beat while professing he “might give satan a swirlie“. It’s a loveable track for the most part, but loses its credibility with the strange addition from Kanye West, who sounds way too overpowering  with his vocals (which in turn sound way too nasal-y and mumbled). It’s the same mistake that carries over from the last project he was involved in, The Social Experiment’s ‘Surf‘, and it’s saddening to see it come up again here.

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Chance and Kanye have worked together a lot both on ‘The Life of Pablo‘ and ‘Coloring Book‘ this past year.

Though this drawback is not nearly as frequently found here as it is on ‘Surf‘, it still manages to find itself letting down one other song on the tape. ‘Smoke Break‘ is a more upbeat trap-influenced cut, incorporating rolling hi-hats and blending them with drawn-out synths and plucked strings for great effect. Both Chance and Future impress here, keeping up a typical auto tune flow with a typical narrative (smoking, flexing etc.). Except when you listen to this track, you’ll find yourself profusely turning up the volume just so you can hear their vocals that just aren’t mixed right to the instrumental. Future himself seems to fade out as he slurs through his verse, meaning one of the more energetic cuts on the tape falls short of its massive potential.

Despite its disappointing technical issues, ‘Coloring Book‘ still shapes up to be one of the more soulful releases so far this year. Nowhere is this found more than in the final track; ‘Blessings‘ (the reprise). It didn’t take long for it to become my new favourite song from the Chicagoan, pairing his spoken word cadence with a enticingly simple melody made up of some pitch-shifted vocal samples. The lyrics are clean cut from a bible that College Dropout-Kanye wrote, Chano addressing his rise to success with imagery that matches that of the good book itself: “I speak of promised lands, soil as soft as momma’s hands, running water, standing still, endless fields of daffodils and chamomile“. Following this stellar verse is one of the most well-crafted and feel-good outros to a record I’ve heard in a long time; a choir section made up of Ty Dolla $ign, BJ The Chicago Kid, Anderson .Paak, Raury, Nico Segal, & Chance himself. The ensemble truly take you to church as they welcome you with cries of “Are you ready for your blessings? Are you ready for your miracle?” and for want of a better word; it’s glorious. It’s not just a happy church tune that even your grandma could get up and clap her hands to, it represents the very essence of ‘Coloring Book’, the feeling of complete faith and self-harmony, every good Sunday you’ve ever had; rolled into a song.

 

Verdict

Coloring Book‘ is hard to explain to hip-hop fan. It embodies so many different aspects of the genre that you can’t recommend it to just one kind of fan, but I suppose that’s what the tape sets out to do, both in name and execution. Taking influence from a host of different roots that outline the basic foundation of his music, Chance himself ‘colours’ it in with his own touch of soul and charming charisma. Just like with ‘Acid Rap‘, he doesn’t tie himself down to one sound, using his fondness of hip-hop, gospel, jazz, trap and even house music to find his own expression. It’s saddening to see that the technical drawbacks remain inside the studio, because the content itself is pushing the genre in ways that not a lot of other artists are. Chance personifies both rapper and pastor in this mixtape, showcasing his growth and prowess as an independent artist that’s staggering to witness and listen to. This is that feel-good music, no matter what you believe in.

Highlights: No Problem, How Great, (both) Blessings, Finish Line / Drown, Same Drugs

(with mixing issues)

8/10

(if they get fixed)

9/10

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