Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Chance The Rapper Coloring Book

It probably doesn’t happen the same way for everyone, but there’s this phenomenon, in the moments after your first kid is born, where your whole self suddenly floods with this new form of inner peace. You stop wanting to go out so much. You stop wanting to spend time with anyone outside your family. You just want to spend all available hours at home, marveling at this strange uncharted new course your life has taken, at this weird new little person who now occupies your whole soul. My wife and I have taken to calling it the “bliss bubble.” It’s probably an evolutionary biological thing, something that helps ensure the survival of the species. And it doesn’t last forever. Old stresses creep back in. New stresses emerge. You eventually get to the point where your kids sometimes get on your nerves, where the work required to support these growing human beings can completely overwhelm you. And you spend the rest of your life looking back fondly on the hazy amber glow of those first months of parenthood. You miss them.

Last year, Chance The Rapper’s daughter was born at the same Chicago hospital where my daughter was born six years earlier. Right now, as far as we’re concerned, Chance’s daughter looks like Sia — we can’t see her. Chance isn’t exactly a recluse, but he’s kept the details of his family life private. That’s an exceedingly sane thing for him to do, especially as he seems to get a little bit more famous every month. He slips a few personal details into his lyrics, but that’s really it. Still, I hear that bliss-bubble feeling all over Coloring Book, Chance’s new mixtape, his first real solo statement since he gave us Acid Rap, the tape that made him famous three years ago. And how lucky are we that this new statement happens to coincide with that bliss bubble? Chance was already better at conveying the feeling of joy than almost any other rapper in history. And when you combine that gift with that early-moments-of-parenthood feeling, you get some of the most uplifting music I’ve heard in a long time.

I don’t know Chance, never met him, and I’m really just guessing with all this new-parenthood stuff. But on Coloring Book, I hear Chance going through some of the things I went through when my daughter was born. “Blessings keep falling in my lap,” he quietly crooned, sounding stunned and overwhelmed. There’s gratitude all over Coloring Book, and I think that’s where all the gospel comes in. Gospel has always been a thread in Chance’s music, but right now, it’s taking over. There are a few tracks on Coloring Book, “Blessings” included, that are really just straight-up gospel, with some rapping included. And unlike the year’s other big gospel-rap statement, Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo, Coloring Book’s embrace of gospel is complete and without reservation. With Kanye West, the religious talk can feel forced or conflicted. With Chance, it represents something powerful beyond the simple belief in God. It represents a sense of hope, a recentering. Chance, you can hear, is trying to become a grown-up. He’s trying to make himself better, trying to turn into the father he wants to be. He’s cutting negative things out of his life — “I’m at war with my wrongs.” He’s changing his priorities and feeling good about it.

At the same time, he’s reflecting fondly on his own upbringing — on running around with childhood friends on “Summer Friends” and discovering dancing and girls on “Juke Jam.” He’s thinking about paths less taken; the heart-wrenchingly lovely “Same Drugs” is a bittersweet look at a long-dead relationship, one that uses an extended Peter Pan metaphor to surprisingly moving ends. Whenever he mentions his baby’s mother, he seems stunned by the idea that she’s still in his life: “I know the difference in blessings and worldly possessions / Like my ex-girl getting pregnant and her becoming my everything.” “Smoke Break” never explicitly mentions parenthood, but it’s one of the realest parenthood songs I’ve ever heard: A reminder that the two grown-ups should still be treating themselves right, that they should take the time to smoke some weed when the kid is in bed and they can finally get a moment to themselves. (I cannot possibly overstate how real that struggle is.)

Through all this heavy emotional content, Chance is still a hell of a rapper — dense and energetic and playful and in love with language. Some of the lines he puts together leave my brain reeling. “Any petty Peter Pettigrew can get the pesticide” — that’s an intricately worded snitches-get-stitches threat and a deep Harry Potter reference. On “Mixtape,” he teams up with an on-fire Young Thug and a better-than-I-thought-he’d-be Lil Yachty, trying on an Atlanta cadence and reminding us that he can still talk tough when he needs to. It’s no accident that the track features two other rappers who have released some of the most celebrated mixtapes of the past few months. Throughout, Chance vents his frustration at the label system: “Labels told me to my face that they own my friends.” And he also exalts in his freedom from that system: “How can they call themselves bosses when they got so many bosses? / I get it straight out the faucet.”

Looking at the mixtape’s tracklist, it’s amazing how many famous friends Chance has rounded up to help out on this thing. He must’ve called in every favor he owes; just in the first three tracks, he has Kanye West and Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz, the latter of whom is happy to rap “Run shit like diarrhea” on an ebullient gospel-flavored song. On many guest-heavy albums, the guests can overwhelm things, stripping all attention away from the artist who’s supposed to be at the center of it all. That never happens here. Chance has a sound that belongs entirely to him, and he’s grown expert at plugging these big-name guests into the right parts, letting them serve the song rather than setting up the song to serve them. Kanye is reduced to singing along with a kids’ choir. Jeremih gets a few moments to rhapsodize nostalgically at the end of a song. T-Pain sings gospel. Jay Electronica does booming motivational third-eye spoken-word. And in a moment that must be Chance’s equivalent of Kanye putting Mos Def and Freeway on the same College Dropout song, he lets the Chicago rapper Towkio sing the “Juke Joints” hook, then brings in Justin Bieber to sing backing harmonies. For the few instants that Bieber full-on sings by himself, he sounds like liquid sunshine, but he never takes over the song.

Musically, too, Chance makes willful, personal decisions that no other rapper would consider. “Juke Joints” is a song about dancing, but you can’t dance to it. Instead, it’s a pillowy slow jam with a hook that interpolates R. Kelly’s “Feelin’ On Yo Booty.” “Same Drugs” is a spare, fragile R&B campfire singalong. “Summer Friends” is a glimpse at how that sadly aborted Chance/James Blake collaborative album might’ve sounded. (Remember when those two were going to move in together and make music as a group? And how weird is it that, a week apart from one another, they’ve both released these powerful, all-consuming albums — Blake’s transcendently sad, Chance’s transcendently happy?) There’s music bursting out of every moment on Coloring Book — rushing footwork drums, wailing choirs, churchy organs, rhapsodic horns. Chance sticks almost entirely with his production braintrust, and they’ve given him this melodic, soul-drenched sound that nobody else in rap has right now. And because the tape is so heavily orchestrated, I can’t imagine anyone in rap will even be able to imitate this thing. The one time Chance brings in a big-name outside producer, it’s Kaytranada, for the house banger “All Night.” Even that fits seamlessly into the fabric of the album; it’s too loose and funky and organic to sound like the obligatory club track. (And anyway, house music comes from Chicago; it’s as much at home as all the gospel and footwork.)

As I’m writing this, Coloring Book isn’t even 16 hours old. This is a mixtape that’s built to last, one that many of us will be banging out of open car windows all summer. (I’m already dreading the moment I have to listen to other music.) But thus far, it’s been a nonstop wonder. When you’re a professional music critic, when it becomes your job to render judgement on this stuff, it’s harder to have a piece of music come along and make your day. Coloring Book has made my day. My mood’s been lighter since this morning, since I first hit play on it. That’s how generous Chance has been with his bliss-bubble: He’s blown it up huge enough that the rest of us can fit inside.

Coloring Book is out now.