Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Chance The Rapper The Big Day

The Big Day is not a disaster. Instead, Chance The Rapper’s supposed debut album is merely a big shrug, a general sigh of disappointment. It’s a tedious album of little consequence, a clear sign of a gradual slide. It’s Reflektor. It’s The Eminem Show. It’s First Impressions Of Earth. It’s that one Todd Solondz soundtrack that Belle & Sebastian did. It’s the album where, when Chance is on tour four or five years from now, he’ll only be tossing in a couple of tracks from the setlist. It’s a big deflation.

Things would be so much better better if it was a disaster. Things would be better for us, the listening public, if The Big Day was an obviously rank shitheap, a fuckup of epic proportions. Disasters, after all, are fun. We need the occasional grand-scale fuckup — Rebirth, St. Anger, Never Let Me Down. They make life more interesting. And they also set the stage for recalibration. A disaster would’ve probably been better for Chance, too. It might’ve given him the chance to reset, to change his own narrative. Instead, The Big Day will just curdle everything. Close your eyes, and you can just see Chance passive-aggressively tweeting about the critics who were out to get him, or the thinkpieces about how The Big Day was an underrated album that was the victim of an inevitable backlash.

Chance The Rapper should not be capable of making a mediocre trudge of an album like this. Even from the beginning, Chance danced on the line between brilliance and catastrophe. He rapped in a strained singsong yammercroak, a hyperactive smart-kid motormouth blurt. He annoyed the hell out of a whole lot of people, many of whom later went on to decide that he was great after all. He took risks, and the risks more than paid off. Chance’s exuberantly ADD style welded gospel to juke to backpack-rap to kids’ cartoon themes, always leaving the seams showing, always using this restless scatterthump to get his tremendous personality across. Chance was always a clear disciple of both Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, and he learned the exact right lessons from both of them — unembarrassed heart-on-sleeve oversharing honesty and confident aesthetic dabble-happiness from Kanye, zoom-zoom alien-voice syntax and relentless soul-searching from Kendrick. He took those ingredients and made himself, however briefly, a legend.

I will always remember the feeling of seeing Chance at the 2015 Pitchfork Festival — a triumphant conquering hero returning home, putting on one hell of a show for a field full of Chicago kids who knew every word to every mixtape deep cut and who were happy to shout those words back at the man. That’s still maybe the best headlining festival performance I’ve ever seen. It was a transcendently moving spectacle, and it made it pretty clear that Chance was already a star. The next year, the rest of the world caught up to that. 2016’s Coloring Book was a virtuosic leveling-up, a cresting of a moment that started with Chance’s verse on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam.” Soon after, Chance was dropping by the White House and hosting SNL. He went from likable underdog to mainstream conquerer so quickly that nobody knew what to do with it.

Chance was always a singular artist out to make his own context, but Coloring Book fit nicely into its aesthetic moment. His warped crackle-sing jibed nicely with what Atlanta vanguards like Future and Young Thug were doing, and when both of them showed up on Coloring Book, they made sense. Coloring Book fit the cultural moment, too — the dim afterglow at the end of the Obama era, when it seemed like people were at least working toward some idea of a better future. But then the world got dark — dark enough that, a few years later, the new-dad contentment that radiates off of Coloring Book is tough to revisit. Rap turned dark, too. If Chance noticed, he didn’t let on. Instead, he spent the next few years dropping underwhelming single-service tracks and headlining the sorts of festivals that get cancelled for low ticket sales.

The Big Day is rap’s first real album-event of 2019. Chance is the first major star to step up and offer something like an opus. And he sounds almost painfully out of step. The album includes a few contributions from of-the-moment rap producers — Pi’erre Bourne, Murda Beatz — but Chance mostly stays within his comfort zone, working with the Social Experiment guys who brought him to the dance. The music is bright and flat and weightless. Chance is still attempting the same kind of cinematic helium-soul that Kanye West was sick of making a decade ago. Even the left turns — the one house track, the one juke track — are the same left turns that Chance has been making for his entire career. Musically, it’s an album without ideas. Chance doesn’t engage with the music of 2019, and he doesn’t refresh his own sound, either. He’s spinning his wheels, and those tires are getting bare.

The list of guests who appears on The Big Day is both fascinating and misbegotten. Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard emotes inertly on “Do You Remember,” a truly perplexing attempt to revive the sound of the Garden State soundtrack. CocoRosie do a few seconds of circa-’05 indie-girl voice on “Roo,” and they sound like they’re making fun of themselves. (Randy Newman fares better on “5 Year Plan,” mostly because he seems to float happily and aimlessly through it on some proud-uncle shit.)

Meanwhile, relevant rappers line up to dunk on Chance. Megan Thee Stallion outraps Chance. DaBaby raps circles around Chance. Nicki Minaj, who has been having a rough few years, utterly obliterates Chance twice. Chance’s own brother outshines Chance so mercilessly — “This shit deeper than music, I got PTS for life / So if you do production, just make sure the drums right / The independent Bennetts will never need your advice” — that it leaves me picturing uncomfortable family gatherings. Almost every time another rapper shows up, it’s a feeding frenzy.

Most of those noisy, attention-grabbing collaborations are miscalculations. Chance clearly wants The Big Day to be a personal, intimate album, and all those big names take away from that. Sometimes, though, Chance succeeds anyway. There’s a narrative to the album. Chance is married now, and he’s discovered happiness in maturity. He raps with admirable candor about the infidelities that led up to his finally popping the question to his baby’s mother, and he’s not afraid to make himself sound pathetic: “I tried to do the single-dad mingle-dance / At the club with the iron in my wrinkled pants.” Over and over, he describes his wife with something like awe. And he gets into things like his own death, asking future generations to please not make holograms of him. (Imagine having to be concerned about this.)

Sometimes, Chance brings back that old eloquence to describe his new circumstances. Although still releasing his music independently, he’s part of the corporate music ecosystem now, and he’s pretty clearly not fully comfortable in it: “The labels get straight frantic / Their boiler rooms like like eight Channing Tatums and a Peyton Manning.” And he also talks about why he joined that world: “They don’t take teenage angst at no banks.” In flashes, it’s possible to hear why Chance mattered in the first place.

More often, though, Chance trips all over himself, piling on too many vocal affectations and too many forced pop-culture references: “I got muscles like Superman’s trainer / Real real rare like Super Saiyan manga.” His punchlines land like wet farts: “I need stock, and it gotta be Pippi Long / Can’t stop, won’t stop bopping like Diddy’s song / My text tour, it got eight legs like daddy long.” He says “you look like Mick Jagger” like that’s some kind of burn. He lets out so many yaaaaaahs on “Get A Bag” that he reminds me of the character Casey Wilson played on Happy Endings. (A fellow Chicago icon, I guess.) He offers this up to the almighty: “Anything you gave to me, I know it’s right for my brand” — the first personal-branding prayer I’ve ever encountered. He rhymes “U-God” with “you, God.” It’s rough.

As a rapper, The Big Day marks the moment where Chance’s whole style crosses over into schtick. It happens. When rappers find stardom with giddy playfulness, that looseness eventually ossifies. The punchlines keep coming, but there’s less behind them. If the rapper in question doesn’t find some way to develop, to shift tracks, all those once-delightful party tricks stop working. It happened with Eminem. It happened with Ludacris. It happened with Busta Rhymes. It happened with Nicki Minaj. And it’s happening with Chance.

Chance hasn’t noticed. The Big Day is overlong to a numbing, stultifying degree — 22 tracks, including a bunch of skits, in 72 minutes. This isn’t a case of a rapper padding out a tracklist to scrounge for more streams. Or at least I don’t think it is. Instead, it plays more as a story of vanity and ambition and folly. Rap albums are almost never that long anymore. But Chance wants to make Late Registration. Nobody could make Late Registration in 2019. Maybe it’s noble that he tried. But it doesn’t work.

There are strong moments on The Big Day — enough strong moments, maybe, that Chance could’ve culled it down to a pretty good and relatively sane 10-song LP. Relationship songs like “We Go High” and the title track are elegant and forthright and pretty. The house jam “Ballin Flossin” is a lot of fun, even if Shawn Mendes flexes a whole lot more star charisma on the track than Chance does. It’s fun to hear Chance and his brother Taylor Bennett go back and forth on “Roo.” Chance brings in some of the greats of ’90s R&B — En Vogue on “I Got You (Always And Forever),” SWV on “Found A Good One (Single No More)” — to add a sense of joyous, breezy, effortless lift. Some of the hooks stick. Some of the orchestral flourishes add real grandeur.

There’s enough good stuff on The Big Day that you might question your own disappointment. After all, isn’t Chance doing what he’s always done? Isn’t he working from the same playbook that had him anointed as the chosen one a few short years ago? Isn’t he bringing the same melodic richness and silly exuberance to his version of rap music? Well, yes. He’s doing all that. If you’re going to look at reviews like this one as evidence of a cynical backlash — as a reaction against the hosannas that greeted Coloring Book — then you can find plenty of ammunition. Maybe the songs on The Big Day will stick around and reveal themselves over time. But all I can tell you is how I feel.

When I got done listening to Acid Rap for the first time, I felt alive — like I was seeing a whole new thing happen in front of me. When I first finished Coloring Book, I was absolutely glowing. And listening to The Big Day, I’m tired numb and defeated. I’m bored. You never want that. That’s the worst thing that could happen. The Big Day isn’t a disaster. It’s worse. Disasters, at the very least, are not boring.

The Big Day is out now.