Before there were the likes of Common, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco and Chance The Rapper, the South Side of Chicago was home to Black artist and activist Pastor T.L. Barrett. Barrett worked with the Chicago Youth Choir in 1971 to release “Like A Ship Without a Sail” — a gospel/soul classic that encapsulated an intense commitment to revitalizing the South Side and keeping kids off the streets. Over 40 years later, Barrett’s work continues to influence the various artists and activists coming out of Chicago today. While it seems much of the music coming out of the city aims to burn Chicago to the ground, artists like Chance The Rapper and Kanye West have recently undergone noticeable shifts towards a more religiously-charged sound, channeling the influences of their faith and relationship with a higher power as vehicles of betterment for their communities.
Like Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, Chance’s Coloring Book is arguably an unorthodox “gospel album,” yet its message is accessible regardless of personal denomination. The album is an exaltation of the simpler things: “Don’t forget the happy thoughts.” Though much of Coloring Book feels like “Ultralight Beam: The Album,” the project is unmistakably Chance’s; his fingerprints are all over the details of each song, like the perfectly arranged trumpet harmonies and trademark ad libs. Choir vocals, belting in unison, are a fixed presence throughout, and both ‘Ye and Kirk Franklin make their respective appearances.
The intro, “All We Got,” has both shades of early-2000s backpack-rap and elements of soul, blended with muffled Kanye vocals and synths. This time, Chance doesn’t have to cede the limelight, and he uses the opportunity to spread those nice, warm, fuzzy feelings. It’s the type of unfiltered ecstasy that can’t be faked; you hear it when the horns kick in and his vocals go up a register: “Man I swear my life is perfect, I could merch it / If I died I’d probably cry at my own service!” The song closes out with backing vocals from the Chicago Youth Choir, essentially picking up where Pastor Barrett left off. This is music for the kids who need it most.
The video for “Angels” features Chance literally flying around Chicago like a superhero, “cleaning up the streets” so his “daughter can have a place to play.” I imagine this is what it would have looked like if Barrett had Internet access in 1971. The birth of Chance’s daughter seems to have triggered a certain maturity and level-headedness that allows him to be a representative of his community — the type of “famous rapper” that brags about having the same phone number since seventh grade. He shows a shocking amount of self-awareness, even “threatening” to make music with Chief Keef. He’s comfortably the biggest independent artist in hip hop right now. He can do what he wants.
Part of what makes Coloring Book such a special album is it’s exactly what Chance intended to make; there are no gimmicky Drake features or product placements. As the music industry (and specifically hip-hop culture) become increasingly corporate and gentrified, songs like “No Problem” celebrate the possibilities of authentic, independent music: “If one more label try to stop me, it’s gon be some dreadhead n****s in ya lobby.” 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne also make notable appearances on the back of their Collegrove collaboration. Tity Boi delivers his inevitably hilarious verse, channeling the Most High by being just plain high (“Man I’m so high, me and God dappin”). The whole song is driven by frenzied gospel samples, sliced and mixed unpredictably without ever settling in place.
Chance has a knack for weaving between heavy and playful topics, and this is what makes him more of an MC than a pastor. Earlier this year, he signed a petition to have free music considered for the Grammys, and on Coloring Book he’s dedicated an entire track to mixtapes: a sacred, and — more importantly — free outlet for listening to some genre-defining projects. This one’s for the fans who have ruined perfectly good computers by digging too deep on Datpiff. Mixtape-god Young Thug and fellow Atlanta weirdo Lil Yachty trade verses, while Chance showcases his lyrical dexterity with a surprising triplet flow. “Mixtape” and other album cuts like “All Night” are nice breaks from the intermittent sermons, showing Chance can make “hits” when he feels like it.
Much of the early dialogue surrounding the album has been characterized by a disdain for the religious cuts and an adoration of the more accessible tracks. Most hip-hop heads probably scoffed when they saw the track title “Blessings” was important enough to appear twice on the same album; I can only imagine how many eyes rolled when “How Great” kicked off with 3 straight minutes of isolated choir vocals.
It feels like the profession of being an artist can be reduced to letting the world in on your personal development. Some overcome their adversities and impart elation onto listeners through music, and others let us wallow with them in the misery of defeat. It doesn’t matter if you attribute the peaks and troughs of your life to a higher power, your own series of calculated decisions or plain old luck. If music is to be our soundtrack, through its ups and downs, Coloring Book is a reminder that shit is going to be alright, regardless of your personal belief system. Isn’t that something we’d all like to believe in?