How Good is Chance the Rapper's Coloring Book?
Earlier this year Kanye West promised us a gospel album with his seventh solo release The Life of Pablo. It seemed completely out of left field—gospel music from him? The guy whose last album title was a portmanteau of his own name and "Jesus?" The guy who made a song called "I Am A God?" It turned out it was indeed too good to be true; Pablo ended up being Kanye's version of The Beatles' disjointed "White Album," sounding like he dumped all his favorite styles into a blender and forgot to turn the blender on. Gospel influences bleed through from time to time, especially on the intro, but as a whole it's too entropic to be referred to as gospel, or any other subgenre for that matter. The Life of Pablo is an anti-concept album. Kanye fans like myself made peace with what we got, but we secretly lamented the gospel-rap subgenre that we'd never hear fully realized. Then, only a few months later, Chance the Rapper followed through on Kanye's promise with his third mixtape Coloring Book.
Ever since his breakthrough mixtape Acid Rap, Chance has been on my short list to become the first great rapper since Kendrick Lamar's rise to stardom. After three years of waiting, he's finally released the official followup to Acid Rap, and the hip-hop community has been swooning ever since. Coloring Book is the first fully-fleshed-out gospel-rap album, but that's not the only reason it's a landmark mixtape. Just this week it made history as the first project to ever chart on the Billboard 200 solely from streaming, without selling a single copy (Chance prides himself on releasing his music for free, something he can get away with because he still hasn't signed with a record label despite his fame). Not only that, but it debuted at number 8 with a staggering 57.3 million streams in its first week. The mixtape currently has a score of 91 on Metacritic, and hasn't received a single negative or even mixed review from a major critic. To put that in perspective, a score of 100 indicates a perfect rating from every single critic, and albums scoring in the 90s only occur once in a blue moon. 91 is the same high score as Kendrick Lamar's major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city.
All this praise is falling into the lap of a deserving artist, and Chance has created another great mixtape with Coloring Book. But is his latest project that great? I would argue it's not. Albums like good kid have led a lot of us to take the notion of "instant classics" for granted, so much so that when an album is released that's "good enough," we're too quick to paint it as untouchable—and Coloring Book definitely isn't perfect. Some of its flaws are just irksome: the intro's chorus doesn't sound properly mixed, and there are two unrelated tracks that inexplicably have the same title (it's nothing more than an annoyance, but there's still no reason the second "Blessings" couldn't have been titled "Are You Ready" to avoid confusion).
But there are larger missteps too. The featured artists don't always live up to the bar Chance sets. 2 Chainz is out of his element on a mixtape that spends more time praising God than worshipping big booties. To his credit he tries to uphold Coloring Book's religious tone, but it's hard to take him seriously when he talks about dapping with God only a few bars after claiming to "run shit like diarrhea." Meanwhile Lil Yachty's guest verse on "Mixtape" is cringeworthy—in fact, "Mixtape" should have been cut from the project entirely. Chance went to great lengths to create a gospel-rap album—Coloring Book is packed with church choirs and prayers—but the centerpiece "Mixtape" is a whiny, brooding tangent about how nobody cares about mixtapes anymore. Regardless of whether you like the track or not (I don't), it sticks out like a sore thumb and detracts from the project's consistent tone. "Mixtape" would have made more sense as a promotional single instead of a cut on the mixtape itself.
Despite the imperfections, Coloring Book is still a triumph, and offers some of the loveliest music of Chance's career. He's evolved a lot since the drug references of Acid Rap, something that's most noticeable on "Same Drugs." The song isn't about drugs at all; it's an extended metaphor for parting ways and growing apart from someone (or something) you love. "Same Drugs" layers several meanings in its lyrics, and its Peter Pan allusions can be interpreted as being about an old habit, a woman, or even his hometown Chicago (it wouldn't be the first time a rapper's personified the Windy City as a woman named Wendy). "Smoke Break" somehow combines the mixtape's most disparate elements seamlessly into a single recording; Chance's voice sounds surprisingly natural with its mild autotune as he sings over a velvety beat of fat west coast bass lines, smooth synths, and pizzicato strings. "Finish Line" encapsulates his danceable exuberance without compromising the mixtape's liturgical tone. Even amidst dense choirs, he raps some of his best verses yet on "How Great" and "Blessings" (the second one).
Coloring Book is the biggest triumph of Chance's career thus far. He even predicted its success with uncanny accuracy in his guest verse on Kanye's The Life of Pablo: "[Kanye] said 'let's do a good ass job with Chance 3 / I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy / let's make it so free and the bars so hard that it ain't one gosh darn part you can't tweet.'" The line about the Grammys is referencing the award show's refusal to nominate albums that have been released for free—and since the release of Coloring Book, a petition to allow free music to be eligible for Grammy nominations has almost reached its goal of 35,000 signatures. Meanwhile, it turns out Chance was right about there not being "one gosh darn part you can't tweet" as well: in less than five days, fans had tweeted every single lyric from Coloring Book, which is pretty damn impressive.
Aside from all its little defects, the real reason Coloring Book doesn't feel like an "instant classic" is because Chance is too content living in Kanye West's shadow. On good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick distinguished himself from his mentor Dr. Dre. Conversely, Coloring Book paints Chance as just another follower of the Church of West. The mixtape opens with a Kanye feature and closes with a Kanye reference ("Kanye's best prodigy / he ain't sign me but he proud of me"). Many of the soul vocal samples are reminiscent of early Kanye West circa College Dropout and Late Registration. The entire gospel-rap concept is just a better execution of an idea Kanye came up with. The only truly "gospel" track of Kanye's album Pablo features Chance and the gospel musician Kirk Franklin—and who has a prominent, climactic guest spot on Coloring Book? You guessed it, Kirk Franklin. That's the irony: Chance can beat Kanye at his own game, but Kanye still ends up winning because Chance agreed to play it instead of carving out his own path. Coloring Book is undeniably a great mixtape, but until Chance addresses some of its inconsistencies, we won't get a "classic" album from him. That seems to be what critics forgot when they wrote their reviews. You can still love an album and acknowledge where there's room for improvement. Chance's third mixtape doesn't live up to the potential I saw in him when I first heard Acid Rap, but that doesn't mean he's hit his ceiling. I just hope the unanimous gushing praise for Coloring Book doesn't cause him to grow complacent and stop honing his craft.