Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book Is an Ode to Freedom

Chance The Rapper takes his mission of freedom to new heights.

By Jeff Ihaza Jun 3, 2016

The opening minutes to rap albums in 2016 have tremendous standards to live up to. Thanks to Kanye West’s otherworldly album opener ‘Ultra Light Beam’ from his latest record The Life of Pablo, anything short of the literal word of God in the early moments of a record might as well be filler. Chance The Rapper, whose verse on ‘Ultra Light Beam’ landed like a pointedly delivered sermon, managed to take such expectations and turn them into an album. On his free mixtape Coloring Book, Chance creates a body of work whose sole purpose is to stir within its listeners a sense of wonder, and he succeeds mightily.

When Chance announced Coloring Book on The Tonight Show earlier this month, performing the track ‘Blessings’ alongside Jamila Woods and Donnie Trumpet, it was as clear as any point in the rapper’s career that this music serves a higher purpose. The performance felt like watching the most gifted member of the church’s youth choir stand up on stage, delivering their own rendition of a praise song. Chance’s music has long been informed by his Chicago upbringing, painting vignettes of the realities of black life in the city where the church is a centerpiece, while acknowledging the specter of violence looming over black youth at the same time. “Cuz everybody dying in the summer / pray to God for a little more Spring” he rapped on the song ‘Pusha Man / Paranoia’  from 2013’s Acid Rap. As an ambassador to the city, Chance never allows the darkness to take hold. A fierce advocate for public libraries, a doggedly independent artist who spends his energy on efforts to help the city’s homeless, Chance--as he raps on “Blessings”--makes music for freedom.

He might very well change The Grammy awards for the better with Coloring Book, too. The rapper  vowed never to make the record, or any of his music, commercially available, which the Grammys require for consideration. With this latest project, featuring rap music’s heaviest hitters coming to bat for one of the year’s most exciting, inspirational records, a change feels inevitable. Even if Coloring Book was beaten out by Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, its absence from the Grammys would be a blow to the award’s legitimacy. How can an award for music not acknowledge the most important record to come out in years, simply because it’s free on the internet? This comes to a head on Coloring Book’s opening track which, while not quite ‘Ultra Light Beam,’ still shares its components. Kanye West drops in for the refrain of “Music is all we got/ So we might as well give it all we got” and it feels like a mission statement. Throughout the record, where he manages to turn his personal tales of growth, faith, and love into stories about your life, the same way a preacher gives hope to the hopeless with the word of God, it’s more apparent than ever. We need musicians like Chance.

At 23, Chance seldom engages in the braggadocio of hip-hop writ large, but when he wants, as he does on the track ‘Mixtape,’ Chance flexes with honesty, rapping, “How can you call yourself bosses when y’all have so many bosses?” This has always been Chance’s greatest strength, his complete lack of pretense. It’s maddeningly pastiche in hip-hop for rappers to fight, vigorously, about how serious they are about the activities described in their music, mainly accusing other rappers of false claims. Chance skips this line of thought altogether; his music isn’t just describing his life but deconstructing it, laying bare all of its component parts so we, the listeners, can put them together for ourselves. On ‘Summer Friends,’ Chance describes friendships born in the summer, painted by Chicago’s violence, a reality Chance is familiar with, but also fleeting in the way that many relationships during youth are. “Some of my homegirls got lost in the paperwork,”  he raps before lamenting in double entendre, “Fucked up and lost all my friends.

Chance’s contempt for traditional music industry structures is telling. The expectations that fall upon young black artists to be “commercially viable” don’t mesh with Chance’s mission, and breaking that mold by giving the world a free album full of praise songs is both subversive and liberating. With a mission as pure as Chance’s, it’s no wonder he was able to bring on so many of the hottest names in rap for features. On ‘No Problem,’ 2 Chainz delivers what will surely become one of his most classic verses of the last few years, and on ‘Mixtape,’ the ascendant Atlanta rapper Lil Yachty is his most confident. Being around Chance, it seems, makes everyone better. Future even shows up for a codeine-drenched verse on ‘Smoke Break’ that sounds like pre-2015 dominance Future: stripped down and raw.

If you search ‘Same Drugs cry’ on Twitter, you’re met with a regularly growing stream of fans responding to the track ‘Same Drugs.’ It’s one of Chance’s heaviest songs and puts his entire record into perspective. The track finds Chance reminiscing on a past relationship and the chorus “We don’t do the same drugs no more” might be as good a metaphor for watching your friends leave you as there’s ever been. By the end, if your eyes aren’t watery at lines like “You were always perfect / I was only practice,” the choral arrangement will surely get you. When music is free, its context changes significantly. The stories told through songs seem more personal, connecting closer than commodified hits. Music making people cry isn’t new, but on Chance’s latest, you realize that feeling shouldn’t come with a price tag.