I live in a co-operative house with around 50 other people, and on any given weeknight, our paths weave in and out of each other’s, most of us absorbed in our own respective routines. People type away in the computer cluster, scrape together meals in the kitchen and pace purposefully through the hallways, friendly but focused on whatever it is that occupies them.
This past Thursday, though, I felt that there was a common thread linking our disparate evenings together. It seemed as if everyone was, quite literally, listening to the same music. Making my way around the house, I heard snatches of the same joyful, distinctive songs – leaking from my roommate’s headphones, thumping through the wall from the room next door, swelling from speakers in the breakfast room. As distinct from one another as we are, a single mixtape – Chance the Rapper’s much-anticipated “Coloring Book” – had put us all on a common, blissful wavelength.
There’s really no better way to capture the magic of this project, released May 12 – overflowing with honesty and joy, impressive in both stylistic breadth and integrity, it compels its listeners to stop whatever they’re doing and come together to appreciate a remarkable musical achievement. Chance, a 23-year-old native Chicagoan who rose to prominence with his 2013 record “Acid Rap,” has been building momentum for awhile now – “Surf,” a 2015 collaboration with his talent-packed Social Experiment collective, drew considerable acclaim, and his contributions to Kanye West’s “Life of Pablo” constituted some of that album’s finest moments. Those efforts, especially the effusive gospel tracks Chance contributed to Pablo, were a fitting prelude to “Coloring Book,” which bubbles with the same tendency towards praise.
Though much of “Coloring Book” is an unapologetic love letter to God himself, Chance’s specialty is the gospel of everyday life – illuminating the sacred in roller-rink romance, summer evenings on 79th Street, and a much-needed smoke break, he bears witness to every shade of elation. He certainly gives the heavier stuff its due, lamenting the inordinate amount of “angels” that have resulted from street violence in Chicago and making reference to his own struggles with prescription drug dependence. Though treated seriously, these themes are balanced by a remarkable capacity for wonder, a mature tendency towards gratitude that makes it hard to believe that Chance is only 23. His optimistic frame of reference, especially evident on tracks like “Blessings,” is a welcome counterweight to the millennial angst and self-absorption we’ve come to expect from voices of his cohort. Chance raps and sings with a perspective beyond his years.
What’s more, his talents at production and rhyming – complemented by a deep lineup of collaborators including Saba, Noname Gypsy and Jeremih – rival those of artists many years his senior. The joy and clarity evident in his witty, sincere lyrics is paralleled by a distinct sound profile that vibrates its way into muscle and bone. It’s hard to sit still when you’re listening to Chance – slick trumpet passages like those found on “Angels” seem made to conjure ecstatic movement.
Even slower jams like “Smoke Break”, anchored by a sinuous synth line and a surprisingly tolerable guest appearance by Future, are impossible not to nod your head to. More so here than in many of his earlier releases, he makes some stylistic swerves – on the cool-and-collected “Mixtape,” he dabbles in trap, and “All Night,” a pulsing, celebratory ode to drinking, features touches of house, thanks to esteemed producer Kaytranada. These forays between genres are welcome, tempering the rich, soul-saturated gospel sounds that characterize much of the album. Though he’s found a formula that works, Chance has developed the artistic bandwidth to take risks. On “Coloring Book,” they largely pay off.
The only criticism I’ve really heard from those who otherwise love “Coloring Book” is that, despite its excellence from a musical perspective, it’s not quite as emotionally accessible, not as raw or immediate as his previous work. Chance has grown up immeasurably, and the sense of enlightenment that pervades this particular release might feel a little foreign to those who have connected most with him in the past – specifically, a younger cohort still mired in the gritty, psychedelic, self-searching confusion that he so beautifully captured in “Acid Rap.” In other words, listeners who are still looking for meaning and direction might not have much patience for an album saturated by the joy and wonder of an artist who’s finally found his way.
But this doesn’t make “Coloring Book” any less of a profound musical achievement. This is a record of striking talent and thoughtfulness by an artist with ability and insight beyond his 23 years. Even for fans who miss the restless, rebellious Chance we heard on “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” “Coloring Book” is more than a worthwhile listen. If you’re not in a place to fully accept the gospel-like insight he imparts in his lyrics, take the music for what it is — a work of infectious joy with the rare capability to bring people together, to add melodic color to the monotony of everyday life.
Contact Clare Flanagan at ckflan ‘at’ stanford.edu.