Kanye West called The Life of Pablo a gospel album. But the new mixtape-LP from fellow Chicagoan Chance the Rapper (who had a major appearance on TLOP’s “Ultralight Beam”) truly lives up to that promise. Coloring Book is the richest hip hop album of 2016 so far. Gospel choirs are the backbone of the LP, rocketing skyward in the background the same way soul samples did on Kanye records, James Brown breaks did on Public Enemy records or disco interpolations did in the Sugar Hill catalog. Reaching back to the very beginning of black music in America, Chance recontextualizes one of the most enduring African-American art forms for 2016’s most urgent one.
Coloring Book comes at a time when the biggest rap and R&B stars are looking deep into their musical and cultural heritage, a trend that’s perhaps unsurprising in a country where policemen regularly get away with murder, a presidential candidate refuses to disown the KKK and the water in many American cities is poison. Most everything on Coloring Book seems to take on a spiritual hue: Even though “No Problem” is full of industry-bucking threats (“If one more label try to stop me/It’s gon’ be some dreadhead niggas in your lobby”), Chance is too busy milly-rocking over his blessings. He can paint a vivid picture of growing up in his beleaguered Chicago (“Bunch of tank-top, nappy-headed, bike-stealing Chatham boys/None of my niggas ain’t had no dad/None of my niggas ain’t have no choice”), but when New York alt-soul songwriter Francis and the Lights testifies through a vocoder and a prayer is given during the bridge, a bluesy dirge takes on an aura of warmth and hopefulness. D.R.A.M., the man behind the giddy viral hit “Cha Cha,” comes by for a beautiful interlude somewhere between Sly Stone and Animal Collective with the chorus “Everyone is special.”
While gospel icon Kirk Franklin plays hypeman, a choir sings one of the most important lines on the album: “Take me to your mountain/So someday Chicago will be free.” Chance reports live from Chicago, a city with nearly 500 homicides last year and the real and terrifying possibility that local government tried to cover up the police shooting of black teenager Laquan MacDonald. As Chance says in the opening track, “This for the kids of the king of all kings.”
And, as a rapper, Chance is everything we love about hip-hop in 2016. The convoluted and conscious-minded bars of Kendrick Lamar, the melodic gymnastics of Young Thug, the Oculus Rift ambitions of Kanye West. Mixing American music at its most vintage, today’s most cutting-edge rhyming and the emotional vocoder music that symbolizes our future, this lush, powerful album attempts to move hip-hop past Planet Rock and into the Heavens.