Chance the Rapper - Coloring Book
I'd admittedly never paid much mind to Chance's output until the release of his collaborative mixtape with Lil B, Free. Recorded in a single, entirely improvised take, the 36-minute effort was endearingly sloppy, yet oddly introspective. Between corny one-liners and the occasional spots of accidental dead air surfaced the sort of fossilized memories and images that can only excavated by breaking ground in the subconscious: the surreality of grocery shopping as a minor celebrity, Chicago's public libraries and a recurring association between two Jordans (Michael and the Middle Eastern River). The tape was littered with the sort of esoterica that only improv can extract from one's most guarded crannies of their psyche - all the unbridled fun of an early Animal Collective live session plus the sort of off-the-wall self-referential humor that Lil B can effortlessly sprinkle into a project.
In retrospect, Free feels like a preamble to CtR's latest mixtape, Coloring Book, a much more focused and polished venture that draws material from its predecessor's quarries of inspiration. More specifically, the passing references to Bible verses and Christianity are blended into a smoothie of pop-positivity without a trace of irony - the resulting beverage is an unflinchingly saccharine-yet-strange carton full of the sort of neo-sincere art David Foster Wallace predicted might crop up in direct response to the metareferential sarcasm that has felt omnipresent in recent years, especially in the form of abstract instagram memes and Adult Swim shows that are indecipherable to the uninitiated. Rather than cloak himself in the stoic monochrome many artists have opted for since circa 2014, Chance risks eyerolls posing beneath a peach-colored sunset on Coloring Book's digital cover art while flanking his half-rapped-half-sung verses with old-school gospel trimmings: choirs, trumpets, spoken word testimonials and all.
Coloring Book opens in full bombast with "All We Got", featuring the Chicago Children's Choir and a cyborgian Kanye West hook that borders on glossolalia - Chance's flow is a frantic string of declarations: "I do not talk to the serpent / that's a holistic discernment" he shouts, before restating his intentions in more elementary terms (I might give Satan a swirlie). Mr West is just one of a few A-list features that appears in Coloring Book's constellatory credits list - Future, T-Pain and blog-favorite Lil Yachty appear to "testify" to the self-actualization of artistic collaboration over the course of the record, each adopting a persona much more optimistic than usual to match Chance's infectious joy.
The mixtape's most satisfying moments are its cheesiest - the jazzy "Blessings" features a sound effects re-enactment of the fall of Jericho, references to Dragonball Z and minister/gospel singer Byron Cage. It's ultra poppy and a tad gimmicky, yet entirely lovable due to its unapologetic sincerity. "Angels" is a soul-tinged spin on the Chicago-based "bop" music of Sicko Mobb and DLow that's as danceable as it is cerebral. "How Great", featuring a solo performance by Chance's cousin Nicole, even breaks out the hymnal to paint Coloring Book's prettiest soundscape.
Chance's new mixtape is perhaps the year's most innovative and cohesive release to date, striding confidently where Kanye and ASAP Ferg mis-stepped on their way to crafting "gospel hip-hop" records. Coloring Book's optimism is untouchable. It takes a bold sonic and lyrical stance without raising a sardonic shield to deflect potential groans and dismissals. Perhaps this album will pave the way for future meta-modernistic music; perhaps it will be remembered as a screwball outlier. Either way, Coloring Book already feels like a benchmark for hip-hop post-2k15 and a record that demands multiple visits to genius.com - it's addictively uplifting.