Image by Adam Mignanelli and Lia Kantrowitz
Most rappers are religious, but most rap fans are leery of religious rap. There’s scarcely a stranger conundrum in modern music. The closest analogue is politics, where successful candidates are expected to espouse a religious background they don’t allot demonstrable control over their decisionmaking. Faith is respected as a wellspring for rappers in times of hardship, but when it slips too closely to the foreground, a secular listening audience slowly tunes out. Recently, rap’s faith paradox has been a barrier to greater mainstream success for growing, pridefully Christian rap stars like Houston standard-bearer Lecrae and Louisiana up-and-comer Dee-1, but the religious rap stigma runs as far back as Outkast’s Aquemini opener “Return of the ‘G,’” where Andre 3000 torches “them niggas that think y’all soft and say, ‘Y’all be gospel rappin’,’ but they be steady clappin’ when you talk about bitches and switches and hoes and clothes and weed.” In his Grammy-winning 2004 hit “Jesus Walks,” a young Kanye West famously quipped, “If I talk about God, my record won’t get played!?”
Chicago hip-hop sensation Chance the Rapper’s new mixtape Coloring Book has come crashing through the old saints and seculars schism, bridging an earnest pursuit of godliness with a taste of the self-sabotage and tribulation that waylay the pious and non-believers alike. These songs pulse with Christian joy as Chance raps, sings, and shouts out the pride of new fatherhood and record-breaking achievements as an independent artist from a city where a frightening percentage of young black males don’t make it to drinking age. It refines the objective of Kanye’s self-professed curse-filled gospel album The Life of Pablo—which, admittedly, strayed from its concept in its visions of GoPro’d dicks and bleached buttholes—in the purity of its expression of Chance’s trust in a higher power. Gospel gives Coloring Book a sound and soul, from the diced choral samples of “No Problems” and “Angels” to frequent appearances from the Chicago Children’s Choir and a guest spot from gospel revolutionary Kirk Franklin. The Late Night with Jimmy Fallon premiere of the Dilla-meets-devotional highlight “Blessings” dramatized the biblical Jericho wall crash and made room for a word from “Dwell Among Us” singer-songwriter Byron Cage.
Great is its faithfulness, but Coloring Book isn’t all hosannas. Nestled beneath all this Sunday morning cheer is the sense that religion isn't meant to be a repellent for troubles but rather a breadcrumb trail to lead the way through them. Chance’s love of poetry and theater might scan as pep at first pass, but there is darkness all around the light of the rapper’s good spirits. Amid these full-hearted praise choruses is a worship song he last heard his cousin sing at his grandmother’s funeral, a heartbreaking bit about running up the steps of heaven to meet his dead dog, a confessional about nearly losing everything to a pharmaceutical addiction last year, and frank discussion of the gang-related strife in his hometown. “We were still catching lightning bugs when the plague hit the back yard,” he sings in “Summer Friends.” “Had to come in at dark cause the big shorties act hard.” If The Life of Pablo was Kanye turning to the altar for respite from a dark headspace, Coloring Book is Chance on the other end of a rough patch outlining how he got over.
The vibe doesn’t always stick. For every song enumerating the rapper’s many blessings, there’s another about straying from the light, and the mixtape’s habit of zipping between the two from track to track makes it feel like a battle for Chance’s soul. On one end is a warm-blooded twenty-something’s taste for good sex and wild nights out, memorialized in the sloshed Kaytranada house jam “All Night” and the late night sensuality of “Juke Jam” and “Smoke Break.” On the other is chipper soul food like “Finish Line/Drown” and “How Great.” What sets this album apart from Christian rap as a movement is that it doesn’t have a complex about its brokenness. Adversity isn’t presented for the purpose of teaching by flawed example. Where many great acts on that circuit have a tendency of planting themselves as soldiers in an ages old war for souls, warning of slippery slopes and potentially grave ramifications for tiny missteps like little parables, Coloring Book is testimony but not necessarily evangelism.
Unlike a lot of not so great Christian rap, which can have a tendency of wanly subbing theistic themes in for edgier lyrical content—as a veggie burger does away with beef but not the ritual of huddling around a grill—Coloring Book is not angling to exist parallel to mainstream rap. It courts many of the year’s biggest stars, and Chance’s chameleonic prowess with words and melodies truly shines when he goes verse for verse with out-of-towners, coaxing them into his world as he experiences a bit of theirs. He co-opts a bit of classic Weezy swing when the Cash Money star appears alongside 2 Chainz on “No Problems.” He matches Auto Tuned longing with Future on “Smoke Break” and effects a singsong, staccato delivery for Young Thug on “Mixtape.” He rattles off a chain of internal rhymes, historical references, and dense metaphors when Jay Electronica shows up for “How Great” and recreates the fatalistic children’s choir of his favorite Kanye song “We Don’t Care” when he finally gets West on a record of his own with “All We Got.” He’s not just a savvy rapper, but also a savvy listener.
Chance’s ease in traversing divergent styles and moods without losing himself gives Coloring Book an unerring compass. It feels like a moment this collective has been working toward all along, splattering out in the teenage anomie of 10Day before stumbling onto new uses for church organs and choir vocals amid the washed out dread of Acid Rap and stretching the sound to its limits in the oceanic expanse of last year’s Surf. It is presumptuous to call this a gospel rap achievement because it is hilarious to classify any album containing “No Problems,” “Same Drugs,” “Juke Jam,” and “All Night” as Christian just because “Blessings,” “Angels,” and “How Great” are on it too. (It’s also precious to write this stuff off on account of differences in faith, since we find heart in trap rappers who push kilos we’ve never sold and lionize underground rap full of supervillains and fantastic robots we don’t believe in.) What this is, is holistic rap, fearless and honest in its exploration of every part of Chance’s world, from faith to frailty, from excess to exaltation. Millions of people walk this path every day. Now they have a soundtrack.
Craig feels like blessings keep falling in his lap. Follow him on Twitter.