When the praises go up

Sorry, Kanye — Chance the Rapper’s “Coloring Book” is the Gospel-Rap album we’ve all been waiting for.

There’s a moment in Coloring Book, the latest mixtape from the mind of Chicago-based hip-hop artist Chance the Rapper, where he audibly smiles. Early in “Blessings,” the brass band-laden fifth track in a line of fourteen, Chance breaks from sing-song hook — when the blessings go up, the praises come down — and segues into his first verse.

I don’t make songs for free, I make songs for freedom
Don’t believe in kings, I believe in the Kingdom
Chisel me into stone, prayer/whistle me into songs air
Dying laughing with Krillin saying something ‘bout blonde hair

And with that last line, an homage to a character from Dragon Ball Z, a Japanese anime television series, Chance traverses from praise and worship and higher beings to a character whose best friend was granted a new set of powers after his passing, and doing so with a smile. You can hear it. You can feel it. Just as he rapped three years earlier about each and every one of us being somebody’s everything, Chance speaks with a joyous and playful tone that makes it impossible to listen to his lyrics and message therein and not smile back as if the 23-year-old hip-hop free agent is bestowing his message in person.

In the days leading up to the release of The Life of Pablo, as fans wondered what evolution of the erratic and eclectic Kanye West they would be getting, Yeezy had hinted that his seventh solo studio album would be of the tectonic shifting “gospel” variety— the definition of which was inherently left open for interpretation. After all, West’s views of the world are seen through a lens where “affordable” clothing has three digits on the price tag. West opens TLOP with “Ultralight Beam,” an autotune-heavy gospel track featuring Kirk Franklin, he of urban contemporary gospel fame, Kelly Price, The Dream, and Chance, who arguably lays down the most poignant and crisp verse on the entire album. The orchestration is quintessential Kanye — choral melody married with drum machines to help keep pace; Price’s powerful, Southern Baptist Church-like vocals; and West kicking things off, but quickly passing the baton to a battalion of talent.

Chance speaks with a joyous and playful tone that makes it impossible to listen to his lyrics and message therein and not smile back as if the 23-year-old hip-hop free agent is bestowing his message in person.

The rest of TLOP puts West’s creative genius on display. “Wolves” was shared in multiple stream-only incarnations before the official release turned the clock back to the days of Sia flailing about a Saturday Night Live stage; Frank Ocean was ultimately given his own track; Andre 3000’s contribution to “30 Hours” maintained it’s head-scratchingly low level. But as the album rolled along, what with its references to Taylor Swift and unnecessary Max B “intermission,” it also relinquished any grip it had on being categorized as “gospel.” Even West in his infinite level of self-aware absurdity would have to admit such if pressed. But Chance, picking up right where he left off in “Beam”, didn’t just carry the baton — he tucked it under his arm like a late-80s Christian Okoye and barreled through anyone who dare stand in his way (especially those representing music labels).

While “Blessings” pairs message with methodical, focused flow, the rest of Coloring Book carries Chance’s nursery rhyme-like happiness and ultimately funnels nearly every song through the gospel ringer. “All We Got”, the album’s opening track, features the Chicago Children’s Choir. The ethereal way in which Francis & The Lights open “Summer Friends” was as if it were geared for a sermon. While simply featuring Franklin doesn’t make an album or song inherently “gospel,” the singer’s work on “Finish Line/Drown” is up their with his most acclaimed worship-and-praise hymns as he harnesses the days of Jesus, Peter, and John chilling on a mountain top — it’s the perfect, airy balance to Chance’s humorous endeavor of giving Satan a swirlie. And if one dose of “Blessings” wasn’t enough, Chance comes strong with the reprise to close out the album, speaking of “promised lands” and “soil as soft as momma’s hands.”

Photo by Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU/Getty Images

Let’s not get it too twisted, however. Coloring Book is a hip-hop album in the way that it’s composed by a Chicago-based hip-hop artist while featuring some of the game’s biggest names — West, Lil’ Wayne, 2 Chainz, and Future top the list. As relaxing as Francis & The Lights are in “Summer Friends,” Chance’s raps about single-parent homes — “he treat the crib like it’s a timeshare” — school shootings, and gang activity is a stark reminder of where the 20-something sewed his oats. Future’s track “Smoke Break” is exactly what it appears, an ode to smoking mixed with reminiscing about the days when there was a lot more time to do so. Even in “Blessings,” Chance raps about being “at war with his wrongs.”

But it’s also so much more. There’s jazz. There’s funk. There’s, of course, gospel. There’s the ongoing battle with those who want to monetize his skills and hard work, but also the increasingly apparent happiness that is a product of his success in coming out ahead of the rat race. Just as easy as it is to imagine Krillin as a Jesus-like character who died so others could live better lives, it’s easy to see the inherent pleasure that comes with controlling your own destiny and flourishing despite all of the headwinds that have been thrown your way, so much so that you can rock Cosby sweaters and be taken seriously while spitting verses about the murder capital of the world.

With the days of the free download are apparently in the rear view mirror of today’s music distribution landscape, there’s no telling what will happen to Coloring Book once the two-week Apple Music exclusivity is up. Chance raps at the end of “Ultralight Beam” that you have to “sell it to catch the Grammy.” His goal, in lieu of such arcane, commercialized rules, was simply to do two things: Release it for free, but make an album so good that there wouldn’t be one gosh darn part you couldn’t tweet.

Kanye has already gone on record saying that TLOP is Grammy worthy, throwing barbs at the entire process in the way one bites the hand that feeds. He’ll have his hands full with other 2016 releases from axis-tilting artists like Drake and Kendrick Lamar. But if Chance the Rapper can somehow rewrite the rules of what is eligible and what isn’t, it’s a watershed moment worthy of much more than a tiny gold phonograph. There are so many Jericho mentions in Coloring Book that it’s easy to lose count, but there may not be a more poignant reference given what Chance could ultimately mean for the crumbling of any walls. The trumpets are just an added bonus.

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