A little thing from back in October.
At The Meadows Festival in Queens, Chance the Rapper was joined by special friends. On the main stage of the Queens, New York, music festival, the 23-year-old Chicago rapper was flanked by a talking lion and numerous other life-size puppets throughout his storybook-themed performance. The novelty of rap’s biggest star engaging with Sesame Street-esque characters quickly wore thin as they began to overshadow Chance’s own presence on stage.
It wasn’t always this way. I saw Chance the Rapper three times in 2015, each one better than the last. He closed out that summer’s Pitchfork Music Festival by bringing out original pop-gospel star Kirk Franklin, an early sign of his soon-to-be-public Christian awakening. A Fader Fort set that fall had an intimacy that I quickly treasured, now that Chance’s mainstream crossover was clearly a question of when, not if. The third time I saw the rapper last year was an artifice-free affair where he and his band the Social Experiment superbly performed highlights from 10 Day, Acid Rap, and Surf, along with numerous SoundCloud one-offs. That Beyonce and Jay-Z were beaming while sitting in the VIP section only further confirmed that we were all living in Chance’s world now.
Then, this April, Chance released Coloring Book, his long awaited follow-up to Acid Rap. Only three human years separated the projects, but where I had aged from 21 to 24 in that time, Chance appeared to have accelerated, skipping from his early twenties straight to middle age. His new music, along with the interviews he granted, showed that Chance had found a spiritual and religious calling. God is not a new presence in Chance’s work, but previously he had spoken of the lord with trepidation, as on Acid Rap’s “Everybody’s Something”: “And why’s God’s phone die every time that I call on Him? / If his son had a Twitter, wonder if I would follow him.”
A few years down the line, Chance seems much more sure of his convictions, even working a rendition of Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God” into Coloring Book. The sweeping track is in many ways the album’s peak. My own black Baptist upbringing never brought me in contact with that song on Sunday mornings — my introduction to Tomlin’s pale praise song was at my Christian high school, where “How Great Is Our God” and others of its ilk were performed by unengaging bands that slowly unwound my years of Biblical texts and the water I was baptized in. That the south side Chicago native chose Tomlin’s maudlin song instead of any number of other, better gospel standards should have been an early red flag of the emotional disconnect I was starting to feel with Chance’s work.
The other obvious change in Chance’s life since his Acid Rap days is fatherhood. Back in January, on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam,” Chance introduced this new version of himself to the world: “My daughter is just like Sia / You can’t see her.” The wide-eyed optimism of Coloring Book sounds like a man whose priorities have shifted off himself and towards his child and his new family. This is a necessary pivot in life, but in Chance’s case, the change closed off some of the ways I had into his music. Where before it felt like we were on a similar path, wrestling with taking friendships into adulthood and the role that parents play in one’s life as an adult, suddenly Chance’s accelerated life priorities had created a noticeable gap between artist and listener. This divergence became even clearer with his childhood-themed stage production, evoking a nostalgia for life’s earlier days that I’m fine allowing to remain in the past.
On stage at the Meadows Festival, Chance performed one of the more plaintive songs from Coloring Book, “Same Drugs,” as a duet with a purple-wigged puppet next to him at a piano. The song catches Chance reflecting back on on the various ways that friends can grow apart as they grow older. For all his Christian themes, Chance still isn’t a preacher in cadence or tone; the performance of “Same Drugs” didn’t disdain or shame drug use, nor did it talk down to the thousands of festival goers who might be going through similar life changes. Truthfully, it felt like the song’s message wasn’t meant for us in the audience at all. The giant puppets and over-elaborate stage production all seemed like Chance the Father trying to impart life wisdom to a child rather than emotionally connect to his peers in the crowd.
The bittersweet themes of “Same Drugs” recall Acid Rap’s “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” where again drug usage is a lens to view how familial relationships change, or don’t, as one ages. Chance, Vic Mensa, and even Twista, who’s nearly double Chance’s age, all rap about struggling with their own drug consumption and the walls it places between them and their disapproving family. Their multi-generational choir of voices encompasses a tension with older loved ones that remains unresolved on Acid Rap. Yet Chance on Coloring Book appears disinterested in those knots. He’s more interested in imparting fatherly lessons than in grappling with the unease of early adulthood.
The complicated dynamics of growing up are something that Chance captured perfectly a few years ago on Acid Rap’s “Good Ass Outro.” The song opens with Chance trying to give thanks to his dad for some presents, but his father cuts him off saying that it’s only his paternal duty. That moment of the parent-child relationship never left me, as a black child who never forgets a single day how blessed I am for those who preceded me. I grew up spending many days seeing my father perform house chores for his own parents as I whined about wanting to go home. This was an early lesson in patience that I often failed — I just wanted my dad, and instead he was acting as my grandparents’ son. Even as a father himself, he owed his time towards those who raised him.
I miss that emotional complexity on Coloring Book. In the album’s waning moments, Chance turns his words to his newborn child. He recounts olden days, thanks God, and asks for his blessings to transfer to his little one. It’s a sweet sentiment, and one that shows the lessons of his dad on “Good Ass Outro” were not entirely lost. Here’s hoping that on his next project, he remembers that even a life full of blessings can be complicated.