Album review: Coloring Book

Chicago’s Chance the Rapper ascended from a 10-day school suspension and became his city’s cultural ambassador in the time it takes most people to acquire a college degree. His 2013 breakout mixtape Acid Rap established him as a major player in the music world despite his refusal to play along with the music industry. And after three years of experimental releases, touring with his live band, and fostering goodwill amongst the people of Chicago and beyond, the culmination of Chance’s career has arrived in his third mixtape Coloring Book, a release that delivers on its promises, and yet falls short of the high expectations Chance has set up for himself.

These high expectations have come with a lot of attention, and Coloring Book expresses this with a guest list that rivals any rap album released this year. Even though Chance has found his own distinct voice, however, he has developed a habit of imitating the accomplished guests he invited on the album. He and Future trade bars over a Migos flow on “Smoke Break” while Chance does his best Rich Homie Quan impression with Young Thug on “Mixtape.” He acquires a Kanye-sized braggadocio with Kanye himself on the opener “All We Got,” and even the triumphant banger “No Problem” suffers from Chance’s reverence to his guest Lil Wayne. Chance may be imitating as a tribute to the musicians he admires, or simply because it’s a fun experiment, but it’s hard to justify the personality shifts when Chance the Rapper is currently a far more interesting rapper than the rappers to whom he pays his respect.

Coloring Book‘s first half mirrors the first half of his breakout tape both organizationally and thematically, but the emotional highs from Acid Rap don’t hold up as well this time around. He begins both projects with a repeated “We back, and we back…,” though this time he doesn’t sound joyful but subdued by the expectations of his return. The lovely “Summer Friends” touches on the same topic he covered on Acid Rap‘s hidden track “Paranoia,” while “DRAM Sings Special” continues the love-above-everything mentality of Acid Rap‘s sole interlude. Most conspicuously, the freeform inspired “Same Drugs” directly responds to the tweaker lullaby “Lost,” and it fails to inspire the same sympathy that Channo and Noname brought in 2013 on their melancholic cut. While thematic repetition isn’t inherently bad, Chance falls short of the emotional buttons he pressed so passionately three years ago, which is stunning considering his growth over the past three years.

The most disappointing parts of Coloring Book are not the songs Chance included, but the ones he left off. Beautiful tracks he developed with The Social Experiment like “Everyday Wonderful” and “Somewhere in Paradise” are missing, while the recently leaked “Grown Ass Kid,” an instant highlight of his career and what could’ve been the mixtape’s best song, was scrapped from the final cut because of a sample clearance problem. All of these songs emphasize the live sound that Chance and The Social Experiment perfected over the last three years, and that they don’t appear on the tape feels like a missed opportunity to showcase The Social Experiment’s fresh and exciting feel. Chance does, however, provide something fresh on the mixtape, and it’s not always a welcome sound.

Since Acid Rap, Chance has shifted mostly away from drug narratives towards songs of praise, and he isn’t shy to display his spirituality on Coloring Book. Sometimes his Christianity seasons his music well, like on the slam-poetry focused “Blessings” and its wonderful reprise, but sometimes it comes on too strong, like on the nearly three-minute choral intro to “How Great.” Normally, Chance’s gospel instincts lift his music, most notably on 2015’s song of the year “Sunday Candy,” but there’s too much choir music on “Coloring Book” to be consistently enjoyable. Anyone who has ever spent time in a singing church can tell you that while gospel music is heavenly in small doses, its platitudes quickly become repetitive, especially for non-believers.

Coloring Book finds its saving grace on the back end. “Finish Line/Drown” begins with the carefree live sound that makes The Social Experiment so worthwhile (assisted by a sunny T-Pain contribution) and finishes with another excellent verse by Noname and a prayer from gospel king Kirk Franklin. The sound on “Finish Line/Drown” should be Chance’s go-to aesthetic: live instrumentation with positive vibes and rising horns, touched with gospel influences and sing-a-long choruses. This is what makes Chance more authentic and exciting than every current rapper not named Kendrick, and sticking with this sound in the future will give Channo the undeniable identity that so many musicians fail to develop throughout their careers.

Chance is too talented to put out a bad album, and Coloring Book certainly isn’t bad. It has highlights like “Summer Friends,” “Finish Line,” and “Angels” that stack up with his best work, but it also has unenjoyable filler like “Mixtape,” “All Night,” and the Justin Bieber collab “Juke Jam” that probably wouldn’t have made the cut on a major-label debut. But despite it being Chance’s first underwhelming project, Coloring Book shouldn’t damper expectations for his future. If anything, it should make us wonder whether this is a setup for bigger things.

 

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