Music Review: Chance The Rapper - "Coloring Book"

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Rare is the prodigy who exceeds sustained expectations. The gutters of the music industry are littered with pressure-popped trainwrecks and label-molded flameouts, from Miley Cyrus to 11-year-old Usher imitators. These acts begin their careers with promise, only to be discarded once profits sour or when adolescence ravages their appeal, whichever comes first.

From the crucible of Chicago's South Side emerges the visionary Chancelor Bennett, independent from any label machine and above the churn of one-trick pony acts. Chance first grabbed attention with 2012's 10 Day, conceived, the story goes, while Chance was on a ten-day suspension from high school. His follow-up, another online-only stream called Acid Rap, garnered "Best of 2013" recognition from Pitchfork, SPIN, and Rolling Stone, among others. Pretty good for a teenager.

If Chance intended to temper anticipation for his next full-length project, he did himself no favors over the last three years. He notched scene-stealing features on songs from Action Bronson, Justin Bieber, and, you know, Madonna. He let his friends take top billing on Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment's Surf, another well-received project that features the brilliantly uplifting "Sunday Candy."

But demand for Chance reached a fever pitch during a Saturday Night Live performance with Kanye West.

Firmly established as hip-hop's internet darling, Chance couldn't be blamed for drowning in the expectations for Coloring Book, his latest release. The eyes of a genre were fixed upon him. The biggest names in hip-hop signed on to lend their voices.

But Chance earned the too-good-to-be-true hype. His resume warrants heavy expectations. And at just 23 years young, he exceeded them. Again.

Coloring Book bills itself as an extension of Kanye's gospel fusion on The Life of Pablo, but it's more accurately an expansion, a far-reaching work about navigating the dangers of growing up on the South Side of Chicago without losing faith in your happy ending. Chance laments what is often glorified, and brings joyfulness into the catchy mainstream.

It's a balancing act at which Chance excels like no one else at the moment. He's positive without being preachy, fun without being corny. There are no throwaway lines here, and with no label to please, Chance and his friends are free to create the music they want, when they want, with whom they want.

Acid Rap is one of our favorite projects of the last several years. Like the first episode of LOST, it's enthralling and fresh, and hits you like a ton of bricks. In front of a dedicated and growing audience, Chance delivers Coloring Book, the eminently re-listenable next chapter in what promises to be a long, remarkable career.

“All We Got” ft. Kanye West, Chicago Children’s Choir

At the risk of jinxing the rest of his career, it's refreshing to see a young artist like Chance emphasize quality music above all else. He clearly views the medium as a powerful, uniting tool, rather than an avenue to riches or a doorway to acting. The opening track sets this tone, and foreshadows the fusion of major players (Kanye West, ever heard of him) with Chicago staples (Saba, never heard of him).

“No Problem” ft. Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz

A track that manages to be both threatening and empowering, "No Problem" meshes a standout verse from 2 Chainz with the celebratory sounds of a background choir. Windows down, car washed, head nods.

The presence of high-profile features on Coloring Book might ordinarily reek of desperation or buckling under the pressure of a worthy follow-up. But one gets the feeling this development is validation from Chance's influences who want to work with him, rather than the square-peg-round-hole nature of some collaborations. Chance really is your favorite rapper's favorite rapper.

“Summer Friends” ft. Jeremih, Francis & The Lights

Relaxing and nostalgic at first, "Summer Friends" takes a turn for the tragic when Chance reminds us of the dangers of living on the South Side of Chicago during the warm summer months. Other than that, a fun and great song.

“Blessings” ft. Jamila Woods

Even the most overtly religious song on the album has a modern twist, as Donnie Trumpet provides the complementary horns.

“Same Drugs”

When his focus is micro, Chance is naturally accessible and relatable, whether or not you've faced his same situation. This is Acid Rap's signature: one-on-one relationships, transitioning from adolescence into adulthood. But now the sound is more layered, the composition more impressive. In just the last twenty seconds of the track, two distinct Kanye West-influenced sounds make appearances: orchestral strings (College Dropout; Late Registration) and electric guitar (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). 

“Mixtape” ft. Young Thug, Lil Yachty

One indicator of probable longevity is the ability to adapt different styles when necessary. It's no surprise that Chance excels here, refusing to emulate Young Thug or toss our a cheap Gucci Mane impression and instead blending in with the Atlantans like one of those shape-shifting octopuses.

“How can they call themselves bosses, when they got so many bosses?” said the independent artist.

“Angels” ft. Saba

The album's first official single was accompanied by the video below, a colorful confirmation of Chance's loyalty to Chicago, aided by Saba, another hometown artist.

(Side note: Free Rimcast koozie to the first person who can explain to me the difference between a mixtape and an album in 2016. Spoiler alert: You can't.)

“Juke Jams” ft. Justin Bieber, Towkio

Justin Bieber snuck in the backdoor of this project, lending a steamy hook without distracting from the sound.

“All Night” ft. Knox Fortune

Several years from now, we may look back on this project the same way we reminisce about the 2001 Miami Hurricanes. The big names are on this roster, right next to talented but lesser-known Chicagoans Towkio, Jamila Woods, Saba, and Knox Fortune. Chance always brings his hometown with him. I mean, look at the name on the next track!

Anyway, this is a very fun, upbeat dance track. A touch of salsa hit my untrained ear.

“How Great” ft. Jay Electronica and My Cousin Nicole

Jay Electronica, a conspiracy theorist known primarily for having a daughter named Mars with Erykah Badu and destroying the marriage of a British financier and a billionaire heiress, is one of the genre's foremost Google Rappers. Several rounds of research may be required to fully grasp what in the world he's talking about.

“Smoke Break” ft. Future

A weed song so triumphant, not just any old clouds will do. We're talking end-of-Super Mario 64-type clouds here.

For those of you playing Future bingo, go ahead and cover up the elusive "Future rapping over a damn harp" square. |ES|