It is now a discussion of four: Kendrick Lamar, Drake, J. Cole, and Chance the Rapper. Chance the Rapper is a grass root the field of rap is unsure how to embrace. In 2017, Chance was nominated for 7 Grammys and won 3, which both set records as an independent artist. His career has witnessed such an unexpected explosion of success that no single moment can pinpoint his genius. It is, rather, his on-going commitment to his own sound and his perseverance in the uphill battle of a rapper that makes him so successful.
Since “Acid Rap” (2012), Chance has released “Surf” and “Coloring Book” and has toured internationally with his “Magnificent Coloring World.” He has jammed the Ethernet with countless classic singles. Let us take a glance at his two projects: Surf and Coloring Book.
“Surf” was his unexpected project, which was released post-“Acid Rap” and marked the first time Chance’s name was headlining any musical project. However, to the surprise of all his followers and hip-hop vigilantes, “Surf” was not Chance’s project but rather his garage-band Social Experiment’s product. Although this could have been deemed a risky move for his label, Chance jumped on the project with Peter Cottontail, Donnie Trumpet (who now goes by Nico Segal as his musical alias unfortunately rings a bell a-la-Orange-monster in the White House), Nate Fox, and Greg Landfair Jr. Nevertheless, the project had not received over-the-top acclaim and underwhelmed his long-running fans. As “Acid Rap” sounded a lot like its title, “Surf” also sounds a lot like its title.
Funky, orchestrated tracks with many vocals and shakers and tambourines, “Surf” is a bit lost in its many themes and is more true to the nature of a mixtape, being a collection of incoherent songs, different from what can be heard in “Acid Rap.” Certain tracks hit well (think: “Sunday Candy” (track 15), “Miracle” (track 1), “Windows” (track 1)) and some do not (think: “Wanna Be Cool” (track 5), “Go” (track 11), “Questions” (track 12). Furthermore, certain artists were thrusted into the mainstream, like D.R.A.M with “Caretaker” (track 7), Nico Segal with “Nothing Came to Me” (track 4), “Something Came to Me” (track 13), and “Pass the Vibes” (track 16). “Surf” was a Social Experiment’s experiment and was not a Chance the Rapper project as the recent Grammy-winner only headlined 5 (depending on how you are counting) of the 16 songs, while contributing major to other tracks. Overall, any true Chance the Rapper fan will give “Surf” a genuine sit-down to listen and enjoy what the mixtape offers: groovy beats, introspective thoughts, and noises that often should have been chopped and screwed further. Nevertheless, that is “Surf.” It is a playable collection of music with a few songs that could be skipped.
His following project “Coloring Book” was a more complete project and perhaps his finest since “Acid Rap.” The project’s unofficial debut was mostly seen on Jimmy Fallon. Chance the Rapper had a makeshift Jericho Wall, a choir coupled with smooth trumpet tunes from Nico, vocals from Jamila Woods (who has been featured on Chance singles in the past) and Gospel singer Byron Cage. The performance with its overarching Christian-gospel had Chance literally counting the blessings in his lap. This both excited fans for new music but also alerted fans that the once-drug-themed “Acid Rapping” rapper was now proclaiming the Lord’s name through rap.
Nevertheless, the performance was smooth and the rhythm beyond catchy with an almost-spell-like funk that would creep into any listener’s thirst for rhythm. This was a vital sign. Then the album dropped with a star-studded lineup coupled with some eyebrow raising features, like his “Cousin Nicole” and “Chicago Children’s Choir.” The stars included Kanye West (his unofficial mentor and one of the father’s of Chicago rap), Lil Wayne, 2-Chainz, Jeremih, D.R.A.M (who was heard on “Surf” and has reaped major recent success), Young Thug (who recently dropped critically acclaimed album Jeffery), Big Sean, Justin Bieber, underground legend Jay Electronica, Trap-legend Future, T-Pain, and Noname Gypsy (who is a fabulous female rapper and a must-listen for any hip-hop fan).
Firstly, the album has taken a cue from Mr. West in this orchestrated-style hip-hop. Chance has eight tracks on the official track-list that include many other artists. This socially-inclined tactic for hip-hop production is remnant of West, but also with “Acid Rap” and “Surf.”
With “Coloring Book,” it has become obvious that Chance’s music is not about himself, but about the music. Chance literally utilizes gospel and choirs to fill the sound and surround the rap lyrics with a musical finish on the opening track “All We Go,” track 13 “How Great,” track 15 “Finish Line,” and Track 16 “Blessings reprise 2.”
This church-mimic is easily heard in “Ultralight Beam” from Kanye West’s “TLOP” featuring Chance the Rapper, which in my humble opinion should have taken the best Rap Song at the Grammys over “Hotline Bling.”
Furthermore, “Coloring Books” exhibits many different styles of hip-hop. “Mixtape” (Track 7) featuring star Young Thug is a trap song giving homage to the label-free mixtape productions that seem to liberate the rapper and his style, which is something Chance the Rapper most definitely boasts.
A similar theme is also seen in his radio-hit “No Problem” (Track 2), “If one more label tryna stop me, there gonna be some dread-head thugs in yo lobby.” Track 8 “Angels” was another radio-hit, “A blueprint to a real man, some of these people toss their tassels for a deal man.” But other than his artistic autonomy, in “All we Got,” Chance delves into the raw emotion of loving his girlfriend, who is also the mother of his newborn, “I swear to god my daughter could not have a better mother, if she ever finds another, he better love her.” They are then followed by rare-boastful lyrics, “I swear my life is perfect, if I die I’ll cry at my own service.”
Jumping to track 3 “Summer Friends,” Chance delves into many different themes that are delivered with wonderful lyrical composition and vocal display. He discusses childhood naivety, “79th was America then,” and the ongoing violence that plagues Chicago today, “Summer school get to losing students, the CDP getting new recruitment.” This is a special homage to one of his most famed songs “Paranoia” from his “10 Day” mixtape in which he discusses the slaughter that occurs in Chicago streets during the summer time.
Finally, there is a tender moment in the song when he paints the image of his middle-class lifestyle with, “Momma hair salon doing perms out the armchair, Dad was working late treat the crib like a timeshare.” The song is made for the summer, possesses a melodic chorus, and coasts the listener through as Chance steps down his rhythmic rhyme play in the verses. It is truly the most encompassing song on the album as it shows many of Chance the Rapper’s strengths and unique qualities for rhyme and vocal ability. A similar essence is seen in “Juke Jam,” which features an intimate contribution from Justin Bieber. Chance raps delightfully about growing up in love with the same girl near the same skating rink and boasts the lyrical image of, “I mean it’s just dancing, it’s harmless as such, then I put my waist through your hips, and my legs and my arms just to harness you up”.
The lyrical onslaught continues. In “How Great” (Track 11), Chance and Jay Electronica each deliver wicked traditional rap verses that simply put on display their rhythmic tools. In “Same Drugs” (Track 6), Chance raps about no longer consuming the same drugs he once did. It is noteworthy that he creates a Peter Pan allusion-theme throughout the song which has made the song one of the most popular ones on the album. “Finish Line,” the second to last track, is an uplifting record with easily followed lyrics covering many of the themes heard throughout the album and lays on a beat that utilizes a synthesizer mostly heard in musical Church ensembles. And, finally, the strongest lyrical performance is the last track, “Blessings 2.”
The track opens on Chance singing certain notes off-key as the beat comes together. The lyrics are tender and strong and thematically congruent with themes of hope, doubt, paradox, and gospel Chance has created for himself. He opens with the quotable, “I speak of Promised lands, Soil as soft as Momma’s hands”. The lyrics seem to draw an image of heaven that can only be inspired by his Christian faith. With the joy and looseness in Chance’s art and delivery he puts forth, he teaches his fans, “How to smile good.”
Next, he rips off lyrical parallelisms with, “I’m pre-currency, post-language, anti-label, pro-famous, I’m Broadway Joe Namath.” The “pre-currency” is referring to his need to give music for free. The “post-language” alludes to his rhymes in couplets, which is a form rarely heard in rap. Anti-label, and “Pro-famous like Broadway Joe Namath” is an allusion to Hall-of-Famer Quarter Back Joe Namath, who was famed for his predictions of success and becoming a household name, which is something Chance the Rapper intends on doing. The song carries on with many thought-provoking lyrics, with the final one being, “I speak to God in public, he keeps my rhymes in couplets, he thinks my newish jams, I think we mutual fans… The people’s champ must be everything the people can’t be.” This almost portrays a thrust of confidence all-the-while being an honest remark on how not all people possess the essentials of leadership.
The song ends with lovely gospel music that can amuse any fan of Choir hymns and avert others. That is the truth, Chance the Rapper makes his music the way he likes and embraces all those that are fans and those that are not. “Coloring Book” is obviously a deeply thought out album with both magnificent highs-and-lows in the musical energy and the lyrical power.
However, what makes Chance the Rapper is beyond his “Coloring Book” – his released singles.
Chance the Rapper was chosen to sing Muhammad Ali’s tribute at the ESPY ceremony where he performed “Like A Rock.” The song is a beautiful and honest homage to the once-great warrior that was Muhammad Ali and how in death we are nothing other than a rock. Later, he wrote and sang “We the People” for Nike’s Olympics commercial. This song is an absolute must listen and possesses lyrical quality that can bring tears to the tender-hearted. He sang “Dear Theodosia” reprised for the “Hamilton Rap” Album from the overwhelmingly successful “Hamilton play” – a truly novel song where his singing tones touch dearly. He covered Drake’s “Feel No Ways” on BBC lounge and mixed it with “Windows” from his “Surf” mixtape. This cover is an absolute must to listen. He released a Christmas mixtape with Jeremih in which they cover and produced many Christmas themed originals.
Of the many songs, “Tragedy” struck me as the most heart felt. It discusses the desperation the homeless suffer during the white winter holidays. On a higher note, Chance the Rapper released an “Arthur’s Theme Song” cover with an orchestra of notable artists including Wyclef Jean. After “Surf,” he released “Family Matters,” which was a pseudo-rendition of Kanye West’s famous’ “Family Business”.
The up-and-coming artist has been “up” on the rap scene for a while now, and has been demanding attention for a longer time than his recent Grammy nods. He famously delayed Kanye West’s recent project and has notably had his meddling musical touch in “Waves,” “Highlights” and many other tracks on the album.
Politically-speaking, former-President Obama has invited the fellow-Chicago-native to a number of the White House’s events and has had Chance sing at the Christmas ceremony. Cinematically, he’s already released a dark-short-film discussing suicide in “Mr. Happy” and is working on a full-length product.
He is God-preaching but not preachy. He is melodic and soulful but never quipped as soft. He is musically inclined while not hype-grabbing, and, finally, he has never forgotten the place of rhythm and rhyme in rap music. He is an odd musical mix between Kanye, 70’s soul, Gospel-Biblical references, and Andre 3000. He discusses tormented life, drugs and death, children and lost childhood, loveless love, and hopeless hoods. He covers the themes old-school fans demand and touches upon those newer thoughts that grab the new school’s attention. He has Drake’s accessible charm, Kendrick’s delving-deep lyrics, and J. Cole’s emotional sting. But, he brings forth a social inclination that hip-hop and rap rarely see which is coupled with his warm vocals that touch beyond the auditory sense.
In a powerful article on Billie Holiday titled “In My Billie-tude”, Ian Penman remarks that Billie Holiday possessed a voice that “ isn’t predictably expressive, expansive, sung out. Instead, it eludes and elides so that we cannot necessarily differentiate an end from a beginning, gaiety from gravity.” This can be said about Chance, whose vocal color is something rare in the rap world.
He has the genuine capacity to make you feel compassionate with an anxious hood-riddled youth in “Paranoia,” feel the insecurity and self-doubt of being a role model in “Windows,” be empowered and inspired and angered and tragic in “Ultralight Beam,” to feel insanity loom and caress the withering mind of the hapless in “Cold Stares.”
His voice endows in the listener the exact emotion he intended in a manner that the lyrics can often fail to do. His voice is primal; he flawlessly sifts from singing to rap, rhyme, melody, and back to singing.
Drake may have mastered rapping and singing, but Chance sing raps. It’s a color that is magnificent, tragic, happy, and fearless. He is a vocalist as much as he is an emcee. And the world has taken note. Whether or not one may agree, Chance the Rapper has piggy-backed himself and his garage-band crew all the way to the Grammys. The award ceremony is just an official nod to the fact that the kid has made it. And, to think, he’s only 23.