If one measure of modesty is success shared among others, Chance the Rapper preaches what he practices. You could forgo listening to the Chicago MC’s third mixtape, Coloring Book, and tell from the track list alone that something special is happening here. Going in order, he’s gathered Kanye West, Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, Jeremih, Francis & the Lights, D.R.A.M., Young Thug, Lil Yachty, Justin Bieber, Jay Electronica, T-Pain, Kirk Franklin—and those are just the folks outside his immediate Chicago-based artistic family, which includes rappers like Saba and Towkio, and the Social Experiment, the four-piece jazz-inflected band responsible for the last album Chance contributed heavily to, Surf. That album was a jam session among tight friends, with occasional uncredited appearances from outsiders. Coloring Book is a coming out party for Chance, and his genre-spanning guest list is so stacked, it would feel like a stunt coming from anyone less decent.
The early lines of “All We Got,” the first song, are upstanding, joyful, and mature. “Man, my daughter couldn’t have a better mother,” Chance actually shouts, like the guy so much in love he skipped looking for a rooftop to scream from and instead orchestrated a rousing ode to music and life with Kanye West and the Chicago Children’s Choir. Selfless, he continues: “If she ever find another, he better love her.” Not for nothing, this is rare magnanimity for a 23-year-old man. Generosity of feeling—wanting everyone to experience their miracle—is the point of Coloring Book. We all deserve our unburdened blessing, the gospel of this mixtape tells us. The only question is, are you ready?
Chance the Rapper, if you didn’t already know, is ready to ascend to the top of the rap hierarchy. The runway is clear for takeoff this year. Drake’s gone inert and put out an album of 20 songs, most of which doggedly pursue a sound he perfected almost five years ago (and if you want to talk about character, he’s a 29-year-old who is unwilling to give a naked romantic partner their privacy—if his lyrics are to be believed). Kanye West has become a kind of fantastical Borges character, forever tinkering with shoes and small embellishments on a musical project that, by design, will never be completed. Kendrick Lamar doesn’t seem to be interested in a winning personality and the mainstream success it could bring; he’s got jazz he should keep on making, and everyone knows the best jazz artists are grumps. If Nicki Minaj goes into the booth instead of the courtroom with her spiteful ex, Safaree Samuels, she could take the title, but there’s not enough recent musical material to suggest she’s interested in the crown—especially when there’s Kmart money and fragrance money and ABC Family money to stack.
Here is Chance, then, the kind of person your mother wishes you were friends with, the guy who makes music for “grandmas and babies.” He is very, very good at rapping, can find rhymes in unexpected places and pull his voice like taffy—baby babbling one moment, then singing the next, then mimicking Young Thug’s flow in a kind of self-effacing gesture of flattery, like he does on “Mixtape.” You can hear him smiling around the majority of his words and the feeling is infectious. Unsigned, he’s beholden to no one but his friends, the ones the labels won’t stop shaking down. “Labels told me to my face that they own my friends,” he raps on “Finish Line.” (Lil Wayne and Jay Electronica use their verses to dismiss labels and the false promises of streaming, respectively.) Chance can do whatever he wants right now. The world is his, if he wants it.
Chance can do whatever he wants right now. The world is his, if he wants it.
Of course, the idea of ownership is antithetical to Chance’s project. It sounds absolutely sinful, the way he describes it. His last album, Surf—which was credited to his collaborator Donnie Trumpet and their band the Social Experiment, not Chance—was offered free of charge on iTunes. For Coloring Book, he must have some sort of arrangement with Apple Music that surely compensates him for his music but doesn’t seem to tie him to an old-fashioned 360 contract requiring multiple albums delivered, etc. He's found a new way to realize his vision.
Independence is a recurring theme on the album— “How can they call themselves bosses/When they got so many bosses?” he wonders on “Mixtape”—but it wouldn’t be correct to say that Chance is proud of his independence. It’s more like he can’t imagine boundless creativity and happiness without it, which is a contrast to the somewhat bitter flavor of, say, ‘90s rap crew Company Flow and their antagonistic battle cry of “independent as fuck.” It’s not like he’s claiming underground status and is opposed to working with artists attached to labels. He’s not cutting himself off from anyone or anything. It’s the opposite—his arms are open wide enough to, say, make room for a solo song from D.R.A.M. (This kind of generosity is discrete from Drake’s method of sharing the spotlight through remixes and remakes.)
“Give Donnie a trumpet in case I get shortness of breath,” he raps on “Blessings.” His selflessness, soundtracked by choirs of angelic voices, feels religious. What matters here is the work, not the worker. Should any given person fail, another must take up the mantle. Anyone could pick up an instrument and contribute to this creation, or just open their mouth up and sing. Except this isn’t true when it comes to art (though maybe it is true of proselytizing—I wouldn’t know). The artist matters, especially because not everyone is this talented.
If Coloring Book was truly just concerned with going door-to-door spreading the good word, there’d be no time for a mellow song like “Juke Jam” and its melancholy recollection of dance floors, bottled feelings, and adolescent crushes observed from afar. Chance’s particular story is his, even if, through his gift, it sounds like it belongs to all of us. The detail about Chris Brown’s “Take You Down” places the memory in a specific time and place and body, even though it makes you recall your own middle-school dance.
As much as Chance wants to use his platform to privilege the message, I’m compelled to praise the messenger. He deserves it.