The last time I stepped into a church was 457 days ago, for the funeral of my mom, who I didn’t spend enough time in church with. Before that, it had been about a year since I’d last set foot inside a place of worship. Average rebellious teenager reasons. I was no longer a believer and couldn’t be bothered with god and religion. During the time before the funeral and the 457 days after, I have found myself taken back to my church roots through songs like Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” and movies like Ava DuVernay’s solemn civil rights drama, Selma. This art reminds me of the time when I was naive, didn’t know anything. When church was home and somehow freedom. When church was everything that was right in the world, before my own thoughts and belief system could mature and turn it into everything that was wrong in the world. These are the times that I cherish and when I listen to Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book I am instantly returned to those moments of purity.
Coloring Book is a gospel rap mixtape made by a rapper who loves the lord. There are numerous references to Christianity, gospel choral moments, and the legendary gospel singer Kirk Franklin—who appeared on “Ultralight Beam” earlier this year—delivers a powerful sermon on the sprawling second to last song, “Finish Line/Drown.” But Coloring Book is deeper than a rapper proclaiming their love of the lord, too. It’s a kind of nostalgia-heavy flashback told through a variety of perspectives—even though the listener never changes their seat in the pews.
On songs like “How Great” and “All We Got” Chance is the preacher and it is with the utmost pride when he delivers booming lines like, “I got my word from the sermon, I do not talk to the serpent.” In those moments, Chance becomes the reason I was still in church at 3 p.m. even though service started at 10 a.m. He’s the preacher people call out to from the back: “Take your time!”
Not all of Coloring Book is delivered from on high. Chance will switch roles and for a song or two become the person who would stand up from the sixth row pew to give testimony. You hear the switch on songs like “Summer Friends,” “Juke Jam,” “Same Drugs,” and “Finish Line/Drown.” As an adult I can recall childhood memories of this sort of testimony, someone standing up to explain how much they love the lord even after great pain, but I couldn’t really and truly understand how much trauma a life-altering event like death or addiction could cause. And so I was unable to process that kind of testifying. I was just sitting in the pew with my family, waiting for it finish so I could go home, untuck my shirt, and take off the small dress shoes my mom made me wear because she didn’t believe I had outgrown them. But Chance unpacks the emotions underlying the heartrending moments in church—along with lesser wounds, like jealousy and unrequited love.
Chance unpacks the emotions underlying the heartrending moments in church—along with lesser wounds, like jealousy and unrequited love.
Despite impatience and uncomfortable clothes, there was happiness at church, too. I was sitting with my siblings and we could appreciate each other in the same way that we hear Chance clearly enjoying the company of his friends and frequent collaborators, like Donnie Trumpet. (Chance credits god on “Blessings” for giving Donnie his instrument.) It’s that camaraderie between not just Chance and Donnie but the rest of the featured artists that allows Chance to become a beloved family member I can imagine going to church with. He’s the brother who made my family late because he didn’t wake up in time. He’s the cousin who would ask me to ask my mom if he could come over after church but instead I’d tell him he had to ask her himself because she’d always say yes to him. He is the sibling that I wasn’t allowed to sit next to because my mom knew I’d talk to them the entire time.
As I get older church becomes more and more something nostalgic and representative of a simpler time in my life. It will be a symbol for my mom and her love for the lord. It will represent family, and church brings out the family in the same way that Coloring Book does. Come on, there’s a glorious and sanctified Jay Electronica feature even though the world has been unable for years to get any real musical out from him. But that’s what church will do. It will unite you and inspire wonder, like a wide-eyed kid.