“You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.” –Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
“If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” –James Baldwin
“You might not know what it’s like to live your life inside a burning housing, holding your rifle just so that you can continue to hold onto your daughters.” –Ashley Jones, “Chiraq”
This year alone, 200 people in Chicago have been shot and killed with another 1,088 injured. Nearly half of the city’s homicide victims1 were between the ages of 17 and 25. Gun violence disproportionately affects and is perpetrated by Blacks and Hispanics. Black-on-black or brown-on-brown crime has oft been the boogie man for “tough on crime” politicians. Recent work, however, has deepened understanding and is beginning to reframe the issue as a manifestation of post-traumatic stress disorder. More than 40% of patients to go through Chicago’s Cook County Hospital showed symptoms of PTSD. Childhood development makes PTSD in kids difficult understood and unpredictable. Programs around the Chi have recently sprouted to address youth PTSD like the Urban Warriors program, which partner kids “who live in high-violence neighborhoods, with veterans who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan and who might understand what they’re going through.”
It’s impossible to remove Chance the Rapper’s music from the context of gun violence and the psychological effect it’s had on the generation of Chicagoans he represents or the city of Chicago itself— and the conditions of the city’s southside that raised him.
Chicago is the most racially segregated city in America. Racist housing policy, irresponsible city planning, and a culture of incarceration2 has collectively lent itself to a generation of fatherless kids who regularly lose childhood friends to gun violence but still give thanks for not getting shot today, wanting nothing more than to simply grow up to be alive.[/note] What are we even doing here? There is no place for this in America.[/note]
Coloring Book is a remarkably grounded exercise in world-building. In the mixtape’s universe, it/he/we are lucky, blessed, consecrated, fortunate, exalted, glorified, all the above to even see the light of day. The unlikely endeavor of being, breathing, and creating is made remarkable and remarked upon.
The album and its creative force Lil Chano have breathed dazzling horns and insurmountable energy into an unprecedented sound coming from a Chi-town hip hop scene still shaking its recent drill music past. As the dominant type of Chicago rap,3 Drill has often been—rightly or wrongly—scapegoated as a primary reason for Chicago’s violent youth culture. It may or may not be, but Coloring Book4 offers a whole other world filled with love, self-reflection, and faith.
Art is either a reflection or a forecast of the culture it represents. With murder rates rising in Chi-town, I hope that that’s the case here.
One of Chano’s most obvious retreats was and is church. For a boy on the come up, church is a place full of contradictions. Heaven and hell. Sermons and serpents. Jeremiah and Job. The sole pursuit of faith balanced with the need for communion. The holiness of God and the lascivious world of temptation.
Listening to Chance’s latest drop for the first time, you knew to expect church. Coloring Book, it turns out, is cathedral of a mixtape filled with echoes and confession, celebration and sin, supplication and rapture. It’s the highest form of what he’s been reaching for to date.
To hear Kanye West say “music is all we got”—and mean it—is an echo of an earlier Kanye. The pink-poloed-All-Falls-Down-backpack-slangin Kanye. We need more of that Kanye, which we caught a glimpse of in The Life of Pablo. The pairing of Ye and Chano is an echo of that opening salvo too. Midway through Chances first verse, he even snatches a rhythm from the earlier tune. At the same time, the song is an open confession that the music isn’t everything—that work must still be done:
Wish I could tell you it’s ready
Tell you it’s ready today
They don’t give nothing away
You gotta fight for your way
And that don’t take nothing away
Cause at the end of the day
We may not have much, but this is all we got. This music that you’re bumping to with the windows down, hauling ass down the turnpike. This love, this family, this song—it all confesses to the miracle of being.
To prove Chano still cares about a mixtape, you don’t have to look farther than the next song “No Problem.”8 Mixtapes and the ubiquity of free music have been a yacht-sized thorn in the side of the industry. “No Problem” is a celebratory fuck you to record labels and their A & R’s. And while they foreshadow a choir of upcoming features, 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne represent two of the biggest rappers to have built their careers releasing 36 combined mixtapes.
Chainz stays weird,9 funny,10 and humbled.11 Weezy turns in one of his best verses in years,12 reminding everyone he is the undisputed champ of the mixtape class and culture.13 In a 40-bar romp, he weaves through the perks of being king and packs a dozen rhymes into two different four-bar stretches. Add Weezy F to the list of rapper resurrections Chance has presided over.14
Church needs faith, and Chance puts faith in the self-evident. I woke up this morning. My life is perfect. You’re special. On “Summer Friends” we see that that faith and enthusiasm emanates from tragedy and loss. Under the weight of layers and auto tune, Jeremih reaches for something incredible. Chance cuts through that suppression with a fun story about growing up in the Chi that turns into an all too real experience for most kids in the summer:
First day, nigga’s shooting
Summer school get to losing students
But the CPD getting new recruitment
Our summer don’t, our summer, our summer don’t get no shine no more
Our summer die, our summer time don’t got no time no more
Tragedy and loss are no strangers to youth of Chicago. Through the heat of a thick August, you can hear Lil Chano crooning, “Summer friends don’t stay.”
As a new father surrounded by this tragic inevitability, family has clearly taken on new meaning for Chance. This isn’t any clearer than in “Same Drugs,” a tender song about the moment the yellow marble turns a partly blue.15 It’s about growing up, not just for yourself but for the one you knew, the one you love, and the one you raise.
In a clever reframing of the Peter Pan, Chance becomes the boy who never grows up—who Wendy is, on the other hand, has many possibilities. Obviously, she’s the eldest Darling child with a “motherly” personality who eventually chooses to abandon childish things.16 Then there’s Wendy from Kanye’s “Homecoming”—a girl you’ve known since three who you loved and lost but still calls to talk about the kids wanting to be like Kanye.17 Through watching Wendy grow old, it exposes Chance as a proxy for yourself growing old too. “Don’t forget the happy thoughts” turns into a plea for Wendy and self.
Collapse the artist Chance with the person Chance,18 Wendy is both his fiancée and daughter. Despite an emotional proximity, Chance and his fiancée live vastly different day-to-day lives19 that have to be reconciled when they come home together.20 Wendy is the little one you don’t want to grow any older.21
Not unlike “Summer Friends,” “Same Drugs” is fun and easy to sing along to—because drugs—but implicit in the “We don’t do the same drugs no more” is the realization that growing up sucks. Wendy is that girl in elementary school I sold the crack pipe to at the gas station. Wendy is my little sister. Wendy is my 1-year old daughter learning to fly. All you need is happy thoughts.
Wide eyed kids being kids
When did you stop?
What did you do to your hair?
Where did you go to end up right back here?
When did you start to forget how to fly?
The end of childhood is tragic. It’s at that precise moment—the inflection point of every childhood—that “We don’t do the same drugs no more” turns from a fun, meme-able refrain into a chilling diagnosis for how we got here and how we ended up so far apart.
Coloring Book is simultaneously responding to its environment while closing the trilogy. Chano has a real sense of scope and legacy, and he’s spoken on the desire to complete a holy mixtape trinity. He told Complex recently, “Everything you write as an artist is about your legacy and your catalog, and how you would look in a museum.”
If you hung up the cover art of Chance’s mixtapes like it were a museum installation, you’d get an indication of how much each of Chance’s works speak to each other.22 The tryptic gives us a small arc of Chance’s career and growth as an artist. A young rapscallion on 10 Day, Chano was fixed on something higher—warm while the world remained cold.
On Acid Rap, he’s looking right23 at you, eyes wide open, straight ahead. He becomes purple24 as he seeks balance throughout the mixtape. He is the color of an august album that learns to celebrate not in spite but exactly because of the “kid’s toetagging” and “everybody dying in the summer.”
In the three years between Chance2 and Chance3, he became the first independent artist to perform on Saturday Night Live then did it again. He negotiated a rare deal (for a friend) with the largest music distributor in the world that guaranteed his music remained not just free but for freedom. He lectured at Harvard. He starred in a VICE short film. He graced tracks for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, West, Madonna and Mike Tyson, Busta Rhymes, James Blake, Lil Wayne, his actual brother Taylor Bennet, and like 20 other folks. He put on free shows all over his hometown and surprise-chaperoned Chicago Public School field trips. He constantly raised up his community. He had a daughter.
It’s no wonder that on the cover of Coloring Book, he is now cool one, and all that warmth, he’s imposed upon the world.
Chance makes the music I wish I had. Not just because it’s genre-bending but because it has a force of faith and enthusiasm I wish I had the tenth of to put into any work I’ve ever made. To do and create a Great Thing requires not only imagining it but a full-hearted belief that it is achievable and that I am the only one capable of making it so. In the deeply personal space of creating art, it is an act of faith in one’s self. Being and doing and acting on that faith is a radical form of self-love, and now is the time for self-love in Chicago and across a country dealing with the worst political identity crisis in a hot minute. This is all we got.
Part of Chance’s gift is his comfort and conviction of metaphors like serpents and mustard seeds, but what makes him truly special is the sweeping world he’s able to build out of his faith. Chance is the master of the cold reference and uses them to create worlds—pulling as easily from Western literary canon25 to modern black street art26. He’s just as comfortable calling on Harry Potter27 as he is speaking Hebrew.28
We expect from art—and especially faith—to be whole and irreproachable, but Chance admits freely that it’s all broken, fragmented, and rarely purely his. Instead, he arranges and rearranges until it rhymes. He’s the kaleidoscope, the unity of disparate things that refracted against each other make something else entirely.
But it doesn’t end with the end. The work of Coloring Book is constantly in motion, drawing and redrawing spaces for folks to believe in a not-too-distant world filled with grandmothers and childhood friends, a world of summer schools and rolling rinks, a world where loss leads to enlightenment. For doing that, this mixtape is more church than church.29
It’s not the intro it’s the entrée to something bigger. It’s a deeply personal connection to something higher, but just as church is not complete with faith alone, making a better world means doing better things. It’s always been yours and mine to fill in. It’s a Coloring Book, after all, and the book don’t end with Malachi. It’s a call to action, and now, finally, we have a musical language—at least a soundtrack—to sing and dance about the fruition of hope and change. This is a god dream. Welcome to the Church of Chance.