Tag Archives: kanye west

The church of chance: Creating space, making worlds between the lines of Coloring Book

“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

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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.

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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.

Chance greets us in “All We Got” as cheerful as ever. The song serves as a life-update,5 a dedication6 and celebration.7

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.”

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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.

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 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.

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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.

 

 

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What the hell happened Saturday? – Pt. 2: Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, Chance’s better angels, and Kendrick’s Grammy performance

This thinkpiece1 is the second of a tryptic of posts trying to wrap my head around what happened Saturday. Quick recap: The night started out with a GOP Debate that was clearly written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. During this time, the greatest NBA Slam Dunk competition in the history of ever happened (and by extension, the best overall mini-games day of All-Star Weekend in recent memory). Then, Chance the Rapper killed Saturday Night Live—like I-was-transported-to-an-otherworldly-church killed—presaging the release of Kanye West’s latest album, which is singularly the most erratic, momentarily brilliant filament of platinum I’ve consumed in a long time. Needless to say, I stayed up late trying to make sense of it all. I’m still digesting.

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“What if Kanye made a song, about Kanye?

Called “I Miss the Old Kanye,” man that would be so Kanye” – Kanye West, “I Love Kanye”

“[T]he mind of the mature poet differs from that of the immature one not precisely in any valuation of “personality,” not being necessarily more interesting, or having “more to say,” but rather by being a more finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations…The analogy was that of the catalyst. When the [oxygen and sulfur dioxide] are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. – TS Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”

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Of course the tragedy that is Kanye West would ensure that The Life of Pablo was always going to be disappointing, but fortunately, Kanye brought Chance the Rapper with him on SNL, lifting him and us up to new heights. TLOP has proven to be a decent album peppered with near-genius production, largely held up by a simulacra of emotional and intellectual depth that ultimately kept it coming up short and out of water.

Produced by any other hip hop artist, TLOP would be a fine work worthy of much praise. But Kanye is not merely another hip hop artist. Kanye is influential. Kanye is genre-defining. Kanye is enigmatic as hell, and Kanye, through Kanye’s sheer force of will, changed hip hop.

Kanye spends most of his time waxing about how Kanye is all these things.

I think I’m over Kanye.2

Alas, Kanye wasn’t the only thing to happen to hip hop since Saturday. The Grammy’s came and went. They weren’t the train wreck the Oscars3 were. Still stifled by its own injustices, we at least got to witness Kendrick Lamar perform one for the ages and hopefully the first of many cute, clever way to take shots at Kanye.

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I miss the old Kanye,

Straight from the go Kanye

Perhaps more than any other rapper since the turn of the century, the experience of listening to Kanye’s music matters. I remember a 15-year-old me falling onto my pillow with Late Registration pumping through the lightweight headphones of a JVC CD player. I spent the months after college playing pickup in the heat of a summer sun, blasting Yeezus to the displeasure of unsuspecting straight-laced park patrons.

Kanye was all about experiences back then too—even when his albums became more self-centered.4 Kanye didn’t just care about the experience of struggling and ultimately failing to keep a promise to his mother or the experience of turning that failure into an advantage or the experience of imposing your identity politics on a world so shockingly prepared to embrace you. He cared about the experience of listening to his story; old Ye wanted to make sure you heard yourself in him.

Ya. I miss the old Kanye. I miss the catalyst and product Kanye, the platinum and acid Kanye. I miss the “more finely perfected medium” Kanye.

I miss the old Kanye who cared about the people around him—not because he was a philanthropist or represented the struggle—but because that was his pallet, the subject matter he rapped about. For old Kanye, those stories mattered, and he was giving them voice. Kanye’s focus on fashion, and most recently, tech, has come to consume him. As a result, his singular vision—centered on what Kanye can do, what Kanye should do—has replaced what was truly remarkable about him in the first place.

Finally listening to TLOP after midnight, in the wee hours of Valentine’s Day, was unremarkable and flat. The album was supposed to drop Feb 11 after his fashion show. He added six new tracks though—in large part thanks to Chance. Fine. This pushed the release date to the 12th. Which meant I spent the day periodically checking his website, Twitter, Tidal5 to no avail.

Then somewhere on one of my timelines, the SNL performance popped up:

 

First impressions are dangerous. I kept asking myself, What the hell, Kanye? This is what you made me wait for? This is what you’ve been perfecting? But then the whole tone and texture of the performance changed when the other voices came in—the choir, The-Dream, Kelly Price, and Chance the Rapper—to lift him and the rest of us all up somewhere we’ve never been.

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I hate the new Kanye

It’s not the misogyny in the music, the bumbled release, or the sheer hubris it takes to say and believe “I am a God.”6 It’s not even the pre-pubescent lack of focus, which is, in large part responsible for the expansiveness and underlying disorder of TLOP. I don’t care that his words aren’t saying anything we haven’t heard before. 7 At least he’s saying enough to not tank the whole damn production.

   West excels at bringing people and styles together and assembling them in uncanny ways.

If there is brilliance in this latest iteration of Ye, it’s that TLOP is his first real synthesis. Each project before was distinct in its style8 and for the first time, he pulls together those influences in a single album. TLOP is a good album—an A-/B+ by Ye’s standards.9 He even captures and expands on the syllabic tripling made popular by Migos and now Future to set a pace which largely been unheard to this point.

What’s most striking about this Kanye project is that Kanye is at his best when Kanye’s not at the center. It’s no coincidence that the best parts of TLOP are when Kanye’s not rapping.10 West excels at bringing people and styles together and assembling them in uncanny ways. TLOP is the ultimate manifestation of this skill. Only Kanye could so convincingly tie the myriad of loose ends that are the samples, features, bloops and bleeps of his latest album into something semi-lucid enough to be considered whole. Kanye as composer. Kanye as fulcrum. Kanye as medium.

If that proved to be Ye’s legacy from here on out, that would be enough to crown him GOAT. If he remained the catalyst that pulled these previously disparate voices together, he’d be platinum for life. Think about the opportunity to continually influence the next wave of rappers and producers and then bringing them onto the next project to influence the next cadre of hip hop artists. Kanye’s own personal self-fulfilling echo chamber. What irony is this that the lack of Kanye’s presence could amplify Kanye’s impact.

He’ll never figure this out though. Tragic Kanye continues to hold GOAT Kanye back.

More insidious than anything is the work Kanye’s done to mar the window into Kanye’s creative process—a perspective I am always grateful for across any genre.11 Kanye, by being Kanye, has ruined Kanye’s music for so many who would otherwise adore Kanye and Kanye’s music, and that sad-ass fact is starting to impact my own perception of Kanye’s music12

There’s an established school of thinking in art and literary criticism that says any work is and should be independent from the biographical information of the artist. I wholly abide by this. We are all creatures of consumption, and if we had to question the morality, judgement, and character of every author of the things we consume, the whole world’s economy would seize into paralysis. I hate that Kanye makes me want to abjectly reject such a fundamental theory that’s underpinned my whole conception of art—largely on the weight of disgust. It’s not the type of questioning of assumptions Kanye should be proud of.

Kanye needs a break from Kanye—at least a breather or a step back.

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See I invented Kanye.

It wasn’t any Kanyes.

Now I look and look around and there’s so many Kanyes

“Ultralight Beams” is one of Kanye’s rare gems that rely on heavily on pace and layers.13 This is in large part due to all the features. Even the song title foreshadows the ambivalence between utter lack of substance and beam-me-up-Scotty transcendence. Which makes sense if you accept UB as a conversation with and within church. Within communion and congregation, in song or in practice, you accept the range of voices from the small-minded to the stoic to the soaring. This is in-the-room music for every room.

When they come for you, I will shield your name.

I will field their questions. I will feel your pain.

They don’t— they don’t know.

They don’t know. (Chano on 79th)

It’s no coincidence either that UB features more artists than any other track on TLOP. Each new voice represents an incremental tonal shift that traces the arc of rapture. First, Kanye’s trepidation as his “dream” falls out of pitch. Then enter The-Dream’s quiet restraint that sets the foundation for Kelly Price’s flight to a higher plane. And of course mid-air, Chance swoops in to reframe the very thing you were listening to, plucking these wings made for flight, pointing out you’ve been swimming this whole time.

Chance, who’s spent his entire waking life looking up to Kanye, casts his Lot with Genesis, imagining himself a righteous man of God. Generations above Jesus, he skips across the surface of genealogy like it ain’t no thing in the service of a lighthearted pun, a sincere dig at young love.14

I’m just having fun with it.

You know that a nigga was lost,

I laugh in my head because I bet that my ex lookin back like a pillar of salt.

Ughhhhh. (Chano on 79th)

In rhyme, rhythm and spirit, this 22-year old layers remarkable resonances until they falls back on themselves. A cascading kaleidoscope of shimmering light playing with our ears, signaling something about the way we listen: texture.

If you don’t like Kanye’s music, it’s easy to gloss over Kanye, to make Kanye the butt of every joke, and ignore Kanye’s hold on young minds.

In the shadow of Price’s reassurance, “that you’ll take good care of your child…we look to the light.” Enter Chance the Ultralight Beam. Throughout his verse, Chano reflects and imbues his relationship with a higher spirit with the love of daughter. At once, he is both father15 and child,16 teacher17 and student,18 at home19 and abroad.20 and the rest of him freewheeling into the present,21 Chance finds himself at liberty, squarely in the tradition of crafting new combinations. South side of Chicago folk hero Kanye West sets the stage for Chance—literally, in the case of the SNL performance. When Chano stops rhyming in the middle of the song, he insists that it’s his time to speak. He takes, occupies, and fills up the space Kanye once held while the old head looks on, smiling and struck by the spirit.

If you don’t like Kanye’s music, it’s easy to gloss over Kanye, to make Kanye the butt of every joke,22 and ignore Kanye’s hold on young minds.

One of hip hop’s loudest voices in 2016 croons in full-throated invocation of a higher power—full of rainbows and gosh darns, awe and power, soda fountain musicals and grand mama’s hands.

Ya, for sure, I love Chano like Kanye loves Kanye.

Every Chano cut pushes forward the boundaries of hip hop, this thing that we always thought we knew so well. He indulges fully—an approach ripped straight from his predecessors23—his better angels. And for that,24 we owe a great debt to Kanye.

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Still no one likes jazz rap

Kendrick Lamar gave a Grammy performance for the ages on Monday night. In nine minutes he compressed the sweeping expression of modern black culture that is To Pimp a Butterfly. He even added an air of theatrical plot development—yet another genre-bending move worthy of music’s highest honor.

The performance was painful, celebratory, and relentless.

It stole the coming days’ conversation but the Grammy voters stole his award.

After all, no hip-hop song has won record or song of the year at the Grammy’s. Only two hip hop artists have ever won Album of the Year, and one them beat out none other than your boy Kendrick. The institutional racism that uses a Kdot performance to boost ratings and credibility while denying him it’s top honor for a universally acclaimed album that skewers institutional racism among other things is an irony I cannot bear.

Taylor Swift is nice, happy, and marketable. I wish her all the commercial success in the world.25 I also wish her a fierce rebellious phase that rejects the comforts she’s been afforded.26 I wish the self-awareness and courage to recognize and publicly address that she wasn’t the underdog this time, probably wasn’t really ever27 and won’t be anytime soon.

I’d like to scream into the wind and whip up a fervor. I’d like to foam at the mouth. I’d like to disabuse ourselves of this duplicitous notion that the Grammy’s are about high art and not the safe, commercially successful alternative. But I’ll save it for next year when Kendrick loses AOY to the next Adam Levine.