Coloring Book: A Foreword
A brief description of Catharus ustulatus (The Olive-backed thrush)
The Olive-backed thrush is one of the smaller songbirds of North America, but still renowned and ranked as having the most beautiful call. Its song is a delicate twee, often being compared to a soft flute play. Its gentler call has been shown to woo mates and attract the attention of surrounding birds, noted as one of the most uniquely gorgeous coos by ornithologists and fellow birds alike.
A brief description of Menura novaehollandiae (The Superb lyrebird)
The Superb lyrebird is perhaps most well known for its ability to mimic any birdcall it hears, and many surrounding noises it hears. The bird’s songbook is the widest in recorded history, possessing the ability to not only recreate an individual bird’s mating call, but entire flocks’ collective chattering. Of every songbird species, the lyrebird has the most complex syrinx, granting it free reign in sound impersonations. In urban areas, it has been documented as impersonating baby cries, car exhaust, and nearly any musical instrument.
A brief description of Coloring Book (The Chancellor hymn)
Coloring Book, the third mixtape by the underground-turned-household name Chance the Rapper, is his most dauntingly expansive, sacrificing some of the personal-ness of his past work. 10 Day chronicled the mindset of a high-school-aged Chance dealing with his out-of-school suspension, and follow-up Acid Rap combined soulful instrumentals with drugged-out family raps whose foundation never strayed from his signature perspective on discrimination and youthfulness. With Coloring Book, Chance has upped the features and stripped away the stories, giving a fuller musical offering without the emotiveness of his previous releases.
Coloring Book: A Prologue
Coloring Book emerged from the aftermath of Acid Rap, Surf, and The Life of Pablo. Between the release of Acid Rap and Coloring Book, Chance’s musical career has shifted drastically. The biggest features he could call upon in 2013 were either Vic Mensa or Childish Gambino; now, his collaborators comprise the entire field of modern hip-hop, acting as a tour of the landscape, encompassing all of its varying backgrounds and schools of thought.
It traces the production qualities of Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment while retaining the same Christian maximalism of “Ultralight Beam”. And where Surf faltered as a directionless mess of jazz and soul, Chance’s third offering thrives as a fusion of his past and connections, both musically and spiritually. From Chicago to Atlanta to trap stylings to Sunday Church with the family, Coloring Book wears its influences like a badge of honor, occasionally to a fault, but mostly to its strength.
And as far as strengths go, Chance’s uniqueness has always been his strongest asset. There was never any confusion when Chance was rapping or singing. His soft and often difficult-to-place vocal stylization was unlike anyone else’s, with his adlibs of “igh!” and “na na” offering a grating originality to his tracks. He played to emotionality in a way that felt genuine, abstaining from Drake levels of sentimentality. And much like the Olive-backed thrush, it was this delicate display of individuality that garnered Chance so much attention. Disappointingly, Coloring Book shows Chance shedding away the resemblance to the thrush and instead clinging to the mindset of the Superb lyrebird, offering little in terms of differentiating his vocalizations to those of his more boisterous features. Chance assumes the role of his features instead of utilizing their additions as a contrast to his vibrancy. And that’s a flaw that’s very hard to get over.
Select Readings from The Book of Color
How great is our God
The most obvious element of Coloring Book is its holiness, its deeply tapped spirituality and connection to Christianity. Chance helms lyricism with a focus on themes of the Lord and personal reflection on the place of devoutness in his life that, for so long, has been devoid of it, at least at this level. From “Blessings” to “Angels”, many of the songs’ cores are different intangibilities that modern Christians face. The overtness of the evangelical themes isn’t the issue with the record (though some have criticized it for its blatant religiousness). No, the real issue comes from the development of Chance to get to this point, a flaw that comes with creating Christian positivity in a realm of digestible hip-hop.
Chance likes to paint himself as the epitome of the modern religious man. On “Grown Ass Kid”, a track that was unfortunately cut due to an uncleared sample, he raps, “Everybody finally can say it out loud/My favorite rapper a Christian rapper”. But if he’s trying to assert his status as the leading voice in a more devout direction of hip-hop, should the degeneracy remain? He proudly raps on multiple tracks about his illegitimate daughter, how much he loves her and how he hopes to make her mother his wife some day. And although the instrumentals for every gospel track are cranked to their fullest, complete with soulful samples, heavy brass orchestration, and choir backings, the lyrical devotion to this strict morality strays into conflicting territory, giving the sentiments an undesired hollowness.
We don’t do the same drugs no more
As any fan of Chance knows, more than a God connoisseur, he’s a pretty reliable authority figure on what it’s like to be on various drugs. Acid Rap heavily dealt in these topics, with “Pusha Man” featuring a thirty-second pause, one that was meant for the people who were listening to the song while on acid, as they would truly “get” its placement. “Same Drugs”, despite not being about actual drug addiction, presents some of the issues with Chance’s newfound intense moral values. It’s a high-wire balancing act to maintain the same audience that fell in love with a tape that glorified drug exploration while introducing an entirely contradictory viewpoint.
It’s not like Coloring Book is completely devoid of everything illegal, the same illegal things Chance has taken a part in for years. “Smoke Break” shows Chance channeling his inner auto-tune, something that had thankfully laid dormant for his career up until this tape. And with the help of Future, Chance takes a break from preaching the good word to light a bowl, which is as conceptually out of place as it sounds. The conceptual heterogeneity can be chalked up to the mixtape motif, but when so many songs capture that feeling of godliness, the ones that forget about it stick out.
Kanye’s best prodigy/He ain’t sign me but he proud of me
This heterogeneity is the same one that (to a greater extent) plagued The Life of Pablo. And it’s not really a surprise that there would be this near-identical conceptual imbalance when Chance is driving the point home so hard that he is the protégé of Kanye West. Almost overnight, it seems, Chance has become the spiritual successor to the biggest musical name to come out of Chicago. Chance’s feature on “Ultralight Beam” made copious references to Kanye’s past tracks, and Chance was apparently instrumental in keeping “Waves” on the album. Now, on Coloring Book, he mirrors Kanye’s latest with a reversal of feature. The two-part “Blessings” has a hook built on asking, “Are you ready”, evoking that same soulful catchiness of Kanye’s “Good Friday”.
On top of lyrical homages, the construction of Coloring Book is in a lot of ways similar to a Kanye West album. Many tracks are built around soul sampling, and there’s hardly a track that doesn’t reference Chicago lifestyle. But the biggest indicator of his influence is in the copious number of features. Where Acid Rap felt like a collection of Chicago veterans coming together to celebrate one artist’s vision, Coloring Book feels like the coming together of hip-hop past and present. The roster is impressive, featuring Atlanta rappers 2 Chainz, Lil Yachty, and Young Thug, as well as other heavyweights like Jay Electronica and T-Pain. And while each feature is used skillfully, the combination of all of these features becomes overwhelming and impossible to consistently maintain.
Coloring Book: An Epilogue
So, given his change in direction and change in demeanor, Coloring Book is bound to repel numerous fans of Chance and hip-hop alike. Online, there are already outcries of the change-up, with many citing “No Problem” and “Mixtape” as the best tracks the release has to offer, though these are clearly the sentiments of those unwilling to adapt to change, which is especially odd considering Kanye has been toying with these sounds earlier in the year. That sound, one that Kanye proclaimed would be hailed as a good-times-driven, barbecue cookout soundtrack, has been expanded upon with Coloring Book, a mixtape that fits the descriptions of The Life of Pablo better than it did itself.
As weird as it may seem, Coloring Book ended up being less of a look at the growth of Chance the Rapper and more of a look at the growth of hip-hop. It’s entirely possible that gospel-hop will fade away as a quickly-forgotten fad of this year, but it’s equally as possible we’re witness to the groundwork of a new attitude and approach to sonic layering in the genre. And if this is a glimpse at the near-future of hip-hop, the only question that remains is: Are you ready?
– Zach W.