Ultra Light Bland: Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book

Despite noble aims and bright spots, Chance's third mixtape falls short of Acid Rap's frenzied heights.
By    May 17, 2016
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Illustration by Mitsi Solano 

Paul Thompson is at the doctor. 

Is Chance the Rapper okay? A year ago, he cancelled a string of shows, word spreading via an eerily sterile third-person post on his normally tic-riddled Twitter account. Almost a year to the day before that tweet, he pulled out of Coachella and cancelled a couple of satellite shows. Last week, his scheduled set at a charity concert in New York had to be covered by Joey Badass, Mark Ronson, and Anderson .Paak as Chance checked into a local hospital.

Four days after that third hospitalization, Chance’s third solo mixtape, Coloring Book, was released exclusively on Apple Music. On the cover he’s smiling–beaming–while he looks down at his daughter, who was born to his longtime girlfriend last July. On his hat is the number 3, a reference to his roundly acclaimed verse on “Ultralight Beam,” the opening song from Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. (“He said, ‘Let’s do a good-ass job with Chance 3/ I hear you gotta sell it snatch the Grammy/ Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard that it ain’t one gosh-darn part you can’t tweet.’”)

Kanye billed Pablo as an experiment in gospel, and while “Ultralight Beam” defines that album to some, it’s really only joined by the West-less sermon on “Low Lights” and the Biblical reckoning on “Wolves” in exploring that world. (A generous reading might include songs like “Waves,” “Highlights,” or even “FML,” but those mostly grapple with the same pop-morality that’s marked Kanye’s work since the beginning.) As it turns out, it was the protege who dove headlong into the church. Coloring Book is, with a few notable detours, an hour-long act of praise.

But first we should talk about those detours. They’re usually not telegraphed: “Finish Line” is the album’s climax, and it’s supposed to be bright, joyous, redemptive. And sometimes it does sound like a victory lap, like when he raps–at the tail end of a record that features half the industry–”I’ve been getting blocked just trying to make songs with friends/ Labels told me to my face that they own my friends.” But look at this passage from the first verse:

Scars on my head, I’m the boy who lived
The boy love playing when the boy too sic
Reclining on a prayer, I’m declining the help
I’ve been lying to my body, can’t rely on myself
Last year, I got addicted to Xans
Suffocated my name, started missing my chance

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Illustration by Mitsi Solano

That’s not the only point on Coloring Book where he mentions pill addiction; on the first “Blessings,” he says “I know them drugs isn’t close, ain’t no visiting heaven.” So despite how bright and breezy it sounds, it’s hard, at least for me, to consider those lines and the hospitalizations, imagine the pressure of being a father, and not pause to worry about Chance when T-Pain sings “All my days, I prayed and prayed, and now I see the finish line.” On the “Blessings” reprise, which is separated from “Finish Line” only by Noname Gypsy’s excellent “Drown,” a chorus of Anderson .Paak, Ty Dolla $ign, and BJ the Chicago Kid singing “Are you ready for your blessings?” has the same effect.

Of course, fear of death isn’t the only reason someone might dive into their religiosity, and Coloring Book is not necessarily a meditation on Chance’s mortality. The converted might argue that praising God when things are good is even more important than pleading when times get tough. The cynic might look to Chance’s political pedigree and wonder if he isn’t just shoring up the base. In any event, the 23-year-old Chicagoan is probably fine, and I’m probably filtering his record through my own neuroses when I think it’s weighed down by his. And unfortunately, I feel comfortable arguing that last point because most of Coloring Book is so blandly, boringly happy.

Acid Rap was about a well-meaning kid being pulled apart at the seams by house parties and shootings and funerals and his first acid tabs. Chance was desperate for answers, desperate for direction–or on a song like “Paranoia,” simply desperate to be heard. On Coloring Book, he has all the answers. From the first song, he’s giving Satan swirlies and making Earl Grey tea. He opens the first “Blessings” by rapping “I don’t make songs for free, I make ‘em for freedom”–a nice enough thought if the ghost of Steve Jobs wasn’t holding the record hostage for two weeks. Too often, the tape makes me feel like I’m being sold something, like I’m on Hollywood and Vine being shouted at by a street preacher.

The overbearing sunniness is seldom given any context or born from any friction. Take the Future-featuring “Smoke Break,” which is a disorganized collection of platitudes and folksy nostalgia. Take the moment in “All We Got,” where he calls his life perfect, then realizes he could probably “merch it.” Maybe it’s a question of worldview; I can’t wrap my head around being this upbeat in the face of death, or even in the face of a long flight or a dentist’s appointment. It’s flat, and despite Chance’s earnest, eager vocals, it’s usually unconvincing.

It’s also, without doubt, a creative problem. There’s certainly nothing wrong with happiness, and while most great rap records put joy of some sort front and center for a couple of songs, there’s a reason Kanye’s verse on Honest was so bad, why Future’s life had to fall apart for him to hit his creative peak, why songs about peaceful domesticity don’t strike any lasting cords. You have to hold the good days in opposition to something–as our Curtis Jackson would say, joy wouldn’t feel so good if it wasn’t for pain.

And in fact, Chance is at his most interesting when he pulls in the conflicts he explored more thoroughly on Acid Rap. “Summer Friends” is about the epidemic of violence (and overfunding of the police) in his hometown, and the excellent, Saba-featuring lead single, “Angels,” references the same phenomenon. On each song, Chance finds a way to be moving in a way that few rappers working today are able to. He’s always been an astute, effective writer when he turns to the outside world and the people in it, and Coloring Book would be markedly better if he spent more time outside himself.

On the album’s B-side, there’s a two-song suite that should have Chance on the radio through the summer’s dog days. “Juke Jam” carries the torch for songs-about-dance-songs, and while Justin Bieber sounds like he misses the warmth of Diplo’s letter jacket, but Towkio gives us the flip of R. Kelly’s “Feelin’ on Your Booty” that we desperately need. “All Night” has an unfortunate, J. Coleian line about farting, but is first to market as an undeniable club song about fake friends trying to crowd your Uber. On each song, he puts the evangelizing on hold and the record flows much more smoothly. There’s also a bit of grit to each, which is sorely missed in all the celebration; I’m much more ready for songs about the night before than the church-and-brunch combo from the next morning.

Chance watches Young Thug float on “Mixtape” while his own nod to Da Drought 3 only serves to highlight how toothless his own record is by comparison. Then Chance, Thug, and the rest of us are forced to grit our teeth through another interminable Lil Yachty cameo. I saw Lil Yachty perform last night, and his hypeman wore a Mike Richards L.A. Kings jersey, which is a pretty damning thing to do, and which you understand if you’re a part of #MemeRapAndAllegedDrugDealingHockeyPlayersTwitter.

There are cuts that never really get off the ground for more technical reasons: “Same Drugs” is a concept with a ton of heft, but the writing is too anonymous to really cut through. Once it gets going, “How Great” has some superb lines (“You meet anyone from my city, they gon’ say that we cousins”) but hears them mostly overwhelmed by Chance’s Jay Electronica impression, and by Jay E’s middling verse. “D.R.A.M. Sings Special” opens like it might be an even more psychedelic version of Makonnen’s “Trust Me Danny,” but ends up being a buttoned-up Debra Laws update. Not my thing, but I hope he got his publishing.

There’s little doubt that the best song on Coloring Book is “No Problem,” the Brasstracks-produced, Lil Wayne- and 2 Chainz-featuring single. For once, the brightness is colored by frustration–”If one more label try to stop me, it’s gon’ be some dread-head niggas in the lobby.” But it’s also buoyed by the guests; the former Tity Boi invokes Petey Pablo and says “Inside of the Maybach look like it came out of Ikea.” and Wayne’s verse is transfixing, arriving by way of a flattened-out, dead-eyed delivery. Yet even within those confines, it packs more emotional weight (“Hold up–get too choked up when I think of old stuff“) than nearly anything Chance raps on the album.

This is the irony about Chance’s work that Coloring Book reveals. He’s an incisive writer when it comes to external forces, and has figured out how to communicate mood in his vocals. But he’s not yet to the point where he can articulate the bluntest feelings–sorrow, joy–in memorable ways. It’s a blind spot in his writing that could, in theory, be colored in, but for now it seems he has little incentive or desire to do so. The Chance on Coloring Book spends a lot of time trafficking in recent-nostalgia signifiers, because they’re neat placeholders for the real thing.

When I was a kid, I would have described my parents as passively religious–we were Anglicans in Calgary, Lutherans when we moved to Minneapolis and the Anglican church didn’t have covered parking. I haven’t been to church except for weddings and funerals in a handful of years. But I was annoyed with my Jewish girlfriend last month when she said she had no plans for us to celebrate Passover. I thought it was a bad omen, and then I went back to WebMD.

For the past few months, I’ve been convinced that I’m dying. It’s the kind of compulsion that leads me down symptom-checker k-holes but keeps me from making all my doctor’s appointments; I’ve been through four- and five-night stretches where I have recurring dreams about hospitals and hospices. I’ll be able to distract myself for a few hours, but that anxiety starts seeping back in, then turns quickly into a sort of paralysis that keeps me from doing anything constructive, or even imagining what that might look like. My mind starts to reel with all the things that might be killing me, then it shuts down completely.

What I’m saying is that I want to believe: in something bigger than me, in an afterlife, in a happy, talented kid from the Midwest. But Coloring Book is too thin, and at points too trite to confront any of the existential questions that it pretends are already answered. So even if unquestioning praise can be hard to critique–who wants to rain on communion?–it’s not quite enough to win any new converts.

 

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