Aaron McGruder’s absurdist show Black Jesus frequently failed as a comedy, but as an exploration of modern black Christianity, it was unparalleled. Tucked between the smoldering stoner jokes and stale stereotypes was an insistence that the relationship between black Christians and their god is best understood on a personal level, outside of church halls and inside the humdrum of everyday existence.
Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper’s third mixtape and his second project distributed via Apple, is deafeningly religious, brimming with testimonies, exaltations and blessings that are loud enough to rock a megachurch and its town-sized parking lot. Purged of the drug-addled skepticism of Acid Rap and pulsing with the free-wheeling spirit and zeal that bolstered Surf, Coloring Book is a breezy listen: direct and purposeful.
Forgoing a narrative of redemption, repentance or struggle, Chance spends the bulk of the album insisting that he’s already found salvation. “Man I swear my life is perfect,” he insists on the opener “All We Got.” “I just might give Satan a swirlie,” he boasts later on the same song, his demons so defeated that they’re mockable. At the end of Acid Rap, there was a strong sense of ambivalence as Chance repeatedly chanted “everything’s good,” but here there is nothing but triumph. “Exalt, exalt glorify,” he proclaims on “How Great,” the most straightforward lyrics in his entire catalog.
The sounds backing Chance and his songs of triumph are often gospel staples, but there’s an improvisational spirit that pushes past praise. “No Problem,” produced by Brasstracks, is maximally exuberant, the sampled voices mixed to not just ascend toward the heavens but also to careen sideways, like unfurling fireworks. On “How Great,” The Social Experiment melds a stalwart choir with the wails of a drowning robot then brings the stew to a simmer over crisp claps, fading out with allegro flair. This varied soundscape keeps Chance on his toes, giving him infinite ways to twist his thoughts and his voice into the reverent praises he’s so devoted to.
Alongside Chance’s devotion to God is a devotion to artistic freedom, but this is one of the weaker strains of the mixtape. As exhilarating as it is to hear Chance taunt labels on “No Problem” and “Mixtape,” when Chance raps, “I don’t make songs for free, I make songs for freedom” on “Blessings” there’s a convenient slippage. Even if he sold Coloring Book to Apple on his own terms, the fact that the mixtape is exclusively being distributed via Apple’s paid music service is hard to view as freedom. After all, even if the listeners who sign up to listen don’t pay now, they’ll have to pay eventually when their free subscriptions expire, which is Apple’s real reason for acquiring rights to the album. A transaction deferred is still a transaction.
Coloring Book is at its best when Chance is laser-focused on the fine print. “Juke Jam,” which features Chance teaming up with Justin Bieber and Chicago rapper Towkio, is a hip-tilting slow jam centered around a romance forged in a roller rink. The song builds around carefully arranged parallels. “I used to talk way too much, you used to know everything/You couldn’t stand me, I couldn’t stand you,” Chance croons in the first verse. “We never rolled at the rink, we would just go to the rink/You ain’t buy tokens no more, you just hip roll at the rink,” he reminiscences in the second verse, after some years have passed. As the verse continues, he slyly bends the parallels, making the lovers eventually converge, waist in hips. The arc of the story is entirely predictable, but the journey is riveting as hell.
“Summer Friends,” a requiem and paean to deadly and lively Chicago summers, is just as detailed. “79th Street was America then/Ice cream truck and the beauty supply, Blockbuster movies and Harold’s again,” Chance raps in a hushed double-time before describing gun violence as a “plague.” Moments like this serve to contextualize his limitless faith, grounding the talk of angels and freedom with the experiences that make such talk feel necessary for survival.
Ultimately, although the volume of Chance’s piety may feel like evangelism, Coloring Book is far from gospel rap. Chance The Rapper feels that he has been blessed with family, friends, talent and opportunity, and few things give him more joy than extolling those blessings. This isn’t the music of someone who’s been born again. It’s the music of someone who is constantly thrilled to still be living.