From the moment Chance The Rapper leaps into his ecstatic preface, “…and we back, and we back and we back” on Coloring Book’s lead track, “All We Got” featuring Kanye West and Chicago Children’s Choir, a nostalgic feeling starts to stir. Behind the flutter of trumpets, it’s a familiar sensation of synesthesia, a blending of sound and color, deeply reminiscent of Chance’s mind-melting 2013 breakthrough, Acid Rap. Chance has a propensity for grand, orchestral introductions that whisk us away into far off lands of rap-surrealism; strange and beautiful landscapes that no other rapper can even dream of conjuring.
Not only does the introduction of Coloring Book circle directly back to the first track on Chance’s second official mixtape (where “and we back” also ushered us in with hurried breaths) but it also picks up right where his verse on Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam” left off. At the one-minute mark, Chance practically lowers his shoulders and dives into a rapid-fire rehearsal that follows both the cadence and speed of his landmark verse on The Life of Pablo. And by the end of Coloring Book’s very first track, we’re already seeing Chance make a play for Hip Hop’s most genuinely compelling voice. While Drake is equally self-referential, he’s just not as colorful. And while Kanye pushes the sonic envelope too, his material subject matter has outweighed his spirituality since Watch The Throne.
You’d also be hard-pressed to find another artist, across any genre, that can so seamlessly integrate the larger artist community into a single project without making it feel bloated. On Coloring Book’s second track “No Problem,” Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz contribute glitzy verses over the perfectly harmonized voices of a gospel chorus, but the approach is refined and anthemic, making for some of the most palatable appearances from both mainstream artists in recent memory. On “Summer Friends” we’re guided into the track by the soft cooing of an ascending gospel croon, but this quickly dissolves into a delightfully glitch-ridden bass-breakdown where Chance hops in and rides out over the beat like a breaking tidal wave. Chance has a knack for wordplay and referencing his previous work with remarkable accuracy, while still managing to create it anew instead of reliving old triumphs. He goes on to confess, “It’s been a minute since I called on a friend/ F*cked up and f*cked all my friends/ All my friends, all my…”
His 2015 single with Snakehips and Tinashe entitled “All My Friends” was our only glimpse at Chance’s new work before The Life of Pablo was released and finds its way into Coloring Book as if wrapped up in a lyrical scavenger hunt. Singer-songwriter Jeremih stacks the roster a bit higher on the track just before a soft violin outro fades away.
On “Same Drugs,” not only does the production pluck muted piano keys almost directly from Acid Rap’s “Chain Smoker,” but it also showcases Chance’s maturation from his older drug-dependencies. While he once famously proclaimed, “raps just made me anxious and acid made me crazy,” “Same Drugs” feels more like a departure from adolescence and relationships bonded by substance; “cause we don’t do the same drugs no more.”
“Mixtape” is pleasurably bassy and brooding, a remarkably astute standout where Chance rhetorically asks, “Am I the only n*gga still care about mixtapes?” an acknowledgment of the fact that Chance has never released a traditional album and yet still manages to find his way to Billboard’s 200 chart with an unapologetically DIY approach to marketing. Apple Music’s exclusive stream of Coloring Book (until May 27th when the release will open up to other platforms) is just another example of Chance’s atypical mastery of the music industry as a whole.
“Mixtape” rounds out with features from Young Thug and Lil Yachty (whose absurdist track “1Night” is finding its way to virality as we speak.) Both features showcase artists who were once on the fringe of industry, but have now found cult-status success with unwavering commitment to their own oddity. As opposed to Justin Bieber, who also makes an appearance that isn’t much more embellished than his feature credit, but is followed by perhaps the most euphoric moment of the entire album. “All Night” is produced by Montreal’s rising producer Kaytranada, and helps the album to reach a high-water mark of frenetic ecstasy: a bubbly flow of champagne spilling out in perfect rhythm.
Despite the incredibly diverse artist roster on Coloring Book (oh yeah, Jay Electronica decides to drop by toward the end of the party), the crux of production is tied together by The Social Experiment; the jazz-fusion ensemble that first gained mainstream attention with their free iTunes release, Surf. They contribute production on over half of the project, often helping to tie in thematic consistencies even when sharing their producer’s credit. The final notable guest-spot hurrah is Future, who contributes over the washed-out undulations of “Smoke Break,” delivering a compelling verse that almost makes up for his tawdry feature on Drake’s “Grammys.” Of course, Coloring Book finds its conclusion with an angelic choir outro and final meditations that rest heavily on biblical scripture.
If Kanye’s The Life of Pablo was a gospel album, Coloring Book is a fearless accentuation of God, glory and religion for the 21st century. Leveraging self, spirit and everything in-between, Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book is not an official album, but it’s certainly not just a mixtape either. It’s Chance’s magnum opus; an incredible feat of limitless artistry and the best Hip Hop release of 2016, all wrapped up neatly with a technicolor bow.
Visuals by Richie Williamson