This is my part nobody else speak.
That’s Chancelor Bennett on “Ultralight Beam,” the gospel-tinged opening track of Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo. The song is a soaring anthem with a full choir and a positive message. “We on a ultralight beam/This is a God dream/This is everything,” rap-sings Yeezy. And then Chance the Rapper comes in, soothingly folding in his lisp-y voice with the synth-heavy orchestration.
And he steals the entire album.
On a record that attempted to recreate the meeting-of-minds vibe of Kanye’s 2010 masterpiece, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, that included features from Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, Sia, Vic Mensa, and an introduction to Desiigner that gave him a surprise #1 hit, the unquestionable best moment belongs to Chance on that opening track.
For the 23 year old Chicago native whose biggest influence has clearly been the Chi-Town producer-turned-rapper, this was certainly a big moment. On Chance’s breakout 2013 mixtape, the excellent Acid Rap, he started out by sampling Kanye’s intro from Freshman Adjustment 2 mixtape.
Listen: “All We Got” – Chance the Rapper
And then, on Coloring Book, Yeezy himself shows up on the first song, the soaring and triumphant, “All We Got.” But he doesn’t steal the show the way that Chance did on “Ultralight Beam.” Kanye comes in autotuned and gleeful. “Music is all we got!” he and Chance announce in unison.
“Ultralight Beam” and “All We Got” represent about as clear of a torch passage as we’ve seen in Hip-Hop. And it’s a necessary one, because Coloring Book doesn’t just build on what Kanye created. It absolutely excels at what Kanye attempted, and didn’t quite reach on The Life Of Pablo.
Coloring Book is a posse album. It’s an album of friends and fun, bringing in features from both Chance’s Chicago crew (Towkio, live jazzy production from Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment, the always excellent Noname) and a set of blockbuster guests (Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, Future, Justin Bieber) that make that Kanye appearance on the opener look small.
It exemplifies the best of hip-hop cooperation, bringing in voices from across the country, and from wildly different strata of the hip-hop landscape. Young Thug joins Chance for “Mixtape,” an ode to the music the two love giving away for free, tinged with a drugged out Atlanta-style stupor that plays to Thug’s strengths but doesn’t swallow up Chance’s. It’s followed by “Angels,” the album’s lead single, which sounds bright enough for sunglasses with its choral backing, calypso-tinged instrumentation that sounds like a Mario Kart soundtrack, and Chicago native Saba singing “I got angels all around me they keep me surrounded.”
The variety of the record plays to all the things that Chance does so well, and reveals new ones we could never have expected (the dance track “All Night” felt like the album’s lone misstep on first listen, but has grown on me). But they are all held together by Chance’s absolutely relentless positivity.
Chance is a force of happy thoughts so potent that him playing a superhero saving Chicago residents on the L in the “Angels” video feels almost modest. The album drips with a level of sincerity that is practically anathema in 2016.
Watch: “Angels” – Chance the Rapper ft. Saba
Coloring Book is deeply religious, ensuring that the frequent appearance of the Chicago Children’s Choir do not feel odd in the least. The late track “How Great” features three minutes of straightforward church gospel singing before Chance or guest rapper Jay Electronica can spit a rhyme over a loop of the previous vocals.
Coloring Book is the gospel album that The Life of Pablo was supposed to be. It shows not only Kanye’s influence (going back to “Jesus Walks,” one of Ye’s first hits), but also that of Kendrick Lamar, one of Chance’s few peers with the kind of ambition that makes for a project like this, who also has proclaimed a deep love of God even as he delves into a modern America that doesn’t always have time for Him. It has ambitions as high as the most high.
Perhaps the only voice missing from Chance’s opus is Lil B. Nine months ago the BASEDGOD and Chance joined up for a mixtape called Free, featuring nothing but freestyle raps they released (you guessed it) for free on Soundcloud.
Lil B in many ways created a blueprint for Chance’s unflinching positive vibes. The relentlessly strange rapper made encouraging happiness his brand, taking it all the way to a lecture at New York University* where he proclaimed, “every single person you meet, look at them like a golden million dollar baby.”
Free is a little strange. It is about as polished as you would expect from a collection of only freestyles, especially one from the notoriously prolific and haphazard Lil B. It sounds almost accidental. But it highlighted not only Chance’s unfailing talent but also the way that the two voices could work together, manifesting a powerful optimism that created something unique in rap.
But perhaps comparing Chance to Lil B, or Kanye, or anyone is after all a futile project. Coloring Book succeeds not because of any of the myriad features or the influences, but because of Chance himself.
Chance the Rapper is one of those few glorious artists that digs into their emotions in search of inspiration, and rather than finding melancholy and pain in the deepest recesses of their soul, creates deeply moving beauty out of a pure expression of joy. Coming from the South Side of Chicago, Chance has reasons to have grown up with a rain-cloud.
Listen: “Same Drugs” – Chance the Rapper
And there is certainly darkness on Coloring Book. My two favorite tracks, “Same Drugs” and “Smoke Break,” both address the difficulty of losing close friendships as we age, each through the framing of the ways Chance used to do drugs with old friends that have become unfeasible as responsibilities increased.
It’s a surprisingly mature theme from a rapper who is still too young to rent a car. But he’s always been like this, going all the way back to his first mixtape, 10 Day in 2012, which he recorded while suspended from high school for that titular period.
Even then, Chance was fully formed. His virtuosic rhyme skills, his relentless positivity, and his obsession with yelling “Nyeh!” were all there. Because for all the pieces that fit together to create a work as great as Coloring Book, the largest remains Chance himself. He radiates beauty and joy, not through naivete, but through earning it. He’s no longer a kid reaching for the stars. He’s playing with giants, and he’s winning.
This is his part. Nobody else speak.
*It’s here where I can’t help but mention that I am a proud NYU alum (Fighting Violets!) and also that there is a song by the BASEDGOD about my alma mater, which is probably the best thing about my degree.