Friday, May 20, 2016

album review: 'coloring book' by chance the rapper

Let's talk about faith.

Now before I blow open this can of worms, let me start by saying that I'm not talking about religion here - my own personal faith is private and complicated and probably would extend over more than just one video, and entangling it with religion doesn't make things easier. But that's not to imply that faith doesn't inspire art - often times it can inspire better art than religion itself, see the vast majority of the Christian music scene! Good art arises from conflict, and a crisis or conflict of faith is often times one of the most potent anyone can have, especially when there's no concrete answer to the questions presented.

But what about Chance The Rapper, the eternal bright-eyed optimist in modern hip-hop who has ignored major labels with aplomb to release free album after free album? Yeah sure, it's been called a 'mixtape', but at this point I doubt Chance is going to release anything outside of 'mixtapes' like these, so if I want to cover him at length, it'll involve me breaking my mixtape rule and talking about this. A rule, by the way, that I'm happy to break here: my experience with Chance The Rapper might be uneven - I really liked Acid Rap, Surf reveals itself as even more messy with every subsequent listen - but if you get him on a straightforward project he can spray colourful and relentlessly fun verses like no other - his verse on Kanye's 'Ultralight Beam' proved that and outshone nearly everyone else on the project. What did worry me was that, again like Surf, this project might have too many hands in the pot, with an overloaded guest list and many that you would not expect from reportedly a hip-hop gospel record! But hey, maybe Chance had managed to tap into the spiritual side of artists like Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, Future, Young Thug, and Justin Bieber - at the very least, it would force them out of their comfort zone. So I picked up Coloring Book - what did I find?

This was an interesting listen. Certainly more of a credible stab at blending gospel and rap than what Kanye tried in snippets on The Life Of Pablo, and I'd definitely say this record is a stronger release... but I dunno, while there is a lot to like about this record, outside of certain moments I'm not as hyped about it as I want to be. It's definitely good - there's more colour and personality and cohesion than what we got from Surf - but I can't help but feel there is something missing that'd really drive this record home for me. 

So to try and unpack this, let's start off with Chance The Rapper himself. And really, the majority of what I have to say is glowing: he's a charismatic and expressive rapper, capable of balancing a lighthearted sense of fun with real wordplay, and he's got the versatility to careen across a variety of flows and handle them all. I'm not going to say his wordplay is perfect - there are some points where the rhyming can feel a little sloppy - but it's got a carefree power that humanizes a lot of the gospel touches on this record. And the framing of the gospel material is interesting: not so much evangelical or placid complacence, but the reality that in the scarred, death-ridden ghettos of Chicago faith can be something that gives you strength to carry on - I can't fault him for that, and there is dramatic weight there! When you have songs like both versions of 'Blessings' or 'How Great' or 'Angels' or 'Finish Line/Drown', the strength and positivity of his faith is pretty infectious, although I did raise my eyebrows at lines like 'I don't believe in science / I believe in signs' - I get the subtext, but he definitely could have phrased that better. But what I appreciate is not just how Chance places his faith in context given his success - being genuinely thankful for all of his blessings, but also being a new father meaning that greater challenges are yet to come for him. And sure, some of those challenges are conventional enough - cronies trying to leech off him on 'All Night', which he actually downplays which is a weird fit against such a bouncy vibe on the song - but then you run into cases where he's moved into a different place than old friends or girls, like on the heartbreaking 'Same Drugs' or the dance reminiscence of 'Juke Jam', and there is some power there. And that's before we get to cases where the music industry tries to block their artists from collaborating with him, trying to control the uncontrollable.

Now there is a certain irony in that, given the huge array of guest starts Chance brings in, and where we encounter our first problem: mostly that with rare exception, these guest stars don't quite seem to be on the same page with Chance surrounding content or even production, and instead of making them fit within his vision, Chance bends to them. In some cases it makes sense: 'No Problem' rails against the label system and brings on Lil Wayne, who despite a few wack bars has a good verse - but then you have 2 Chainz going off topic and over the top, including how he 'run shit like diarrhea'... you know, just because you have Lil Wayne on the song doesn't mean you have to get scatological! But then it gets even more pronounced on 'Mixtape', where he piles on the autotune and Chance and Lil Yachty both have good verses lamenting commercialism in hip-hop... and then Young Thug doesn't even try to connect. Or take 'Smoke Break', where Chance is rapping about how their baby son doesn't give he and his girl much time to relax... and then Future uses it as an opportunity to rap about his drug-addled hustle and again bitch about Ciara. And then there's Kanye West who shows up on 'All We Got'... we'll talk about the mess of the production on that song in a bit, but would it have killed you to not have smothered autotune all over the hook, Kanye, or maybe actually drop a verse? This is an album where we got our annual Jay Electronica verse - and yeah, it's as on-point and full of baiting for the album that'll never come as ever - and yet Kanye couldn't be bothered. Granted, outside of Jay Electronica, the only other rap verse that stood out to me was from Noname on 'Finish Line/Drown', as she continues her winning streak with her plainspoken flow feeling surprisingly raw after the transition. And as for singers - well, for the most part Chance handled the hooks themselves, but I need to draw attention to Saba matching the energy on 'Angels' and a lowkey outro from Jeremih on 'Summer Friends' that hit me surprisingly hard - good small moment there.

But beyond that, we have to talk about production and instrumentation, where Surf stumbled big - and I wish I could say the inconsistent production there didn't show up here. Unfortunately, it does, and while it is nowhere near as bad, the mixing immediately starts off rough on 'All We Got', where Chance's verse seems fine against the trumpet and sparse beat, until the squonking thicker horns begin lumbering in and Kanye's heavily autotuned hook is entirely too loud against the rest of the mix - I don't doubt it was on purpose, but it's way too clumsy to connect properly. But then again, clumsiness might as well be a motif of this record - and again, it's not always a bad thing. 'Same Drugs' has the sort of half-assembled meandering vibe that works with the piano melody supported by the fragments of strings and guitar, but when you take a look at the ramshackle 'Juke Jam' that interpolates an R.Kelly melody complete with awkward pitch-shifting and Justin Bieber sounding way too clear on the post-chorus, or 'Smoke Break' with its harp-like flutter against an incredibly crisp cymbal, stumbling bass, horns, and turgid organ, you get the feeling there's a foundation that's missing here. And that's before we get songs like 'Mixtape' that don't really fit with the album at all sonically, with the trap snares and dank atmosphere. Because this album does have a distinct, pseudo-gospel sound - and it is a weird interpretation. Similar to the interpretation that Kanye tried on 'Ultralight Beam', it's a blend of clear, soulful vocals, horns pressed through various states of compression, and a whole ton of vocal effects warping them into a malleable melody. And on some level I get these choices - synthesizing a gospel that can work in the modern hip-hop era, it is defiantly unique, and songs like 'No Problem' and 'Angel' and both 'Blessings' songs make it work. But overall... I'm not sure the approach clicks with me on a deeper level, and I think I get why. I might not have covered a lot of gospel over the past few years, but much of what I have covered there was organic grit and humanity to it, be the post-punk noisy heresy of Algiers to the country-touched finale of Southern Family. The power of that gospel came through in the raw, imperfect humanity, and while you definitely get that in Chance's approach contorted through vocal effects, pitch shifting, and autotune, it doesn't have the same swell for me. Hell, the moments that have the most power in this vein come on both versions of 'Blessings', in the first case with Nico's trumpet reenacting the fall of Jericho with thunderous power, and in the reprise taking the voices of Ty Dolla $ign, Raury, BJ The Chicago Kid, Anderson .Paak, and plenty more for the outro that despite some autotuned fragments on the edges, manages to blend organic voices with real soul.

And yet it was Anderson .Paak I was thinking of throughout the majority of this record and a comparison, because thematically there are some parallels between Colouring Book and his last album Malibu. So why did Malibu connect more? Well, the grooves were far stronger - in that there actually were solid grooves - but there was also a weathered cohesion to that record that Coloring Book doesn't really have. Again, it's better than Surf and I do applaud this sort of oddball experimentation, but I wouldn't call it stronger than Acid Rap, mostly as it feels like, again, too many hands were in the pot. I get the impression that the bigger Chance becomes the more assertive creative control he'll have and we'll get that bonafide classic, but as it is right now Coloring Book is a solid 7/10 for me and a recommendation, especially if you're a fan of hip-hop or gospel music. Otherwise... there's a clumsy sort of soul here that's impossible to fake, and I can definitely respect that.

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