Monday, July 29, 2019

album review: 'the big day' by chance the rapper

Okay, no, I'm not doing this, I get how Chance The Rapper is framing this marketing, but after multiple projects and charting hits, it feels patently absurd to call this his 'debut album', especially given the layers of technicality around it.

But I'll be honest, it's been very par-for-the-course with my experience with Chance The Rapper, an artist I definitely like and who has made my year-end list before with specific songs that tap into an organic emotionality that feels very genuine... until you notice the mechanisms around him. Part of this is great business sense and an independent hustle in a distinctive lane, and for that I'll give him all the credit in the world... but at least for me whenever I've seen the artifice behind his relentless positivity it has felt increasingly hollow to me, be it from hypocrisy or slapdash construction, either in content or production. People have described his material, especially the stuff that leans towards gospel, as 'Disney', and it's not inaccurate: rougher around the edges, but there is some of that sheen that can feel disingenuous the brighter it comes across.

And thus I felt skeptical about this new project The Big Day, which I hoped would be a steady improvement but left me feeling disconcerted when I saw twenty-two tracks at nearly eighty minutes - that's a lot of Chance and I had serious concerns whether his particular style would be able to sustain that sort of length, especially given his uncredited features were as sprawling as Megan Thee Stallion and DaBaby to Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie, Shawn Mendes, and Randy Newman, not to mention multiple Nicki Minaj features for some reason! But hey, I had to hope Chance didn't stretch this out purely for stream trolling - he's still independent, after all - and maybe this could be the epic swing for the fences that could stick the landing, so what did we get on The Big Day?

So y'all know how I frame my reviews: I normally write my preamble before I even hear the album or see any other reviews, try to keep a measured and organic perspective... and yet while I was planning to come here and discuss a project that has serious flaws but nevertheless is pretty good, I caught some glimpses at other music outlets only to discover that this is the newest project people have decided is the worst thing ever and the freshest disappointment to hit mainstream hip-hop. And while I agreed with similar assessments of Logic's last album and even was far more negative excoriating Juice WRLD's disaster, somehow I'm in the weird position of having to defend this album from waves of hatred that are not only wildly overstated, but also incredibly inconsistent. Folks, you need to cool your jets with this one, because not only is it not bad, it's also exactly the sort of album you could have predicted coming from Chance!

Now again, that's not saying this project doesn't have problems, because it absolutely does, the first being its overwhelming and exasperating length, where if he had cut a good half of the project he could have wound up with a far stronger album. It absolutely feels like an album that's trying to feel like an important event riding on waves of pomp and circumstance - which yes, Chance can carry on charisma and manic energy but are not the notes that best flatter his delivery - and as such is overstuffed with so many wild genre pivots and diversions that you find yourself wishing for an editor... which frankly, I would have argued is the case for all of his prior projects, so this doesn't surprise me. But in comparison with how thematically scattered those earlier works could be, The Big Day does have something of an arc riding through it: it's a wedding album, and like its indie rock parallel Father Of The Bride by Vampire Weekend, for all of its gloss and shimmering tones there's entirely too much tonal whiplash and lingering feelings of redundancy; just swap out electronic pivots for trap and dance-pop diversions. And like with that project, if you have the suspicion that because of its circumstances it all feels more weightless, flabby, and lacking in tension than it should, not helped by the tension-destroying religious subtext where Chance's self-assuredness can try your patience - we'll come back to this, but I will say between his earnestness and self-awareness he's a more agreeable presence than Ezra Koenig's detachment and nihilism - well, I can definitely hear it. Hell, my point here is that this isn't really new - maybe less of issues on Acid Rap, but they were certainly factors on Coloring Book.

And here's where we hit the first point of criticism that feels disingenuous, how not only is Chance is corny - your mileage might vary on this but there's at least a lightness of tone and goofy flair to most of these songs that someone like Big Sean has never had - but that he's more socially conservative because he's making an album stridently promoting marriage and monogamy. And maybe I've been listening to country music so long where a song like 'Eternal' doesn't seem that preachy - it's not like he's wrong about highlighting the little things that the side hookups don't do and if you're taking that as judgment on your situation, that might be more on you than him - Chance is also pretty frank about his situation on multiple tracks. 'We Go High' is a great dissection of the struggle he had to reunite with his wife, both in his own failures to be single, how his infidelity was a stain they had to reconcile, and the weight that comes in trying to be a better example. So when we get genuine love songs from the bouncier 'I Got You (Always and Forever)' to the title track's slow build to its manic explosion, to the raw euphoria on 'Let's Go on the Run', it feels credible and earned. Granted, that momentum absolutely slips when he's expected to follow it with cuts featuring Megan Thee Stallion being as flagrant as ever and a boring flex with Gucci Mane - even if I do like that hook - and then a weirdly placed dance-pop piece with Shawn Mendes of all people, but when the mood stabilizes and the skit with Keith David playing a friend inquiring of what the hell Chance does next, it leads to '5 Year Plan' where he's forced to get more low-key and introspective and it's one of the best cuts on the album. Now again, this is where sequencing hurts him and songs could have been trimmed - 'Sun Come Down' places Chance as defensive and that's never been good framing for him, even if he pulls things around by the end, and while 'Single No More' is possessive and heavy-handed, given Chance's previously described romantic history it makes sense there's some loaded assertions from both sides to never cheat again - but things turn around by the heartfelt yearning of 'Town On The Hill' and the more conscious, aspirational charge of 'Zanies and Fools' - although why on earth he chose to end things with a Nicki verse that doesn't really fit is questionable. But while there's absolutely fat to be trimmed, it's nowhere near as presumptuous or condescending or 'nice guy' pandering as Chance has made before if you dig into what's actually being said - forget Jay and Beyonce making multiple critically beloved albums repairing their relationship, if people gave a pass to the emotionally abusive relationship described on Kanye's last album ye that was only further validated and glorified by the framing, you might want to really question where you're drawing a moral line in your art on 'conservative'. Unless, of course, its the religious framing, which a.) everyone knew was coming, b.) actually feels more balanced than it was on Coloring Book, c.) actually makes sense on a wedding album, d.) seems conveniently ignored when the tone is darker, even if that angle raises more questionable implications like the Black Israelite guilt plaguing Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. or the anti-vax nonsense we saw on the last Freddie Gibbs album with the Nation of Islam subtext. Now if you think the relentlessly positive and upbeat vibe is not all that sustainable through an overlong project, that the darker trap pivots are the wrong choices to mute it, that the stakes are lower than they should be for an album trying for this sort of grandeur, and that the thematic core is underwhelming, not helped by the religious angle, all of that I understand - but that's not the argument I'm seeing made, or indeed much in the way that has delved into what's actually being said at all!

Now granted, the big retort to all of that is, 'Who cares, it's way too long, and it's not like the music is all that compelling here'... and that's the other weird thing, because when it comes to production, especially in comparison with Surf or Coloring Book, this might the most refined project associated with Chance The Rapper to date! Yes, the vocal blending isn't as consistent as it should be, but for once it seems like on the more dance-ready songs he actually picked up a groove from the rubbery clinking funk of 'Eternal' to the sandy percussion and faded guitars of 'I Got You (Always and Forever)', from the jaunty piano playing off the organic drums on 'Let's Go on the Run' and the humid textured percussion of 'Zanies & Fools' to the bassy house knock of 'Ballin Flossin' and 'Found A Good One (Single No More)' - even in the last two cases where I don't quite think the songs fully work, there's more textured foundation and melodic balance than Chance often has. Hell, while the chipmunk vocals do get annoying off the wiry skitter of 'Get A Bag', that slight cushion of organ helps it wind up as more enjoyable than I expected! If anything, the songs that don't really work for me - just like on the last Big K.R.I.T. project - are the oddly cheap trap clunkers that just feel melodically undercooked, which start with 'Hot Shower' and continue to crop up with 'Handsome', 'Big Fish' and 'Slide Around'... but hell, give these instrumentals to any number of other mainstream MCs and I wouldn't see them getting nearly the same criticism; if anything, it seems more because we're expecting more tune and organic variety from Chance than just defaulting to the raw basics, especially with Calboy and MadeInTYO failing in their Playboi Carti impressions. And while we're on the topic of guests, I do question why Gucci Mane or either of those Nicki verses were essential when DaBaby, Smino, and even Chance's brother Taylor Bennett delivered better, although that last one comes on this album's darkest, synth-inflected song 'Roo', which hits at a weird moment and doesn't match the tone at all. But I'll be honest: the best moments on this album for me are when Chance leans into the organic yearning that might feel a bit more ramshackle in its construction but is such a great comfort zone for him, from the flashy piano-driven knock of 'All Day Long' with John Legend that's followed quickly by the wiry keys and warped chipmunk echo opposite Ben Gibbard on 'Do You Remember' to the more subdued pieces like the lo-fi pianos and subtle snap around 'We Go High', the glassy touch of the keys and pianos on '5 Year Plan', the clipped stuttering gloss of 'Sun Come Down', to the faint vocal snippets around the gentle 'Town On The Hill' - not the first time Justin Vernon's touch shows up, but it really shows up the best on the title track, which has just enough subtle build-up to earn that wild payoff with Francis & The Lights; I know some found it jarring, but for me, it's the centerpiece of the album and plays into their natural and unique balance, such a thrilling moment! And a huge part of this does come back to Chance himself - there's something about his imperfect rasp, his genuine yearning, his knack for the fine details in his humour that are often more clever than he's given credit but also some real emotive maturity colouring a marriage with baggage behind it that works, at least if you're closer to that stage of life to appreciate it.

But as a whole... look, this is the third wedding album I've heard this year in full: they're nearly all too long, not quite delivering the dimensionality they should, and have left long-time fans frustrated or underwhelmed. But of all three, The Big Day by Chance The Rapper probably deserves the backlash the least, even if it is bloated and the trap pivots feel superfluous and the bangers we did get probably could have afforded to lean less on dance grooves and more on the Chicago hip-hop tones that broke him through. If anything this album reminds me of most weddings I've attended, where the bride and groom always claim they want the intimate setting - hell, Chance even does that on 'Sun Come Down' - but it always winds up being overdone, overstuffed, and overladen with expectations... even if at the core, the most genuine and sincere moments wind up working. And for me, this is a 7/10 and a recommendation - good, not great, probably best to pick out the best moments and slim this down to an easier listen after one full runthrough. Otherwise... eh, I don't see this having the same immediate standouts like 'Sunday Candy' or even 'No Problem', but for me it's got its shining moments; I'll still take it.

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