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The third mixtape from Chance the Rapper is the first streaming-only album to chart on the Billboard 200. It’s a milestone that should be especially satisfying for the Chicago MC who, as an unsigned artist, strongly advocates for artistic independence in his lyrics and interviews.
In so much music, the narrative around success and acceptance is about accomplishing what others have already accomplished and falling in line with the mainstream and replicating its ideals. The way another MC might aggrandize cash or material things, Chance brags about creative and professional freedom from major label strictures. “Don’t believe in singing, I seen dollar signs / color white-collar crime / Good God, the gift of freedom,” he raps on on the gospel-led How Great.
But that doesn’t mean Coloring Book pushes boundaries in experimental ways. It has the bigness and accessibility of a major hip-hop album thanks in part to zeitgeisty guests like Justin Bieber, Future and Young Thug.
Past Chance the Rapper releases seemed inspired by Kanye West’s The College Dropout, whereas Coloring Book has the celebratory and playful feel of Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III – densely packed with metaphors, flow and tempo change-ups, and summer-jam-worthy songs.
Uplifting choral voices give No Problem and Finish Line the inviting openness that bookends the album, though the fleetingness of feeling good is evoked in more fraught contexts as well. Kaytranada-produced banger All Night hits on a popular topic – trust issues – but rather than write a woe-is-me-celebrity tale, Chance tells the hangers-on to keep hanging as long as they dance. Meanwhile, downtempo Summer Friends paints the summer months as a perilous time for Black youth in gun-violence-plagued Chicago.
How Great is typical of Coloring Book’s Christian gospel themes, but the mixtape’s sustained message of finding strength within – however you do that – feels potent given Chance’s exaltation of independence.
Top track: No Problem, featuring Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz