Nothing on Coloring Book, the much-anticipated third full mix tape from Chance the Rapper, quite matches the soul-shaking power of the truth he dropped in the “Pusha Man/Paranoia” suite from his 2013 breakthrough Acid Rap: “I heard everybody’s dying in the summer/So pray to God for a little more spring.” But arriving as a free download as "Chiraq" once again enters the dreaded summer months and the body count climbs ever higher, these lines come close: “It’s too many young angels on the South Side/Got us scared to let our grandmommas outside.”
The difference, this time, is that as 23-year-old Chancellor Bennett once again surveys the tragic sadness of the violence that grips our city, he pegs the solutions: church and community. Riding the smooth rhythms of frequent collaborators Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, Chance takes us to church, reveling musically in Chicago’s rich gospel tradition (with touches of jazz and house) while testifying like an activist preacher: “I get my word from the sermon/I do not talk to the serpent.” But his message doesn’t exclude non-believers: His Higher Power could just as well be music (it’s “all we got,” he tells us), and his sardonic sense of humor still leavens the mood (“I might give Satan a swirly,” he cracks).
“I don’t make songs for free, I make ’em for freedom,” Chance raps in “Blessings.” Many critics have cited the line as the artist talking about his commitment to giving away his work rather than selling it, but I hear it as a declaration of his faith in music as the most powerful tool in our arsenal to fight for change, the same way gospel-powered the civil rights movement. And the second half of that couplet is key: “Don’t believe in kings, believe in the Kingdom”—that is, the Kingdom here on Earth (don’t forget that the first-gen psychedelic devotees who preceded Chance used to talk about LSD in sacramental terms as a shortcut for “storming heaven”), and apostates like King Rahm be damned (even if he did give the rapper’s dad a job).
These 14 tracks are not without their missteps—chief among them “Juke Jam,” which would have been a weak tune even without the Justin Bieber cameo—and the same mid-tempo groove carries too much of the set. But these are quibbles, and Chance has solidified his position as the most distinctive and talented rapper to emerge from Our Town since Lupe Fiasco, but the most important anywhere on the hip-hop scene today.
Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book (self-released)
Rating on the 4-star scale: 3.5 stars.