On Chance the Rapper’s third mixtape, Coloring Book, the heart of the 23-year-old Chicago MC is very much on his sleeve. But we’ve seen Chancelor Bennett’s heart before. Love requires a context, like lust needs a setting. For Chance the Rapper, the context (classroom, church, family, neighborhood, fans) is never far away. There’s no life to be lived without one. On Coloring Book, heaven — like hell — is always other people.
While the giving of thanks and praise to God in hip-hop can often appear perfunctory, Chance is going further, and he knows it. He embraces the role of self-conscious psalmist with relish, teasingly preempting the protest of anyone who might front when he lifts up his praise (“Don’t be mad!”). With Coloring Book, there’s a vibe to be had that blissfully overcomes the cordoning off of God’s righteous demands from the rest of human experience. Chance’s faith won’t be reduced to a side issue that comes and goes. Because the earth and everything in it is the Lord’s, it’s all God’s loving business. This is the deep-down freshness anticipated on his debut, 10 Day. He envisions his music, his crew, and his fans as all engaged in God’s group activity, “Kids of the Kingdom singing about freedom.”
There’s a way of separating God and gospel from the fact of lived reality, divinity from the everyday, prayer from bodies, praise from protest. See yesterday, today, and tomorrow’s news cycles. Like the prophetic community that formed him, Chance will have none of it.
Heads down, eyes shut, time to play Seven Up
Heads bowed, hands clutched, bottles gone, Heavens up
Smiles come through, though my eyes might cry
When they reminisce over you, my God
Through chorus and verse, the promise of longed-for restoration in the future is forever tied to the land of the living, a seeking-out of righteousness within — and in spite of — the beleaguered present. While the 10 Day of the title refers to Chance’s 10-day suspension for on-campus marijuana possession during his senior year of high school, even here Chance’s sense of vocation as a neighborhood conjurer, an articulator of much-needed perception, is in play. Witness “Brain Cells”:
Here’s a tab of acid for your ear
You’re the plastic, I’m the passion and the magic in the air
The flabbergasted avalanche of ambulances near
The labyrinth of Pan’s Lab is adamantly here
Amid the reigning dysfunction and disinformation, this is the shape his lyrical attentiveness will take. Passion and magic will have a representative (“Verse is a metaphor / A metamorphosis, and Imma fuckin’ Animorph”). Chance will give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.
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David Dark teaches in the College of Theology at Belmont University and among the incarcerated communities of Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, Everyday Apocalypse, and most recently Life’s Too Short To Pretend You’re Not Religious.