On Coloring Book, Ascension and Artistic Freedom

In the opening lines of “Angels,” one of the many standouts from Chance the Rapper’s third solo mixtape, Coloring Book, he playfully boasts, “I got my whole city doing front flips.” If social media buzz and iTunes album charts are indicators of anything, it’s that the excitement surrounding Chance and his latest project extends far beyond his hometown of Chicago’s city limits, and that opening line might just be the understatement of the year.

Chance is a bit of an enigma, at least in terms of the traditional sense of the music industry establishment. If you’re unfamiliar with him, or if you hadn’t heard of him until his star-turning verse on Kanye West’s “Ultra Light Beam” earlier this year, well, shame on you and welcome to the bandwagon.

Chance doesn’t “sell” any of his music, at least in the traditional sense. His complete albums are not available on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, with the exception of Coloring Book and 2015’s Surf, a project done in conjunction with Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment (a group of creatives in which he is a member), which was available for free through Apple. You can, however, grab 2012’s 10 Day and 2013’s Acid Rap for free from various mixtape sites.

As you may have heard earlier this year, since he doesn’t sell music, he technically cannot win a Grammy for any of his free material. “I heard you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy,” he bemoans on Ultra Light Beam. He’s since started a petition to allow free music a spot in the Grammy voting process and be recognized as such. His petition has thousands upon thousands of signatures.

Knowing this, when he raps lines like, “the people’s champ must be everything the people can’t be,” on the album’s final track, “Blessings (Reprise),” he’s exactly right. Few artists have both the clout and talent to stand alone without major label support, or without a co-sign from an established artist. While Chance is closely linked to Kanye, especially publicly in the months since “Ultra Light Beam” dropped, he’s not signed to Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music label and they share no affiliation other than being occasional collaborators. “He ain’t sign me but he proud of me,” he reminds on “Blessings.”

According to ‘Ye, Chance was one of the most influential voices during TLOP recording sessions. As much play as Ultra Light Beam has been getting on social media and streaming, other than one flamethrower of a SNL performance, there has been no music video or subsequent awards show performance. His rise has been completely organic. He managed to whip social media into a full-fledged clusterfuck in the weeks leading up to Coloring Book’s drop, willing it into the week’s Billboard Top 10 despite not selling a single copy or making it available on multiple streaming outlets.

Coloring Book starts off with a Kanye feature, as he lends his vocals to “All We Got,” a sped up, feel-good anthem about the powers of music’s positive influence, featuring the Chicago Boys Choir. It’s oddly reminiscent of Kanye’s “We Don’t Care,” the opening track off his debut LP, both in its upbeat nature and positive proclamations. Chance has always paid homage to his Chicago brethren, even naming Acid Rap’s opening track, “Good Ass Job Intro,” which was the long-time rumored name of Kanye’s post-Graduation album that has yet to materialize. His affiliation with Pablo and the project’s similar rollout (streaming only at first, social media heavy communication with fans), have perpetuated the Kanye comparisons, but it seems to be, at least from the FAR outside, that it’s a mutual admiration society. Kanye even went so far as to tweet out Chance has “god level bars” in the days following Book’s release.

The project is littered with lush soundscapes, and Chance tap dances through the minefield that has become rap in 2016 with grace and strength. He shines on the trap-infused “Mixtape,” featuring Young Thug and Lil’ Yachty, a beat that will surely thump in clubs around the world, not to mention the Lil’ Wayne and 2 Chainz assisted, “No Problem.”

It is incredibly poetic to have a song with Lil’ Wayne in the first place, given Weezy’s current issues with his label and Chance’s stance against the accepted practices of the music industry establishment. We all remember when Wayne rose to the top of the rap heap in the mid-2000s, in large part to the massive amounts of free music he released in between albums. He was constantly in the earbuds of the masses with new material, eventually culminating with the 2008 release of Carter III. It was on a much grander scale, but his movement was grassroots in nature, his ascension determined purely by the voice of the people, not by marketing ploys or industry collusion.

Now Chance is the star on the rise with unlimited musical flexibility, while Wayne, and his future projects, are being held hostage by his longtime label. It’s the total opposite of Chance’s entire mission as an independent artist, to provide good free music that’s both critically recognized (ahem, Grammy voters), and free from the shackles of archaic record label control. “Free The Carter,” Weezy wails in “No Problem,” pleading that his fans are in dire need of his new album. Chance doesn’t have that problem.

He glides over “Juke Jam,” a childhood love story featuring Justin Bieber that invokes melodies of R.Kelly’s “Feeling On Yo Booty.” It’s one of the album’s standouts, with syrupy drumbeats, accentuated guitar chords and an impossibly catchy chorus. “Smoke Break” featuring Future is equally intoxicating, ideal for dropping down all the windows and riding through the city during the impending summer nights. Chance is equally comfortable on songs like “Blessings,” where his gospel influences shine and the song is stripped down to its core.

He comes across as wise without being preachy and vulnerable without being whiny. He even cut out a lot of his trademark “Na Na Na” ad libs, which is appreciated. One man without a label was able to bring out some of the biggest names in the industry (Ye, Wayne, Justin Bieber, Future), and even managed to bring Jay Electronica out of his self-imposed slumber to go bar for bar with him. His growth as an artist and as a man (he’s a new father) is apparent throughout the album and it’s allowed him to shine as an artist, as well as put together his most cohesive project yet. The album is a 14-track musical equivalent of a summer sunrise, with each blast of Donnie’s trumpet emanating good vibes from intro to reprise.

If you take a close look at Chance’s three album covers, his gaze is pointed in a different direction in each picture. In 10 Day, Chance is staring up at the stars, about to embark on the first step in an incredible musical journey. By Acid Rap, Chance is seeing eye-to-eye with his fans and his peers. In a recent interview with Pigeons and Planes, the album cover’s artist, Brandon Breaux, said he took a picture of Chance holding his daughter, trying to capture the sheer joy in Chance’s eyes as he was looking down at his bundle of joy. He also, perhaps inadvertently, caught him looking down at the rest of the industry.

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