Hip hop's most cheery artist, Chance the Rapper, is back. Last time he gave us a full-length album was back in 2013 with Acid Rap. I've been getting pretty ravenous since then. Last year's Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment offering Surf sadly didn't satisfy my appetite - whilst it did feature Chance, he only really appeared on half the tracks, the rest dedicated to trumpet noodling and an abundance of guest features. In fact, the whole album seemed overcrowded with guests to the point of being claustrophobic, made messier due to some clumsy mixing (although it must be said, the beats and bars were tasty!)
|What Surf sounds like
This new album Coloring Book I hoped would be more wholesome, although a glance at the tracklist's crowded list of credits suggested someone might have invited too many guests to the party yet again. Worse still, the guests appeared to be of questionable quality including the likes of Lil Wayne, Future, Young Thug and Lil Yachty - pretty much the hip hop axis of evil all on one album. Just reading their names made me throw up in my mouth a little.
A listen of the first track 'All We Got' also suggested that the clumsy mixing was back, Kanye's robo-vocals seemingly fifty decibels louder than everything else. I know Ye likes to be the centre of attention and all, but drowning out the rest of the track seemed to me a bit over-excessive.
Deciding to channel a bit of Chance-inspired-optimism, I prayed things would get better as the album progressed, and to my pleasant surprise they did. For one, the mixing improves after the first couple tracks. Secondly, the awful guests decide rather courteously not to be awful. Lil Yachty's auto-tune warbling on the track 'Mixtape' is tolerable (although he could still learn a thing or two about pitch-correction from T-Pain who turns up a couple tracks later). And Young Thug actually decides to ride a beat for once. Sure, I'm still not keen on his vocal tone, but I'm sure there are people who find Chance's kid-like-inflection and 'ugh' ad-libs equally annoying, so it's all horses for courses.
As for the issue of overcrowding, Chance doesn't let anybody steal his limelight. Whilst on Surf he might as well have been an extra, the Chicago rapper claims lead role on every track on Coloring Book, his rapping skills overshadowing everyone else.
When he's not forming Harry-Potter-themed tongue-twisters like 'Any petty Peter Pettigrew could get the pesticide' on 'How Great' (a line that certainly appealed to my nerdy side), he's pushing his flow to acrobatic limits and throwing out creative rhymes as on 'Summer Friends' (when was the last time you heard a rapper rhyme 'long hair', 'armchair' and 'timeshare'?). His subject matter is also some of his richest to date. Drugs make up a lot of his lyrics, but unlike his weed-anthem-writing contemporaries, he uses them as a metaphor for deeper stuff. 'Smoke Break' for example is less about not having time to get high any more, but rather not being able to spend time with his girlfriend. 'Same Drugs' meanwhile isn't about drugs at all, ‘we don’t do the same drugs no more’ used simply as allegory for him and an old friend no longer sharing the same passions and interests.
As always Chance is able to get introspective whilst staying wholly fun and entertaining. There isn't a serious or preachy moment on Coloring Book, despite it's focus on providing morals. Even his most confrontational track 'No Problems' is delivered with a sense of love, audibly laughing with joy during the hook to a backdrop of gospel vocals. His overwhelming positivity occasionally borders on mawkish, his Christian-side coming out and leading to cheesy tracks like the D.R.A.M.-sung 'You're Special'. However, for the most part it is done with a child-like charm and innocence that makes you wish you were that wide-eyed kid again immune to nihilism.
This most likely explains the title Coloring Book - Chance seeing the world like a child with a coloring book. It's all one big display of simplistic, playful joy. If Acid Rap felt slightly samey and Surf felt slightly overcomplicated, then this album sits happily in the middle of the two.