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On Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper wades joyfully into new territory

The Chicago rapper sounds different, but very comfortable where he is

It’s been almost exactly three years since Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap was released. It was that mixtape — a 13-track collection of druggy and ecstatic hip-hop so goofy it sometimes sounded like nursery rhymes — that propelled Chancelor Bennett from underground Chicago upstart to slightly less underground Chicago upstart. His star rose quickly as the months passed, performing at big festivals and collaborating with artists like Justin Bieber, Kanye West, and Jeremih. Acid Rap’s long-awaited follow-up, Coloring Book, came last week, and it’s easy to feel the time that’s passed between the two. For one thing, Coloring Book was released as a two-week Apple Music exclusive instead of a free download, as his past mixtapes were. This was the first tipoff that this Chance is not the same wild-eyed, trippy kid from Acid Rap, or the same Chance who recorded his first mixtape, 10 Day, while on a 10-day suspension from high school. This is the Chance who’s finally getting to the place he always knew he would get — and he sounds like it. Chance may still be a rapper, but it’s not fair to call Coloring Book a rap album; it’s a gospel album, a funk album, a jazz album. Coloring Book shelters a musical history, but if you were looking for the old Chance, you won’t find him here.

If you were looking for the old Chance, you won’t find him here

One of the most compelling things about Chance as a rapper is the elasticity of his voice: he can do tongue-tied and dense, soft and contemplative, a weightless smirk, a snappy yalp, or a conversational murmur. But if Acid Rap and 10 Day were exercises in vocal gymnastics, Coloring Book is an exercise in restraint. Album openers "All We Got" and "No Problem" start things off at max capacity: big, boastful verses featuring threats to desperate labels delivered with a giant grin. From there, the album settles into a more subdued groove. On "Summer Friends" New York City band Francis and the Lights lends a feverish feel to Chance’s humid, sweetly sluggish description of Chicago summers. On "Same Drugs," Chance sounds like he’s singing a lullaby to one person. Because of this serenity, Coloring Book is a slow burn of an album. The first time around you might miss the fact that "Finish Line Drown" is very nearly a cappella, or that Chance’s endearingly childish side ("I might give Satan a swirlie") is not gone so much as it’s masked by a complexity of sound.

Part of this complexity is due to a new well of collaborators Chance didn’t have access to on his first two mixtapes. His rubbery vocals stand out even more against Jeremih’s buttery croon or Jay Electronica’s clenched-knuckle flow. And while Chance is generally able to hold his own here, he sometimes falters by allowing his sound to be cannibalized by other rappers. The Future-featuring "Smoke Break" is a fun, heavy-lidded slice of trap, but with Chance’s voice wrapped up in AutoTune, it just sounds like a Future song. Young Thug looms over Chance on "Mixtape" because Thugger’s slack-jawed burble overpowers everything around it, while Chance mostly lurks in the background. "D.R.A.M. Sings Special" is a pleasant, choir-like interlude just for Virginia rapper D.R.A.M. to show off his singing voice. But Coloring Book’s guest list isn’t just a lineup of Chance’s famous friends. Lesser-known artists like Towkio, from Chance’s Savemoney crew; Chicago rapper Noname Gypsy; plus appearances from the Chicago Children’s Choir and "my cousin Nicole" serve as a useful reminder that Coloring Book is, at its core, a mixtape for Chance’s hometown.

In his music, Chance has always depicted Chicago as a place of both joy and heartbreak. "Summer Friends" recalls the "everybody dies in the summer" refrain on Acid Rap:

First day, niggas shooting / Summer school get to losing students / But the CPD getting new recruitment / Our summer don't, our summer, our summer don't get no shine no more.

If there is a tension in Coloring Book, it’s in Chance’s attempts to reconcile his newfound spiritual joy with his earthly struggles, and the struggles of those closest to him. Like many rappers who made the jump from the streets to festival stages, Chance’s past is a constant reminder of just how important the present is. But for all its beleaguered neighborhoods ignored by a corrupt government and an ineffectual or actively harmful police force, Chicago is still Chance’s home. On the jubilant "Finish Line Drown": "I'm in love with my city bitch, I sleep in my hat."

Above all, Coloring Book is optimistic

Because above all, Coloring Book is optimistic — about Chicago, about independent music, about the promise of the future. Acid Rap found its joy in a mind-altering drugginess, but Coloring Book looks forward, or above, to some kind of higher power. The joy is in the details of day-to-day existence, in the normalcy of family life, and Sunday morning church. Chance’s vocal calling cards — those "yups" and chirps — sound like affirmations now, signs that a kid from a city with a mind-numbing murder rate can still turn out okay, successful, even wildly happy.

Coloring Book is ultimately an album about change. "Same Drugs" is a Peter Pan story: about growing up and falling out of step with someone you used to be in tune with. On Coloring Book, it’s hard to imagine Chance being out of tune with anyone, until you realize he might be holding himself back for their benefit. Because if there’s one thing Coloring Book proves, it’s that Chance the Rapper has always been one step ahead of the rest of us.