It's been three years since Chance the Rapper jubilantly released Acid Rap and a lot has changed. The kid now has a daughter of his own and his popularity only grows as he crowd-surfs a wave of college-aged adoration. His personal life, including the religious fervor hinted at on Surf standout "Sunday Candy," takes center stage on his long-awaited third mixtape, Coloring Book.
Leading off the collection of interwoven pop, gospel and ballad tracks is "All We Got", the album's big band opener. Chance comes clean about his baby mama, daughter and love for both in his classic, candied style. Trumpets usher in an early victory lap as if he knows he'll be hard-pressed to disappoint the fans salivating over the prospect of this album. But some things haven't changed for the 23-year-old: Grandma is still his number one fan, he's still the savior of Chicago (affirmed by his windy city-themed features) and he's still his own boss.
"If one more label tries to stop me/ It's gon' be some dreadhead n—– in ya lobby," he proclaims on "No Problem."
Chance is unbound and proud, indulging in his own independence. He's also thunderously religious, a trait that is both admirable and beaten to death in the most ungodly manner. Gospel music provides the basis for the album's sound, two of the album's 14 tracks are titled "Blessings" and three minutes are dedicated to his cousin's rendition of "How Great is Our God." But if his faith so clearly defines him, then it belongs in his music no less than purple drank belongs in Future's.
"I speak to God in public," he repeats in "Blessings." "He keep my rhymes in couplets/He think the new shit jam, I think we mutual fans."
Once the thrill of the first track's "Chance is back, bitches" attitude wears off, the album wearily reaches into a grab bag of "Chance sounds" for the next three songs. The rapper creeps through track after track of reminiscing on his younger days until you want to shake him back into the reality of being 23 and having perhaps the best days of his career ahead. But the excitement of listening to the long-awaited mixtape is enough to permit the overlooking of this blasé beginning and cherish the change of pace in "Mixtape."
Chance takes a break from faith and family to imitate trap's weirdo sweetheart Young Thug, while the real thing is reduced to incomprehensible yips in the background. Lil Yachty's verse, dripping with auto-tune, is perhaps the best part of the song, changing the conversation to drugs and money while still reminiscing on his childhood.
After the mini trap vacation in "Mixtape," Chance is rejuvenated, finally finding his quick-fire, rapturous verses punctuated by the squeals that can only signify a happy rapper being happy. The previously released "Angels" sounds so much better in the context of the album, after the former tracks starve Acid Rap fans of its achingly gratifying rhymes. "Angels" abruptly turns to "Juke Jam," which meanders through cloying lines.
"Then we hit the floor, all the kiddies start skating, to see what grown folks do, what grown folks do when they grown and they dating."
"Juke Jam" is the perfect fit for the album's best used feature as Justin Bieber channels his "Love Yourself" ballad persona that seems to suit the pop star remarkably well. Coloring Book should be a delightful mix of fast and slow – if the songs weren't ordered in a way that feels like a 15-year-old permit holder is driving the minivan. The light suddenly turns green again as "All Night"'s infectiously fun dance beat takes center stage. Thankfully, Chance doesn't over-complicate the simple pop appeal, stepping out of his church boy act to instruct the hos to start dancing.
The Coloring Book Chance brags as if he's reached the summit, and while his ascent to mainstream popularity is certainly a victory, Coloring Book is far from the pinnacle of a storied discography. Nonetheless, it's clear Chance the Rapper has entered a new era. He's no longer singing about burn holes in his hoodie but the drugs he used to do. As he reminisces on the exuberance that's carried him thus far, one can only hope Coloring Book doesn't lead him away from all the eager youthfulness a 23-year-old has left to explore.