Review Summary: Still coloring outside the lines.
The success of 2013’s Acid Rap
has quickly become somewhat of an industry legend; the mixtape had seemingly catapulted Chance the Rapper into the largest independent artist in the world overnight. Brimming with clever wordplay, brilliant delivery and an overall sense of pulsating energy, it’s not hard to see why it had the crossover appeal that it did, and even though it felt rough around the edges and slightly immature, these aspects only added to the overall verve. But it seemed Chance the Rapper proved himself to be more than just a personality with his excellent verse on Kanye West’s ‘Ultralight Beam’ earlier this year, where he took a sparse beat and played with it brilliantly with far more subtlety and poise than he had ever shown thus far in his career. His delivery snaked in and out of the track, deftly switching back and forth from a low rap to a hushed singing to a tense shout, but ultimately always kept the song’s overall dynamic goal in mind. It certainly felt like Chano was at the height of his creativity going into his third mixtape, Coloring Book
Unfortunately, the strengths of Chance’s previous material aren’t really on display here. The demo quality that felt so real and endearing in Acid Rap
often only gets in the way; there are noticeable differences in volume from track to track, most noticeably between ‘Juke Jam’ and ‘All Night’. Opening track ‘All We Got’ starts off strong with a cheery horn section that fuels the roiling beat underneath, before it is turned utterly unlistenable by borderline laughable mixing in the chorus. The lyrics don’t provide any saving graces either, taking an obnoxious viewpoint on religion, with hideous lines like, ‘I was baptized like real early/ I might give Satan a swirlie’.
This odd mentality is featured on the forefront throughout the album through the use of songs styled like hymns, like in the accurately titled ‘D.R.A.M. Sings Special’, or like in the first half of ‘How Great’, which pairs a church choir and a vocoder, which blends about as well as marijuana and generalized anxiety. When the song finally opens up in the halfway mark, Chance pairs allusions to biblical text with the first of two references in the album to Harry Potter (of all things) and Nat Turner. ‘Angels’ is perhaps the cleverest execution of the hyper-religious subject of this album, with its saccharine lyrics and lighthearted beat that quite nearly betrays the melancholy caused by the friends and family that Chance hints that he has lost. Unfortunately, by this time in the album, the religious theme has been fairly soured by the absolutely unpleasantly earlier song ‘Blessings’, which is an exercise in freudenschade.
As eccentric and unconventional Chance has proved himself to be in the past, it’s quite ironic that the best songs come when Chance is at his quietest and most reserved. ‘Summer Friends’ is an early highlight that sees Chance reminiscing on his childhood over a laid-back beat. ‘Juke Jam’ is arguably the best song on the album; it’s brilliantly produced acoustic guitar and slickly off-kilter stride provides a perfect framework for Chance’s rapping and a surprisingly well-fitting Justin Bieber feature. Similarly, the reprise of ‘Blessings’ finds Chance in, surprisingly, a nearly introspective position; his earnest verse is perhaps the most charming Chance has ever sounded on tape.
It’s only too bad that these moments of sincerity are fleeting and far between. On the chorus of ‘Mixtape’, Chance sings ‘Am I the only nigga still care about a mixtape’, but nothing on this mixtape really argues that Chance himself particularly cares. Most of the songs start out competently but go through no real progression and quickly become stale. The vast majority of Chance’s lyrics are personal yet provide no real insight into his personality; the world he paints feels lived in but does not feel lively. No bars in particular ever really stand out, and featured artist after feature artist clocks in and out without any real fanfare. Even Chance’s delivery feels tepid and uninspired, frequently repeating the same flows. In the end, considering all of its spotlight and theatrics, it’s frustrating that there simply is nothing on center stage here.