You can’t touch Chance the Rapper’s new album, “Coloring Book” — literally, since it will never exist in physical form. But Lord Almighty, can it touch you.
Look, I know as much about hip-hop and rap as the average 50-something white guy. Which means I know whatever my children tell me. Because they and I have always swapped musical tips and tastes and because I’m listening harder now that they’re in college, I’ve learned to appreciate the more celebrated figures in rap — or maybe just the ones that appeal to upper-middle-class white kids with ears.
I get why Kanye West’s a trickster and a genius as well as being a massive cultural pain in the butt. I’m in awe of the way Kendrick Lamar wrestles with his personal and sociopolitical heritage. I’m moved by the drama in Frank Ocean’s grappling with his sexuality, on and off his records. On the other hand, Tyler the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, and the rest of LA’s Odd Future collective don’t do much for me. On the other other hand, I love the sonic suburban rec-room fantasias of Childish Gambino (a.k.a. actor Donald Glover), even if I’m told he’s not really considered a rapper.
Basically, I’m clueless.
But sometimes an album lands in your in-box like a gift from the gods and expands in your head and heart the more you listen to it. I’ve had “Coloring Book,” a work that moves gloriously back and forth between the street and the church, on an endless loop since it started streaming on Apple Music on May 12. It’s music of happiness and hope, a perfect soundtrack to the growing season. Maybe you have a short-list of records that conjure the specific times and places in which they dominated your life? The last June of high school, the first months in a new city? I know I do. This one just bookmarked spring 2016 for me forever.
Chance the Rapper’s a laid-back wordsmith whose flow is thoughtful and unquenchable; his voice doesn’t swagger but crinkles at the corners like a smile. Born Chancelor Bennett, he’s all of 23. He was raised in the West Chatham neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side; he’s a devout Christian. “Coloring Book” reflects all of that: the temptations and depredations of the hood, friends and lovers who’ve fallen or fallen away, the oddness of fame, the pride in succeeding on one’s own terms, the glory of God. Not one but two tracks are titled “Blessings,” and they feel like it.
As per the genre norm, “Coloring Book” is studded with guest appearances by other rappers; some you’ve heard of (Kanye, 2 Chainz, Lil Wayne), others you maybe haven’t (Lil Yachty, the remarkable Jay Electronica). It also provides space for gospel musician Kirk Franklin to testify and erupts periodically in cloudbursts of sanctified harmonies courtesy of the Chicago Children’s Choir. Chance spends a chunk of the first track, “All We Got,” marveling about how lucky he is to be with his fiancee. Actually, I’m not sure he isn’t using the song to propose to her.
“Summer Friends” opens with what sounds like the missing chords of “Pet Sounds”-era Brian Wilson before memorializing a child’s loss of innocence in a neighborhood crippled by gang violence. “Juke Jam” paints a tender portrait of pre-adolescent afternoons at the roller rink, daring to dance with girls; Justin Bieber, who chimes in on the chorus, has never sounded so vulnerable or so human. The ridiculously catchy, comically wary Saturday night of “All Night” gives way to the Sunday morning jubilation of “How Great.”
But, yeah, if you have problems with the “n” word wielded by people of color or can’t see past the street language or blunt talk of blunts and bowls, you’ll have problems with “Coloring Book.” Your loss. I know that Chance’s raps are so dense with multi-leveled cultural references and internal rhymes that an old guy like me has to go to genius.com to read the lyrics and scan user interpretations. Good art is worth a little work.
The only tracks that go in for anything like standard macho posturing are the two where Chance and his guests address the music business and, in particular, the record labels with which this artist has no truck. “Coloring Book” is technically a “mix-tape,” Chance the Rapper’s third; he doesn’t put out “albums,” because that’s what the labels do. He has built his career with forethought and independence, through his own releases and via stellar turns on other people’s projects. His joyous versifying on the opening cut of Kanye West’s recent “The Life of Pablo” is worth the price of the record alone.
But what does that phrase — “the price of the record” — even mean anymore? And how can there be a mix-tape if it’s not actually on tape? (It’s mixed, all right; the album’s sonic production is epic.) “Coloring Book” was available exclusively for streaming and download on Apple Music for its first two weeks, and it’s only now coming to other subscription platforms like Tidal and Spotify. You’ll doubtless be able to listen to it on SoundCloud and YouTube, the latter of which has become a de facto radio for the college and high school generations.
But you can’t buy “Coloring Book” on CD (or vinyl or cassette). There’s nothing about it you can hold in your hands, which is hard to get your head around for a fossil like me who recalls the pleasures of gatefold album covers and their vast canvas for graphic design. Chance is taking his cue, possibly, from the pioneering of Prince, who famously cut ties with Warner Bros. and became his own music distributor. (You can hear the Purple One’s influence, too, in some of the new album’s more ambitious arrangements.)
He’s just taking it to the next logical level, from his heart straight to our ears, with no intervening step except the recording studio. “I don’t make songs for free, I make ’em for freedom/Don’t believe in kings, believe in the Kingdom,” Chance raps on “Coloring Book.” The record makes you feel like the Kingdom’s close at hand.