Chance the Rapper’s third mixtape, Coloring Book, grew into an outsize presence long before the public knew what it was called. In the three years since the Chatham MC dropped Acid Rap, he’s become a special kind of superstar, using his growing fame to benefit his friends and neighbors. He tabled the follow-up to Acid Rap to work on last year’s Surf, an album credited to Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment (the latter is the touring band Chance formed in 2013). He happily ceded top billing to Donnie Trumpet, aka Social Experiment trumpeter Nico Segal, even as he was fielding calls to do guest vocals for the likes of Justin Bieber and Skrillex.
Chance has also taken advantage of his high profile to spread joy to people he doesn’t know. Last year he founded Open Mike, a high school open-mike series named after his mentor “Brother” Mike Hawkins, who died in late 2014. Besides giving young people the opportunity to perform in front of a crowd of their peers, Open Mike lets them see their musical heroes up close—Chance’s famous friends sometimes drop in to play a song or two, and in May 2015 those pals were Vic Mensa and Kanye West. And in December 2015 he launched the Warmest Winter campaign, which raised more than $100,000 to provide coats that can double as sleeping bags for the local homeless population.
Chance’s devotion to Chicago is beyond question, but he still reminds us of it from time to time—on the recent Skrillex remix of Hundred Waters’ “Show Me Love,” he raps that Chicago is “the only thing I can covet, in public.” Last month’s irrepressibly jubilant video for “Angels,” the first Coloring Book single, features Chance dressed up as a superhero created by local artist Hebru Brantley and riding atop a CTA train filled with kids busting out a mix of local dance styles, including bop and footwork.
You can hear this working most potently on “Summer Friends.” Atop the song’s limber, pitter-pattering production, Chance strings together autobiographical snippets of his childhood in Chatham—he breezes through memories of catching lightning bugs as other kids catch bullets. Chance rarely lingers on details in “Summer Friends,” though at the end he repeats “79,” aka 79th Street. The stretch of 79th that cuts through Chatham has seen more than its share of violence, and in recent years news coverage has helped make those blocks synonymous with gang activity. Chance’s half-whispered chanting of “79” serves as a reminder that even as we associate an area with death, an entire community of people are working to build their lives there.
Chance’s affection bolsters the best tracks on Coloring Book, including the hometown anthem “Angels” and “Juke Jam,” a sashaying R&B ballad about a romance born in the roller rinks where young black Chicagoans could gather and footwork. A variety of guests fill out Chance’s immaculate, supple songs: he’s recruited rappers on the cutting edge (Young Thug, Future), pop superstars (Kanye West, Justin Bieber), hip-hop heroes (Lil Wayne, Jay Electronica), and musical talents who are Chicagoan through and through (Saba, Noname, Jeremih, Eryn Allen Kane). Coloring Book also includes Chance’s most overtly religious work—he drops praise like it’s going out of style. On “Grown Ass Kid,” a fantastic nonmixtape track that leaked just hours before Coloring Book dropped, he waves the flag for his religious beliefs: “Everybody can finally say it out loud / My favorite rapper a Christian rapper.”
The devotion Chance expresses on Coloring Book isn’t always denominational, but it’s always intimate and powerfully relatable. In an interview with the Fader last week, artist Brandon Breaux, who’s done the cover images for all of Chance’s mixtapes, explained why Coloring Book features Chance looking down and smiling: “He was holding his baby daughter in the shoot because he wanted to capture the expression he had on his face when he looked at her.” Chance instills the mixtape with the same tenderness, compassion, and love.
Leor Galil writes about hip-hop every Wednesday.