'I don't make songs for free, I sing for freedom," Chance the Rapper raps on his latest mixtape. "Don't believe in kings, believe in the kingdom."
In a few seconds, the 23-year-old master of ceremonies transports his listeners to a South Side Chicago church, circa 1965, on the front lines of the civil rights era when African-Americans armed themselves with little more than freedom songs and unwavering conviction in the face of the overwhelming might of entrenched racism.
"Coloring Book" is a 14-song exploration of musical richness, the story not just of a young African-American raised on hip-hop and steeped in the sounds that shaped it — gospel, soul, doo-wop, jazz and, heck, just for fun, how about some classical orchestrations and Caribbean music? — but of a community.
Chance likes to share. Like last year's "Surf" — a sumptuous recording he co-produced with his friend Donnie Trumpet (aka Nico Segal) and his band, the Social Experiment — "Coloring Book" brims with contributions from a multitude of singers, rappers and musicians. Once again, Segal's horns play a major role, so much so that they've become one of many signatures of what is evolving into the Chance Sound. He brings the latest iteration of the old-school "dusties" flavor that permeated decades of Chicago hip-hop releases from Common and No I.D. through Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco, and stretches back to the heyday of Chicago soul in the '60s.
There are cameos from Lil Wayne and Justin Bieber, Jay Electronica and "my cousin Nicole." In a world where hip-hop is pop and pop is hip-hop, Chance loves to mix it up: What would gospel maestro Kirk Franklin, rapper T-Pain and rising vocal star Eryn Allen Kane sound like together? Spectacular, it turns out, with nearly seven minutes of "Finish Line/Drown" building to a plea and a declaration: "Take me to your mountain," a Franklin choir sings, "so someday Chicago will be free."
Sometimes the generosity can become wearying. "Mixtape" sounds like a Young Thug leftover rather than a track that belongs on a Chance album. It appears to exist solely to check a genre box. But for the most part, Chance chooses his collaborators and tracks carefully. This is not a hodgepodge. It's intended as a cohesive Statement, with a capital "S." Sometimes that kind of ambition can get an artist in trouble, sacrificing specifics and the kind of personal details that make him relatable, human, in favor of bromides and would-be anthems.
But Chance has a few things to get off his chest, and what made "Surf" and now "Coloring Book" compelling is his ability to let his personality seep into the broad canvases on which he and his collaborators paint. Several personal threads run through the album: his relationship with the mother of his daughter (it's complicated but worth it), the kind of world his child is entering (he's worried), his relationship with the music industry (he trusts it even less now that he can't freely collaborate with friends tied up in label deals). Chance has moved beyond the youthful exuberance that many first heard on his first major mixtape, "10 Day" (2012) and amplifies the loss-of-innocence maturity that surfaced on "Acid Rap" (2013) in the bittersweet "Summer Friends." He's even singing a bit more, which underlines the vulnerability of "Blessings."
Above all else musically, "Coloring Book" is a celebration of singing, harmonizing, human voices making a joyous noise together. It's no coincidence that most of these vocal melodies are derived from the way harmonies are stacked, drawing on traditions that were about collective, rather than individual, statements: street-corner doo-wop, gospel choirs, the wordless backing hooks of Gladys Knight's Pips or the Temptations or Boyz II Men or Jodeci. Kanye West, Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar have recently framed their superstar albums as collective works, incorporating a multitude of voices and styles. In many ways, Chance was early to the game with his mixtapes, a fast-rising artist lifting and empowering a local scene and then bringing it to an international platform. (The best parts of West's latest album, "The Life of Pablo," feel like an extension of Chance's passion for gospel.) It goes hand in hand with the notion of freedom and what that word, that promise, means for African-Americans. In the context of Chicago's soaring body counts and the outrage over Laquan McDonald and countless other shooting victims, Chance's music suggests that the civil-rights era is far from over.
Whether it's about the rights of artistic self-expression in the supremely catchy "No Problem" or the notion that everybody matters in D.R.A.M.'s moving gospel snippet "Special," "Coloring Book" demands justice. Many of the most eloquent freedom songs of the '60s were written by artists from gospel backgrounds who began to lose patience with the notion that African-Americans would see their reward arrive in the afterlife. It was time to find solace in this life, as expressed in the songs of Curtis Mayfield, Pops Staples and Sam Cooke. "A change is gonna come," as Cooke sang.
Time and again, a community in need of solace found it by lifting its voices in song. Chance brings that forward in the mixtape's opening track: "Music is all we got," he declares. And he's got a whole community of voices by his side to make it real.
Other notable releases:
Bob Dylan, "Fallen Angels"
Eric Clapton, "I Still Do"
Blake Shelton, "If I'm Honest"
Ariana Grande, "Dangerous Woman"
Marissa Nadler, "Strangers"