While I was examining shards and glimpses of the black church in Spodee’s recent material, apparently the rest of the Internet was basking in the floodlights of Chance the Rappers’s much more overt gospel-rap project. Oddly enough it never occurred to me to speak on the church’s influence in rap while listening to Coloring Book despite all the blatant talk about blessings and appearances by Kirk Franklin and the Chicago Children’s Choir. Realizing this made me pause and wonder why such an obvious train of thought passed straight through my brain without making a stop, while songs like “All I Want” that bear no obvious resemblance to any form of gospel music spark that idea in me instantly.
To satisfy my confusion I revisited Coloring Book alongside all the music I referenced in my previous post, as well as my own writing about it, to help me discover the subconscious forces at work in these thoughts and connections I have, or don’t have. The moment that finally revealed the answer was rereading the three words that I associated with the particular Tree/Spodee flavor of gospel/soul rap, the words that for me sum up the basic elements tying these two distant relatives of music together so closely – conviction, levity, humbleness. I make no effort to use these terms to define the black church or its core values; in fact I would not attempt to use any words toward that purpose, since as a white non-Christian it is simply not my place to make such claims or evaluations. These are simply the concepts, dare I say “virtues”, that I have most valued and resonated with in my experiences attending black Protestant church services and the music that has emerged from that wellspring of culture.
My experience of both gospel and rap has always been abstracted from the explicit claims of either genre. The overt, superficial subject matter of these musics rarely resonates with me directly, it is only through metaphor, comparison, and emotional extrapolation that I’ve learned to decipher the more essential feelings and values expressed in this music. It’s only through this lens that I can listen to a song about murder and hear a song about loyalty, or listen to a song about eternal damnation for the unrighteous and hear a song about the urgency of doing good in the world. Chance’s recent efforts stick much more closely with the superficial characteristics that define gospel than Pimp C or Boosie – choruses of exuberant Kanyes singing “We might as well give it all we got”over untainted major-key horn stabs tracks pretty closely to a surface-level scan of a black gospel performance. But the underlying elements that, for me, are so vital to that genre are mostly absent, yet I find them regularly in songs like “Forgive Me For Being Lost” or “The Game Belongs To Me”.
I’ll admit Chance hits pretty hard on the levity scale, and that side of him has always appealed to me ever since I first saw the video for “Juice”. I’m always struck by how playful and funny ministers in the black church are, and how much wisdom can be transmitted through this playfulness. And an argument could be made in favor of his humbleness based on the subject matter of some of his lyrics – “I know the difference in blessings and worldly possessions”, but others aren’t as modest – “Ain’t no blood on my money” is not as humbling and does not ring nearly as true for me as UGK’s “No matter how you make it, it’s all dirty money”. And aesthetically speaking, this project is actually quite grandiose, self-indulgent, and unrestrained. Overall it is much more victory lap than it is mid-race tribulation.
Most of all, what’s missing for me is the conviction, and, if I may add a fourth element to this formula, urgency. Nearly all the featured artists on the tape seem to be present much more for talking about than for what they actually contribute to the song they’re on (“yo he got Yachty and Jay Electronica on the same album CRAZY”). The features act more as decorations rather than pillars of the songs they grace. Jeremih is the most stylistically appropriate complement to Chance’s style and actually makes the song he’s on better with his presence, unlike most others, but I’ve yet to hear anyone mention his contribution as noteworthy to the project. Sure Chance mentions heavy themes like death, belief, and becoming a father on this effort, but his delivery of these lines doesn’t actually make me feel any feelings about these concepts. My mode of listening is so shifted toward abstraction that the overt subject matter washes straight past me and the depth that I hold so dear in the best rap and gospel music is simply not there in the execution.
In that way, Coloring Book is probably the most apt title Chance could have chosen for this project, and I don’t mean to portray this project as a failure in its mission. It’s a fun album in a lot of ways, and his raw rapping prowess is still impressive at many moments throughout. But it crosses the line from being playful to just playing around – it’s the minister’s jokes without the wisdom they subconsciously instill. And I must reiterate that this is not a reference to the overt lyrical content, he certainly makes a concerted effort to include “wise” passages quite often, but I don’t see him demonstrating this wisdom aesthetically in the execution of the album, thus these wise messages evaporate instantly upon hearing them. At the end of the tape I find myself unchanged, and thus unsatisfied. I know Chance is capable of immense emotive power, I’ve felt it on “Acid Rain”, “No Better Blues“, “You Song”, even “I Am Very Very Lonely”. These songs transform me like a good sermon or poem; Coloring Book has only about as much effect as its namesake.