On April 30th, 2013, in the throes of spring, Chance The Rapper declared: “Acid on the face, that’s a work of art.”
Five years younger, Chance’s voice warbled all over his pivotal Acid Rap mixtape, laced with the jitter of spring fever. The raps and cadences so unique and exuberant, each track summoned a knee-jerk joy. In the years to follow, as his art evolved, Chance would rise to the upper echelon of hip-hop, bring happiness to the mainstream, champion the indie path to success, and mature into a vocal advocate for Chicago’s public schools.
To underscore Chance’s influence, in 2016, Pigeons and Planes spoke with 11 artists to gain insight on what Acid Rap meant to musicians both within and outside of Chicago. Answers affirmed that the mixtape personified summertime and high school memories. Fellow Chicago rapper Joey Purp said it best: “Man, Acid Rap meant the world to all of us. Our friends, our city, and our generation.”
Ten days after the Pigeons interview published, on May 13, 2016, Chance The Rapper released his long-awaited follow-up, Coloring Book. All of hip-hop was watching, openly hoping for Acid Rap 2.0. But fans received something more nuanced than a sequel, they were trusted with a 13-track guide to Chance The Rapper’s spiritual awakening.
In the time between Acid Rap and Coloring Book, Chance fathered a daughter who immediately fell ill. As he prayed for her recovery, he, in his own words, was able to “see God through my daughter.” Speaking with frequent collaborator, Nate Fox, he also underscores the importance of fatherhood in Chance’s transformation.
“I’ve had the privilege to witness first-hand Chance grow from a very ambitious kid to a strong and guided man,” Fox tells us. “And although his spirituality and faith have truly guided him along this path, I believe it was his embracing of fatherhood that helped him really shape himself. He takes such pride in being a good father and really holds himself to a higher standard because of his passion for parenting.”
Even so, without this context, some fans were caught off-guard by the burgeoning religious themes in Chance’s newest work. Yet, a critical look back reveals God finally answering Chance was the next logical step for his music. That is to say, God was already present on Acid Rap.
Chance’s interrogation of the absence of God is the narrative foundation of Acid Rap. Notably, Chance displays critical moments of frustration with God on “Everybody’s Something” (“Why God’s phone die every time that I call on him?”). Obviously not a heretic, his grievances follow the despondent pleas on “Paranoia,” wherein he begs God for a little more spring in light of the violence befalling his city in the summertime.
He brings as much to light in an Acid Rap release day interview with Interview Mag, wherein he calls Chicago “a situation… more than just a city, it’s like a culture that allows gun violence to happen frequently, and there’s nobody that’s really saying that this shit is not normal, you know? … It’s scary. I want to voice it.”
Later, on “Acid Rain,” Chance continues a now desperate-sounding search for answers, rapping: “And I still be asking God to show his face / And I still be asking God to show his face”. Finally, with the release of Coloring Book, God does show his face.
While some argue that Coloring Book isn’t as potent a project as Acid Rap, we cannot deny that Coloring Book features a more focused and self-assured Chance The Rapper. Coloring Book boasts better-crafted songs and weightier themes. That is to say, we can sustain our love for Acid Rap while admitting that Chance The Rapper is a superior songwriter now than he was in his musical infancy.
Chance’s passion for God improved his music in a way only passion could: gave his writing a newfound purpose and weight. Should his passion have evolved into something more or less trite, the case would be the same: a man with a mission is positioned to make better music. While Chance packed Acid Rap with 13-tracks’ worth of raw poetic talent, with this religion, he now has a concerted channel for his skill.
Recall the depth of pain on the third verse on “Paranoia,” and compare said depth with Coloring Book’s “Summer Friends,” a full and focused track birthed out of Chance’s interfacing with God. “Summer Friends” takes those earlier questions and surrounds them with superb storytelling. A lyric as deceptively simple as “79th street was America then” plays as effortlessly evocative because Chance The Rapper is writing with newfound purpose.
Even prior to Coloring Book’s release, consider his 2015 single, “Israel (Sparring),” featuring Noname. Over a minimalist Cam O’bi beat, Chance The Rapper delivers a stunning and sprawling poetic exercise with allusions to the Old Testament. Of course, we also have “Sunday Candy,” the clear standout on The Social Experiment’s 2015 album, Surf, proving that Chance can pair his religious themes with the unfiltered joy of Acid Rap.
Fast forward to 2018, and Chance The Rapper continues to balance the pious and the party. In April alone, he has delivered two jubilant features (Saba’s “Logout” and Cardi B’s “Best Life”) that highlight his acrobatic skill as an MC.
This is all to say, in evaluating Chance’s evolution from Acid Rapper to Christian Rapper, we are truly discussing the impact of freedom. Acid Rap was wonderfully youthful and carefree. Coloring Book, in its own way driven by a freedom of self-expression, had equally soaring moments. As long as Chance The Rapper maintains that mindset, continues his pursuit of creative and personal freedom, his definitive opus will come.
Five years later, while we may not have expected it, we can all say it out loud: “Our favorite rapper’s a Christian rapper.”
Donna-Claire Chesman is an East Coast-based music writer, who loves Big L and The Fugees as much as jazz and her pet parrot. Her work appears on DJBooth, Okayplayer, Vinyl Me, Please, Pigeons and Planes, Mass Appeal, XXL, and others. Find her on Twitter @DonnaCWrites, if you’re so inclined.
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