Despite the spontaneous nature of Saturday Night Live, there remains an underlying consistency in its makeup. While the backstage details may be hazy for the average fan, each week, there is an expectation of a big name celebrity, accompanied by a musical guest, putting on an entertaining show from 11:30 – 1:00. The excitement of having these Hollywood superstars host the show dims over the course of the season, understood simply to be par for the course. However, on February 13th, with Kanye West slotted to perform, one could feel a difference in the air leading up to the show. Sure, Melissa McCarthy was the actual host, but with a new album scheduled to release any minute now, this was Kanye’s night. All the buildup, the anticipation and the hype surrounding Yeezus’ self-proclaimed masterpiece were about to boil over, culminating in one fantastic live performance.
And boy did he deliver. Backed by a church choir dressed in white, Kanye offered his gospel in the form of his new song “Ultralight Beam”. The centerpiece of his new album, this song was Kanye’s testament to God, delivered with an energy and magnificence matching only that of its creator. However, what was more inspiring than the song itself was what happened during its performance. Two minutes in, after a powerful solo, Kanye steps back, and from the side stage emerges Chance the Rapper. Donning a blue sweater and his trademark White Sox cap, Chance commanded the audience’s attention and delivered a passionate, soulful verse that left everyone speechless. Watching it live, you could feel that something special had just happened. Here was one of the greatest hip hop artists of all time, minutes before dropping the most anticipated album of 2016, and yet, it was a 23-year-old rapper from Chicago that stole the show.
It was at this moment that Kanye not only presented his new album to the world, but his successor to the throne. Sure, Chance had a lot of success prior to his SNL performance. He had already earned a reputation as one of the most entertaining artists in his field thanks to the success of his past projects, from his mixtapes Acid Rap and 10 Day to his collaborative efforts on Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment’s Surf. However, what we saw in Studio 8H was not the same squawking, wily rapper we had come to expect, but rather a mature, focused artist prepared to embrace his new role as the face of Chicago hip hop. His loyalty to his city, his music, and himself is what brought him this opportunity, and he was not going to let it pass. He was ready to become the figurehead that Chicago needed, and he was going to do it in the same way he’s always gone about his business: by staying true to himself and to his values.
These truths and more are reflected in Chance’s new mixtape Coloring Book, which was released for free on Apple Music last Thursday. His first song, “All We Got,” features Kanye, Chance’s longtime idol, along with the Chicago Children’s Choir. West’s minimal role in the song is a testament to this power shift, with Kanye offering his support without the arrogance or ego intertwined in his own projects. Because Coloring Book is not his project, or anyone else’s for that matter. Despite the overwhelming list of big name features – which includes rising superstars such as Justin Bieber and Future, as well as more established veterans Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, and T-Pain (shoutout BC) – this is Chance’s album in its entirety. It serves as his coming out party, a completely unique introduction to the world stage that still retains the elements of Chance that brought him his initial success. The wordplay, the shouts, the horns. The 23-year-old artist has come a long way since his first mixtape, and Coloring Book is a byproduct of this growth and maturity.
One of the most amazing things about this project is that it is truly a gospel-rap album from start to finish. Chance’s faith has always played a role in his music, as seen in the timeless jam “Sunday Candy,” for example, but never to this extent. Peppering his album with sermons, church choirs, and outright praises to God, Chance brings gospel to the mainstream in a way that’s a lot of fun to listen to. Think 10:15 Mass at Lower as opposed to 1,000-year-old traditional Mass. It’s what Kanye tried to do in Life of Pablo, but just came up a tad short. Chance’s gospel never feels forced, it never feels fake, because it’s not. Faith is a such an integral part of who Chance is, and his music effortlessly reflects this sentiment.
The success that Chance achieves in creating gospel rap stems from the perfect balance he finds between religion and his personal struggles. Because, while rooted in Christianity, the album focuses on very real issues, mainly Chance’s own transition into adulthood. Since his release of Acid Rap in 2013, Chance has overcome addiction, become a club ambassador for the White Sox, and created various social justice programs for the people of Chicago. However, the most significant change in his life happened last November when he became a father. His love for his daughter can be felt throughout the album, most tangible in his song “Blessings.” Yet, despite the excitement surrounding the next stage of the young artist’s life, there is an inevitable fear that comes with leaving the normalcy of the past and entering the obscurity of the future. To cope with this fear, Chance seeks comfort in his own blissful days of childhood. Songs like “Summer Friends” and “Juke Jam” capture that innocent paradise. In his verses, he alludes to childhood favorites including Harry Potter, Peter Pan, and Lion King. Even the album name itself evokes images of simpler times; of lying belly down on the floor scribbling out our latest creative masterpiece. Chance offers a wonderful tribute to the past, while still looking forward to the future.
Facing the daunting challenge of adulthood, Chance uses his faith and childhood experiences not as a crutch, but rather a springboard for his life to come. His rock-solid foundation helps him to frame his mind in a way that allows him to celebrate life. While many other artists in his genre project a harsher, more cynical perspective on reality, Chance chooses to highlight the beauty of everyday life, the colors of human experience in all their vibrancy, and share it with the world. That’s the best part of this album: the joy. From the first trumpet blare to the final refrain, Chance has crafted a work of art that celebrates himself, God, and the people around him. He’s got gritty songs, dancey songs, spiritual songs, all perfectly tied together in a 52-minute masterpiece. Coloring Book has launched Chance into the upper echelon of hip hop artists, backed by a style totally unique to himself.
During his SNL performance, Chance proclaims, “This is my part nobody else speak.” It’s the kind of authoritative line you expect to hear from a grizzled veteran, and yet, it feels so natural coming from the 23-year-old rapper. It’s incredible to see how mature Chance is at this point in his career. Kanye’s best prodigy is finally ready to assume his position. It’s his time, it’s his part and we all better listen.