The custom, secular edit of Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper’s third mixtape, that I’ve been blasting non-stop since it dropped Friday is the album of the year — franker than Lemonade, more inventive than The Life of Pablo, at least a million times more fun than VIEWS. It’s amazingly home to the party jam of the summer (“No Problem,” for me, but just as easily “All Night”), the saddest, wisest reflection on Chicago street violence I’ve ever heard (“Summer Friends”), and the all-time best use of Justin Bieber (“Juke Jam”).
Unfortunately — and ten years from now, when I’m a born-again Christian with dogs and kids, I’ll probably have to repent for saying this — the remaining, Jesus-heavy third of the album is a liability or, worse, a chore. Chance’s exuberant faith, a highlight of 2013’s Acid Rap and more recently his verse on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” (more on that later), has calcified here, become so unrelentingly, oppressively joyful it’s lost its capacity for mystery, wonder, and doubt.
“Be less holy” is not a criticism I’m especially proud to launch against a 23-year-old artist who is an incredible rapper, a smart social commentator, and by all accounts an excellent father and person. It’s possible — likely, even — that the reason Chance’s resolute belief is less interesting to me than Kanye’s more problematic relationship with the Lord is just because I’m too much of a heathen/asshole to appreciate it.
But I submit as evidence “Blessings,” the fifth track on Coloring Book, which Chance performed on Jimmy Fallon, and also the song that brings the album to a screeching halt after an unbelievably strong opening run (“All We Got”/”No Problem”/”Summer Friends” is my kind of holy trinity). Over a hook that sounds like it got kicked off the Juno soundtrack for being too chirpy, Chance squanders one of his best lines (“Jesus’ black life ain’t matter, I know I talked to his daddy”) amid a slew of his worst (“I don’t make songs for free, I make ‘em for freedom”), all in service of a vaguely scolding reminder to say your prayers. I can already imagine the NPR set, the kind who couldn’t quite rally around the aggressive genius of “Jesus Walks,” raving about “Blessings” as a new, more thoughtful (read: boring, palatable) brand of hip hop. I hate it so much.
Coloring Book recovers, but never fully, and its spell is repeatedly broken by inert religious gestures like the interminable (three-minute) gospel intro to “How Great.” The difference in quality between Coloring Book’s secular peaks and its Christian valleys is stark and consistent, with only a couple exceptions. (His holiness T-Pain leading the choir on “Finish Line” is pretty great, I’ll admit.)
It didn’t have to be this way; we have proof from February. Three months of near-constant listening later, “Ultralight Beam” — the opening track on Kanye’s The Life of Pablo — remains the most astonishing song of the year, one of the greatest achievements of Kanye’s entire career. And Chance’s verse is its strongest element, an explicitly faithful, deeply moving (and, in parts, funny!) tribute to God’s will and love. “When they come for you, I will shield your name/I will field their questions, I will feel your pain.” The empathy is breathtaking, and mostly absent from Coloring Book, which never explores Christianity’s virtues, only extols them.
“Ultralight Beam” is a song about God that leaves space for him to exist in it: in its long silences and (gorgeously) voiced doubts. The spiritual stuff on Coloring Book has no time for such ambiguity. And that’s OK. Many, many people will identify with Chance’s unshakeable faith, and the rest of us can dance to its six or so standout tracks all the way to hell. Chance is still one of the most gifted rappers to emerge in years. I just wish he were as piercing an artist about religion as he is about everything else.