Chance the Rapper's 'Coloring Book' is 2016's best album so far

Chance the Rapper's 'Coloring Book' is 2016's best album so far

Chance the Rapper predicted this. During his guest-verse on Kanye West's "Ultralight Beam" earlier this year, the 23-year old Chicago rapper promised about his third mixtape: "Let's make it so free and the bars so hard/That there ain't one gosh darn part you can't tweet." When the project titled "Coloring Book" dropped Thursday night as an Apple Music exclusive, Chance made right on both guarantees: There's not one moment on this incredible tape that couldn't be paired with a tweet in awe of what this Chicagoan has accomplished here and in the past three years. 

Since his second official project, "Acid Rap," was released in April 2013, a work so impressive that it evoked Kanye West "College Dropout"-level promise, Chance has only exceeded expectations. He's headlined both Lollapalooza and Pitchfork, assumed the sideman role on Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment's marvelous "Surf," started an "Open Mike" event for creative high school students, raised $100,000 in coats for Chicago's homeless, released a mixtape with Lil B, became the first independent artist to play "Saturday Night Live" and then performed at the show again three months later with Kanye West. Oh, plus Chance also helped make five songs on his hero's new album, "The Life of Pablo," and all of them were standouts. While he's always been loved in Chicago, his career arc and his warm and humble personality have made him the easiest person to root for.  

Even with all that hype, "Coloring Book" delivers. In fact, it's the kind of release that will vault Chance to the upper echelon of rap royalty. Instead of Kanye, Kendrick and Drake, it's now Kanye, Kendrick, Chance and Drake. "Coloring Book" is a vibrant and rewarding 14-track effort overflowing with gospel, marquee guest-verses and pure joy: The perfect Chicago album, it's the kind of infectious work that'll keep you grinning ear-to-ear over its 58-minute runtime. 

While joy has always been a key ingredient in Chance's music since his debut 2012 tape "10 Day," Chance's utter bliss throughout "Coloring Book" is more whole. He's a recent father, and the pleasures and responsibilities of parenthood color every track. On opener "All We Got," he screams out in joy, "Man, my daughter couldn’t have a better mother/If she ever find another, he better love her," while on the grateful "Blessings" he introspects, "I know the difference in blessings and worldly possessions/Like my ex girl getting pregnant and her becoming my everything." With this generous and happy spirit permeating throughout, along with gospel choirs and Donnie Trumpet's rousing horns, "Coloring Book" is Chance eagerly sharing his blessings with the world. 

It's not even his verse on "Ultralight Beam" that hinted at this gospel-heavy direction. From Chance rapping about being baptized, sanctified and holy on "Acid Rap" standout "Acid Rain," to singing about getting his butt to church on the ode to his grandma "Sunday Candy," and to his surprise guest at his homecoming Pitchfork Festival being gospel musician Kirk Franklin, gospel and spirituality have always informed his music. Franklin himself shows up on the gorgeous penultimate track "Finish Line/Drown" along with T-Pain, Chicago's Eryn Allen Kane and Noname, with the latter two shining the brightest with incredible vocal contributions. On "How Great," which features a stellar comeback verse from reclusive rapper Jay Electronica, Chance even enlists his own cousin Nicole to sing iconic gospel track "How Great Is Our God." 

Similar to the communal effort on "Surf," "Coloring Book," while tighter and more cohesive, still has that ebullient "jam session with friends" vibe. As Chance opened up Kanye's "The Life of Pablo" with a verse on "Ultralight Beam," Ye and the Chicago Children's Choir assist "All We Got." Lil Wayne and 2Chainz entertain Chance's industry boasts on "No Problem." Bigger names than that include Justin Bieber on the downbeat "Juke Jam," who is upstaged by Towkio's simply-smooth hook.  

Production from the Social Experiment shines too, especially when drummer Stix is behind the boards for the Lil Yachty, Young Thug-assisted "Mixtape." Relative unknown producer Garren, who already has my favorite beat of the year with Joey Purp's "Photobooth," is equally impressive with "Smoke Break," and the house-laden drinking anthem "All Night" feels like a sonic tour of Chicago's musical history. 

Elsewhere, Jeremih and New York crooner Francis & the Lights complement each other perfectly on the nostalgic "Summer Friends" ("79th Street was America then/Ice cream truck and the beauty supply/Blockbuster movies and Harold's again"). It's the kind of sentiment anyone can relate to, a yearning for childhood and how things change that reaches its boiling point on the stunning "Same Drugs," which features some amazing harmonies from Eryn Allen Kane and Homme's Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart. The song gives me chills every single time. 

In a year when Beyonce, Kanye West, Radiohead and Drake all have new albums out, only Chance had something so entirely cohesive and awe-inspiring. Like he sings on single "Angels," he truly does have his "city doin' frontflips." Where "Acid Rap" and "10 Day" were incredible for their promise, "Coloring Book" is a triumph for how it's been realized. Even then, this is only the beginning: It's Chance's part, nobody else speak. 

4 stars (out of four)

@joshhterry | jterry@redeyechicago.com

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