Chance the Rapper’s ‘Coloring Book’ is the perfect album for fans who miss the old Kanye

Let’s get this out of the way first: Chance the Rapper’s verse on ‘Ultralight Beam’ is one of the best of the year (if a little overwrought at times). The opening cut on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo was as much a showcase for his fellow Chicagoan Chancellor Bennett as it was a tone-setter for the album. But even the most attentive listeners couldn’t have predicted that ‘Ultralight Beam’ would reveal itself three-months-later as a trailer for Chance’s long-awaited third mixtape.

Coloring Book shares much in common with the Kanye song: gospel choirs, religious themes, the guiding hand of Kanye himself, and, of course, a typically affable performance from Chance. Drawing on all the hallmarks of College Dropout-era Kanye, Coloring Book runs over with brass, chipmunk soul, rap devotionals, and oodles of joie de vivre.

Drawing on all the hallmarks of College Dropout-era Kanye, Coloring Book runs over with brass, chipmunk soul and rap devotionals

It’s appropriate, then, that the first track here, ‘All We Got,’ has a Kanye feature. With its rude horns and a hook that’s so high in the mix it seems to pummel you across the ears, the intro seizes your attention and doesn’t let go, while the presence of the Chicago Children’s Choir invites yet more comparisons with ‘Ultralight Beam.’ What was so interesting about the treatment of religion on The Life of Pablo was the way it spoke to Kanye’s own inner conflict, the clash between his faith and his megalomaniacal lust for power and fame. On Coloring Book, religious themes are more like window dressing than they are fodder for self-examination. The collective cry of the black congregation may be amplified, but its significance is muted.

Chance romanticises the past to the same extent that people who share “only ‘90s kids will understand” content on social media do. What saves him from becoming completely insufferable is his knack for vivid imagery; he makes you believe in the world he’s reassembled. “Blockbuster movies and Harold’s again / We still catching lightning bugs / When the plague hit the backyard,” he raps on ‘Summer Friends’. But then he’ll hit you with something saccharine like “Don’t forget the happy thoughts / All you need is happy thoughts,” and your immersion is tarnished.

This isn’t the only point at which Chance’s persona becomes irksome. “Kanye’s best prodigy / He ain’t sign me / But he proud of me,” he assures us on ‘Blessings (Reprise)’, more of a humblebrag than a moment of candid reflection. There’s an air of self-congratulatory indulgence to Chance’s music that dates back to 2013’s Acid Rap. Maybe you remember the phone conversation on ‘Everything’s Good,’ in which Chance’s dad tells him how proud he is of all the “remarkable and wondrous things” he’s done. “Thank you, love you,” Chance replies, as listeners either fumble for a tissue box or struggle not to gag. The line between conceit and braggadocio is a thin one. While braggadocio is endearing if executed well, conceit is merely grating.

It must be said, though, that the instrumentation on Coloring Book is near unimpeachable. Donnie Trumpet – aka Nico Segal – is the architect of Chance’s sound, much like Noah “40” Shebib is the architect of Drake’s. His band, The Social Experiment, are a neo-soul outfit with jazz trimmings, and they imbue Coloring Book with the requisite vibrancy its title would imply. In particular, the glassy electric piano on ‘Drown,’ and the noodly lead guitar at the end of ‘Same Drugs,’ attest to the band’s excellence.

The problem with taking three years to follow up a breakthrough release is that expectations are that much higher. If you don’t make a bold artistic statement, people are inevitably going to ask themselves: “Is that it?” Although Coloring Book isn’t a disappointment necessarily, but there are no giant leaps forward here, nothing to fully justify the wait. Chance has crystallised his aesthetic, but one hopes that on his next release he adds another chapter to the volume, rather than revising the text again.

7/10 Stars

Coloring Book is out now on Apple Music.