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Over the last few years, Chicago’s Chance the Rapper has gone from an exciting, dynamic young talent to something like a standing joke in the hip-hop world, even as he also became one of its biggest stars. His insistence that his projects Acid Rap and Coloring Book were mixtapes and not albums lent him an air of obstinate quirkiness that belied a refusal to let others define him. He would be master of his legacy in real time, even if that meant inviting the sort of scrutiny and mockery that inevitably results from that kind of control freakishness.
Where Chance’s ingenuity and creativity were once praised and launched him into rap’s stratosphere where establishment adulation and corporate sponsorship awaited, his earnestness earned him a backlash from fans who saw him as insincere and corny. That hasn’t stopped his star from rising or from doubling down on all of those qualities on his official “debut” album, The Big Day, presented as both a soundtrack and reflective commentary of his spring wedding to longtime sweetheart Kirsten Corley. The result is everything that fans love and hate about Chance, with all of his ambition and ingenuity guiding the way on an album that does its best to rewrite the entire core concept of a rap album — and succeeds in glorious, technicolor fashion.
Chance’s sunniness has always been the sticking point of his latter-day material — such as it’s possible to call his third mixtape “latter-day” when it came out three years before his album. There’s this idea among hip-hop fans and music fans in general that the best art comes from pain. It’s a premise Chance thoroughly and joyfully rejects, mining his best days as much as his darkest. In a genre marketed with mean mugs and post-apocalyptic imagery, right up until last year’s album of the year, Astroworld, Chance’s Black boy joy is both antidote and anomaly. Where Travis Scott raged, Chance cavorts. The whimsy of Chance’s experiments with indie pop and Chicago house contradict and counterbalance the bluesy, minor-chord gloom of modern trap. It’s just as big an album but it needs to be, because it has to make the same bold swings in the opposite direction.
And where a Kendrick Lamar will question his faith with the furrowed-brow consternation of DAMN., Chance wholeheartedly exalts his relationship with God, starting with Coloring Book’s gospel samples and pointed Biblical references and continuing on The Big Day, which credits all of the success of the past three years to Chance’s unwavering belief in a higher power. Hip-hop artists, contrary to the arguments against Chance’s lyrical content, have always highlighted their religious beliefs, but always with revelations, thunder and lightning, fire and brimstone. Chance posts up in the book of Psalms. That sort of contrarianism may rankle a certain type of fan, but it’s as true to the spirit of hip-hop as any ice grilling, gold-chain swinging, chest-thumping menace.
At its heart, rap is about aspiration. That Chance presents a more grounded ideal — marriage, domesticity, legal Black enterprise — is always going to chafe a generation conditioned to believe that rappers must only come from poverty, embroiled in lives of crime and violence, with a nihilistic disregard for society’s rules and even less for women. The things your parents wanted for you are for suckers and cornballs. Rap is about rebellion. Except that, when the establishment has become guns and drugs, mindless materialism and misogyny, Chance is the rebel. It feels incongruous, even gross, to embrace the sunny vision of suburban sitcom bliss, the nuclear family of My Wife And Kids over Martin‘s eternal adolescence or The Wire’s unflinching rawness. But hip-hop’s cardinal tenet has always been keeping it real; Chance shares his reality with every breath he takes.
Of course, it’s impossible to fault his delivery or his ability to rhyme. Chance has long been one of rap’s premier lyricists and throughout The Big Day, he showcases the breadth of this ability. The upbeat bop of “Eternal,” the spacey introspection of “Roo” with his brother Taylor Bennett, and the throwback house of “Ballin Flossin” all provide wildly diverse and impressively eclectic backdrops for Chance’s prodigious vocal talents to romp and swagger and shine. On “5 Year Plan,” he addresses the same sort of businessman’s acumen and advice that Jay-Z was praised for on 4:44, but without the coldly capitalistic veneer of nonchalance. If there’s such space for empathy in getting rich, Chance inhabits it — and comfortably, at that.
The framing device of the wedding and its accompanying reception party accommodates the guests on the album, ranging from family and friends like Chance’s own father Kenneth Bennett and long-time collaborators Smino, Francis Starlite of Francis And The Lights to first-time collaborators like DaBaby, Gucci Mane, Megan Thee Stallion, and Nicki Minaj, who appears twice on the album, as well as an array of actors portraying the sort of well-meaning but cantankerous relatives who feel the need to both advise and shade Chance as he takes the biggest step of life.
Everything Chance has done musically to date culminates and coalesces here, only more polished, better executed. This is Chance in his final form as a rapper, as a producer, and as a man — acknowledging that there is always another level to achieve, more growth to undergo, and in his typically optimistic view, more success on the other side of future challenges. That optimism may make us uncomfortable and set off our collective spider-sense of cognitive dissonance, but it’s truer to the vast majority of hip-hop’s audience than the rap ideal we’ve been conditioned to aspire to by three generations of rich white guys in boardrooms deciding “what’s hot in the streets.” That he’s achieved so much outside of a traditional label system is both the highest praise of his art and the most vicious indictment of his critics and the status quo his art challenges.
Make fun of Chance if you want, but what other rapper has features that include exploding newcomers like Megan Thee Stallion alongside vets like Nicki Minaj and legends of the screen like Keith David and Cree Summer? Chance rewrote the rules of the industry, remained true to himself, and finished first despite the world’s insistence that nice guys finish last. The Big Day actually makes perfect sense as a debut album in that light. Seven years into his illustrious, groundbreaking mainstream run, Chance The Rapper has finally arrived.
The Big Day is out now via Chance The Rapper LLC. Get it here.