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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.