There is no single voice in DIY music culture making as much of an impact as Chance the Rapper. As an artist who has given away the majority of his music, without major label influence, Chance has been able to speak directly to the soul of young people without having his hand forced by the recording industry. On his new gospel-laced mixtape Coloring Book, that soul shines through from track to track. As he states on the song “Blessings,” “I don’t make songs for free/I make songs for freedom.”
On June 18, Chance joins Poliça, The Flaming Lips, and others at Minneapolis’s Boom Island Park for what is destined to be the largest Rock the Garden street festival yet. Over the past two years we’ve seen Rock the Garden diversify its lineup with acts like golden-era MCs De La Soul and Afrobeat legend Seun Kuti, among a handful of others—and with Chance’s inclusion the event further ventures into unchartered territory. Which begs the question: where does Chance fit in a festival that has boasted a past of mostly white indie-rock giants? And what does his presence mean to this coloring book and who gets the crayons?
Let’s take a minute and talk about the often-overlooked city within the city of Minneapolis. The Twin Cities has undeniably been heavily influenced by our closest major city neighbor, Chicago, Chance’s hometown. In the late 1800s, the Chicago, St. Paul, and Minneapolis railways were consolidated to create a consistent stream of people and goods throughout the region. Simultaneously, in 1865, you had the abolition of slavery, which quickly created the largest migration of people in the history of the United States. In the 1920s, more than six million formerly enslaved people traveled North for better wages and opportunity. My grandparents on both sides of the family moved from Mississippi and Arkansas during this period. Both of my parents relocated to Minnesota in the last year of the 1970s. Being Black growing up in inner city Minneapolis, you are constantly reminded of Chicago’s influence. Transplants from that city speak with such pride and sorrow in the same sentence. They speak of struggle, pain, and, ultimately, the hope for a brighter future. A similar duality is the somber playfulness that you find in Chance’s music. This is the spirit that touches Chance’s followers in a way that many outsiders may not understand. It’s an authentic voice piercing its way through a cloud of doubt.
In the city that produced the likes of the Smashing Pumpkins, Styx, Earth Wind & Fire, and Chief Keef, Chance the Rapper finds a way to walk the proverbial line musically. Inside of his productions you will find both a wide range of musicality and a blunt directness that only Chicago hip hop could produce. He slips back and forth between rapping and singing within the same line of thought. He also freely moves between preproduced instrumentals and his live band, The Social Experiment, flexing skills over odd time signatures. The amount of gospel influence may sound way out of the box for the fair-weather listener but makes perfect sense with someone like the Coloring Book author. At 23, Chance has been influenced by an age of direct access to the “other.” By this I mean young people are much more free to explore their tastes and interests in the privacy of their own homes without judgment, thanks to the internet. This gives young artists more time to explore their ideas and openly create. His do-it-yourself approach to creating music allows him to easily move between tracks with his soulful live band, songs with gospel icon Kirk Franklin, and tracks like “Mixtape” with viral stars Young Thug and Lil Yachty.
All throughout Chance’s new project you find hidden messages. You have to think of what a coloring book represents. Though mass-produced, a coloring book gives every person who utilizes it an opportunity to create their own version of reality. You can choose to use lighter or darker colors. You can draw inside the lines or stray away from the format. Either way we are all given some basic outline of how to exist, and we have to fill in that space with whatever makes the most sense to your personal experience.
On “All We Got,” the first song of Coloring Book, Chance features Kanye West and the Chicago Children’s Choir. Constantly shrouded in controversy, West is arguably the biggest artist to ever represent the working poor in the city. The Chicago Children’s Choir was founded in the mid-1950s at the height of the Civil Rights movement, serving more than 4,000 youth annually. Through the choir, young people have been able to travel throughout the world and perform with acts like Beyoncé, Luciano Pavarotti, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. In the center sits Chance rhyming, “This for the kids of the king of all kings/This is the holiest thing/This is the beat that played under the Word/This is the sheep that ain’t like what it herd.” This alludes to the idea that we are all children of a higher power but do not need to be followers to anyone’s ideas. Later on in the chorus, Kanye sings, “Music is all we got/so we might as well give it all we got.” This is the metaphorical rose growing from concrete.
The historic brutality that has plagued the city of Chicago traces back to segregation, Al Capone’s rampant rule of the streets, police violence, and the violence inflicted by neighbors upon each other. We constantly hear the statistics about the loss of life in the city. Rapper King Louie coined the phrase “Chiraq” as a response to statistics that showed more people killed in the Chicago than in active combat in Iraq. There most certainly is a problem and everyone has their own way of dealing.
Chance states that he’s here to “clean up the streets so my daughter has somewhere to play.” That is the beauty that is rarely seen or heard in the way Chicago is portrayed. We have to ask why the most negative images of the Black community are so freely bought and sold for profit. This is at a time when young artists of color in both the Twin Cities and Chicago are literally dying because they don’t feel like they have any other way into the music industry except through displays of violence. Much of Chance’s new album sounds like a prayer for the youth of his city and proof that you can make it out of hard times when you express your best self. Don’t miss your chance to join the choir live at Rock the Garden.