Like many of my fellow millennials, in the last several months I’ve become obsessed with Chance the Rappers newest album, Coloring Book. I’m not typically much of a rap person, but I am a Theology major, so a friend of mine recommended the album because he thought I would be interested in the lyrical themes of the album. He was absolutely right. I have been fascinated by the way that Chance combines more typical rap themes (“Drinking All Night”) with his deep Christian faith. Chance has discussed his faith extensively in interviews, and was very public about it at the 2017 Grammys as well, where performed segments of “How Great” and “All We Got” complete with a gospel choir, and began his acceptance speech for Best New Artist with this simple invocation “Glory be to God.”
Although Chance’s previous work with The Social Experiment, as well as his first two independent mixtapes, featured significant Christian themes, his third album, Coloring Book, is the most complete narrative of his life and faith that he has offered to date. The Christian themes in Coloring Book can be divided into two general categories: a theology of solidarity with the marginalized in Chicago’s southside, and a theology of rejecting the sinful patterns of the world and the music industry in order to fully glorify God.
First: Chicago. Throughout his rise to fame, Chance has consistently devoted himself to still being very much a part of the southside community. In both “How Great” and “Summer Friends”, he repeats “79” as a reference to 79th street on the southside, where he grew up.
“Summer Friends” and “Angels” both treat the issue of violence in Chicago and the community response. The line “Summer friends don’t stick around” is a reference to the increase in shootings and adolescent deaths that occur during the summers, when kids are out of school. The song begins with the hauntingly beautiful line “oh incredible...my Lord incredible...I believe” and ends with a recording of a woman praying a blessing “May the Lord give your journey mercy/May you be successful, grant you favor/And bring you back safely, I love you” signifying Chance’s belief that despite the violence, God is with the people of the southside. Chance’s dedication to justice outside of his work (he’s been an advocate of Chicago public schools and other organizations), and his subtle criticism of the CPD in “Summer Friends”, is his way of saying that God does have a preferential option for the poor. Even though there is great brokenness, that he himself has experienced (“I used to hide from God/duck down in the slums like shh”) there is also redemption and new life to be found by seeking God and knowing that he is near to the brokenhearted.
Furthermore, in first verse of “Angels” Chance explains how he will use the deaths of his friends to motivate his continued involvement in the community: “Clean up the streets so my daughter can have somewhere to play”. Much of the song after that seems to be a tribute to the friends he lost growing up (“they got too many young angels on the South Side”), but in calling them “Angels” and referencing “heaven’s gates” he recognizes again that in the midst of suffering, there is hope for life after death.
Secondly, Chance uses Coloring Book to express his theological view of the difference between the life in the world and life in the spirit. One line in “Blessings” seems to sum up this idea best. In it he says, “I know the difference in blessings and worldly possessions” which echoes St. Paul who says “Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
“How Great” is probably the song that most fully fleshes out this idea. By beginning with a rendition the classic gospel anthem, “How Great is Our God” sung by his cousin Nicole Steen, Chance nods to the fact that his success is not a product of his own good works (though his are many) but rather a product of grace, and the goodness of God. The bridge states “God is better than the best day the world has to offer” further enforcing this idea of dichotomy between God and the World. However, Chance doesn’t intend to mean that God is not in the world, but rather that there are sinful elements of living materialistically that need to be rejected in order to fully glorify God. Hence, the line “Spit it Spotify to qualify a Spot on his side”. Chance has been consistently vocal both in his music and in interviews about not signing a to any record label, in order to preserve his creative independence and also to avoid being sucked into the cycle of money, power, fame and ownership that often corrupts artists like himself.
The entire Jay Electronica rap in “How Great” is chalk-full of references to the glory of God overcoming the world, oftentimes through references to Revelation: “Who was the angel in Revelation with a foot on water and a foot on land” and “Mystery Babylon tumbling down/Satan’s establishment crumbling down” (Rev. 10:5 and Rev. 17:5). While Revelation seems to be an extreme example to compare to Chance’s career and attempt to glorify God rather than the world, it just further goes to show how seriously Chance takes this mission.
In “Blessings” and “Finish Line/Drown”, however, Chance admits that he isn’t perfect at this, saying “I’m at war with my wrongs” and “I got the power/I could poke Lucifer with crucifix/I cannot scrap the stupid sh*t” meaning that though he has the power of God to live a life apart from sin, there’s still “stupid sh*t” that gets in the way sometimes.
The album ends with a reprise of “Blessings,” in which Chance explains the hope he has for the future, whether that is in his own life or in heaven. It’s an undeniably beautiful picture: “Promised lands/soil as soft as Mama’s hands/Running water, standing still/endless fields of daffodils and chamomile.” This theme of hope ties together both theological strands: the need for solidarity with the suffering in the southside which is contingent on a hopeful gospel, and the importance of choosing God over the world, because he is the source of all goodness and hope.
Chance ends with the open questions “Are you ready for your blessings?/Are you ready for your miracle?” He does not direct the question at anyone in particular, which universalizes his message to suggest that anyone can have access to the life he lives: a life which fights for justice, rejects worldly obsessions, and chooses to see all things--good and bad--as blessings.