It’s been a privilege watching Chance the Rapper ascend to claim his godhead. Since 2013, he’s gone from earnest-eyed tripper to outspoken family man on his journey towards becoming hip-hop’s presiding minister. What hasn’t changed is his indomitable optimism. It sustains an auditory space like the holistic bubble of an acid trip, a memory of summer, or a hymn’s harmonies emulating the divided unity of the holy trinity. It’s a feeling that comes across as a confidence in his cadences, offset by a vocal vulnerability and a lyrical honesty that has the miraculous effect of shielding him from all sin. But he would probably tell you that it’s called faith.
The crazy thing about his latest mixtape, Coloring Book, is that in contrast to pretty much all other so-called “christian” music I’ve ever heard before (outside of an actual church), this makes me want to believe.
The most common failure of religious thought is that it so often exists within an impossibly removed ideological space, to the point that it can’t be brought to bear on reality without falling to pieces. Exposing this disconnect is actually the central function of the new testament–it’s why Jesus is always hanging out with prostitutes and lepers and poor fishermen. He’s a champion of the people who feel most disconnected from the religious establishment, and it’s the fear of his populist message that ultimately causes that establishment to turn on him.
Cue the painful irony of televangelists and megachurches. Of bands like Creed, whose christian veneer comes off as nothing more than a chintzy marketing tool, pointedly lampooned by Eric Cartman’s Faith+1 in one of my favorite South Park episodes of all time. I actually want to talk about that for a second. It’s relevant, I promise.
In the episode, Cartman makes a bet that he can go platinum by faking it as a christian rock band. He sells the records, but he’s ultimately foiled when they award him a myrrh album instead. The joke hinges on the idea of a glass ceiling for music that brands itself as “christian.” There’s a different set of standards employed when judging it, standards which exist precisely because of that ideological removal. A preoccupation with the exterior trappings and proselytizing assertions of christian faith prevent the music from actually examining or explaining reality in a meaningful way.
So why does Chance’s Coloring Book succeed where so many have failed? It’s partly because his sound draws from the incredibly rich and uplifting musical tradition of the spiritual, with horns, hands and voices raised to heavens, but more importantly, it’s because his faith is not a front. It’s simply an aspect of the personality he brings to his music. His burgeoning christianity is a frame within which he examines the universally human conditions of growth, parenthood, community, and balancing the artistic and personal responsibilities of someone trying to do good in the world, all while navigating the often morally reprehensible tradition of rap music. In the end, his faith is nothing less or more than the ground on which he has built his church, and there’s nowhere to go from there but up. Count me among the believers.