There’s been a buzz in the music industry about Chicago native Chance the Rapper for a few years now. His critically-acclaimed Acid Rap mixtape (2013), as well as his high-profile features, such as “Ultra-Light Beam” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, have positioned him as one of the more sought-out artists of his generation.
Remarkably, this has all been accomplished without a record deal. Chance rejected the traditional record label system and released music for free, without the usual promotional push that major labels often provide. Perhaps counterintuitively, his star continued to rise, making him something of a champion for independent artists everywhere.
Fresh off the buzz of his Kanye West feature, Chance released the highly-anticipated Coloring Book as an exclusive digital release in May 2016. Almost immediately, rave reviews came in. Coloring Book became the first ever streaming-only release to chart on the Billboard Top 200, debuting at #8 in its first week. And in an unprecedented move, Coloring Book was nominated for seven Grammy Awards, the first album to receive such nominations without having any physical copies available.
What made his success somewhat unique in mainstream hip-hop is that there is a strong undercurrent of explicitly Christian themes in his music. And yet, far from turning off mainstream, non-religious audiences, it has only seemed to endear him to them even more.
This all came to a head at the 2017 Grammy awards, when Chance won three Grammys and performed his song “How Great”, a remake of CCM artist Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God”, featuring well-known gospel artists Kirk Franklin and Tamela Mann. This seems to have tipped the scales for Christian audiences, as it is quite unusual to see a mainstream hip-hop artist passionately, publicly and boldly declaring his love for God.
It wasn’t only in his acceptance speeches either. (We’re used to seeing secular artists thank “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”). Chance was explicitly praising God in his performance on the largest of stages — before 26 million live viewers.
This increased exposure has led many Christians to begin asking questions. (Is Chance the Rapper a Christian? Is his music Christian hip-hop? Should I recommend his music?).
Some Christian writers take it as a forgone conclusion that Chance is a believer. In one review of Coloring Book for a Christian blog, the writer boldly declared that, “in Coloring Book and Chance the Rapper, (Christians have) the ‘saviour’ they have been waiting for.” Another writer has gone so far as to ask if Chance is helping to spearhead “hip-hop’s religious revival.”
So, what are we to do with all this?
I’ll admit that before the recent buzz, I wasn’t all that familiar with Chance’s music. I certainly knew who he was. I had listened to Acid Rap once a few years ago when some of my Christian rapper friends were raving about it. I saw his performance of “Blessings” on the Jimmy Fallon show. I also listened part of the way through Coloring Book when it first came out, but had forgotten much of it.
I decided to go back and listen to it again recently while taking notes and analyzing the lyrics with the help of genius.com. I also spent some time reading a number of interviews and hearing Chance speak for himself about his journey. Here are some of my observations:
Let me say from the outset that my goal is not to answer the question, “Is Chance the Rapper a Christian?” I don’t think that’s my job. I don’t know him. I’ve never met him. I know that he professes to be a Christian, but I don’t know his heart. I hear things in his music that are both encouraging and concerning.
I really do hope that what we are witnessing is a brand new believer who happens to also be an extremely talented artist wrestling with his newfound faith on the largest of stages. That would be really dope! Ultimately, as the great philosopher El DeBarge once said, “Time will reveal.”
From where I stand, this is less about Chance himself and more about questions that it raises concerning the church, discernment and Christian hip-hop. My aim is to examine his art and discuss it through the lens of Scripture.
Why Christians and non-Christians love Chance’s music
There are a number of factors that play into what, at the moment, feels like nearly universal acclaim for Chance the Rapper. What immediately strikes me as an observer watching the recent convos is that this all feels familiar, like we’ve been here before. And that’s because we have. The older I get, the more the words of Solomon ring true:
“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new?” It has been already in the ages before us.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10)
This is not the first time a popular artist has used either subtle or overt Christian references in their music. It’s also not the first time that Christians have been divided over how to interpret those references. We’ve seen it in pop music with Bob Dylan, U2, Mumford and Sons, Beyonce and many others. We’ve seen it in hip-hop with DMX, Bone Thugs N Harmony, Lauryn Hill, Kanye West (who was actually once paid a lot of money to perform “Jesus Walks” at a church) and Kendrick Lamar, just to name a few.
So how are we to understand what seems to be universal appeal for Chance? This is where it becomes important to look at his music style, his associations and the content of his lyrics.
1. Music Style
One of the worst-kept secrets in the world of R&B music is that many of its artists grew up in the church, specifically the black church. It seemed like there was an unwritten rule at one time for R&B singers to include at least one “gospel” song on their albums, no matter how much “bumping and grinding” appeared on the rest of the album. Regardless of whatever else they sang about, they always felt the need to “give it up to God” and pay homage to their roots with a song.
If you ever watch the BET Awards, you’ll often see some of the most well-known singers (known for lyrics dripping with lust, sensuality and just about everything else mentioned in lists like Galatians 5:19-21) begin to stand up in the audience and lift their hands to the sky during the “gospel” section of the show. The connection between the black church and R&B is well-documented.
Chance also has a connection to the black church that bleeds through his music in ways that appeal to lovers of the gospel genre — Christian and non-Christian.
Musically, the creative combination of live instrumentation, hip-hop drums, choirs and soulful singing make Coloring Book sound really good. Not only that, it feels good. From the joyful, refreshing vibes of “All We Got” that open the album to the gospel chords and choir samples of “Angels” and “No Problems”, Coloring Book feels uplifting from a musical standpoint. Chance hints at this being intentional with his line from “Blessings (Reprise)”:
“I speak of wondrous unfamiliar lessons from childhood /
Make you remember how to smile good”
Even the melodic melancholy of “Same Drugs”, a brilliantly executed and touching tale of reminiscence and loss, leaves the listener feeling hopeful as the last minute or so of the song ascends with harmonic “ooohs” from a choir, vibrant strings and colorful keys as Chance begins that part of the song by singing, “Don’t forget the happy thoughts/ All you need is happy thoughts.”
The strength of Coloring Book, in my opinion, is Chance’s ability to convey common human emotions in a way that feels effortless, youthful and free. Musically, it’s easy to see why it’s enjoyed by Christians and non-Christians alike. Part of being made in God’s image is the ability to appreciate art and beauty, as well as the capacity to reflect on and relate to the deep emotional expressions of artists. Coloring Book taps into these things in powerful ways at times.
One of the other things that explains Chance’s embrace by the world at large is his associations. The guests on Coloring Book read like a “who’s who” of pop, hip-hop and R&B music in 2017. As far as mainstream music is concerned, there’s something for everybody.
And herein lies some of the concerns I have with Coloring Book receiving unqualified praise from Christians. It’s also why I would categorize it as a secular album. When the unbelieving world hears Coloring Book, it recognizes its own heroes who share the world’s attitudes, agenda and appetites.
As one example, Young Thug and Lil’ Yachty, who are featured on “Mixtape”, produce some of the most godless and explicitly wicked music out today. Their music is characterized by the glorification of violence, materialism, misogyny and vulgarity. If you were to read the lyrics to a song such as Lil Yachty’s “Minnesota Remix” (which features Young Thug), you would see that it fulfills just about every negative preconception a person could have about the evils of hip-hop. Worse than that, it fulfills the very things that Scripture warns us about in passages like 1 John 2:15-17:
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life — is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”
When that passage says “Do not love the world,” it’s not saying “Do not love people.” The “world” refers to a system or patterns of human behavior directed by Satan (“the god of this world” in 2 Cor. 4:4 and “prince of the power of the air” in Eph. 2:2), which stands in opposition to God’s law, God’s purposes and God’s kingdom. That’s why John qualifies what he means by “world” in verse 16.
“The desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and pride of life” could literally be an album description for Young Thug and Lil’ Yachty’s works. And it’s not just them. They are only following in the footsteps of older artists also featured on Coloring Book, like Kanye West (“All We Got”), Lil’ Wayne, 2 Chainz (“No Problem”) and Future (“Smoke Break”).
Many of the featured artists on Coloring Book are right in step with an unbelieving world that is opposed to the ways of God. The featured artists on Coloring Book scream to the world about Chance, “He’s one of us.” Once that is established, it makes it much easier for the world to see Chance’s overt “God-talk” as “inspirational” and “hope-giving,” rather than “preachy” and “closed-minded.”