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Gospel according to Chance the Rapper

Music

As he stood on the Grammys stage, gesturing theatrically during his performance of How Great, Chance resembled an impassioned pastor imploring his congregation to seek salvation more than a Grammy award-winning artist. 

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Chance the Rapper celebrates as he accepts the Grammy for Best Rap Album for "Coloring Book" at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. Picture: REUTERS

With a gospel choir behind him, Chance’s performance unravelled into a raw and captivating hip hop gospel show. Oh, and he had Kirk Franklin with him on stage playing the hype man.

It’s clear from his performance and acceptance speeches (of which there were three) that Chance doesn’t really belong here. And were it not for the Grammys relaxing their criteria that had until this year deemed only albums distributed via label, retail, or internet sales eligible to be nominated, then Chance, who has built a career on releasing his music for free, would not have been on this stage.

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The first time I ever heard Chance was on his geeky stand-out verse on Justin Bieber’s Confident in 2013. He was 20 then and although I’d heard of him, I considered him just another of hip hop’s seemingly unending up-and-comers. 

The fact that his name carried a similar ring to that of Tyler The Creator, whose bizarre rap style I struggled to understand, put me off. But then I heard Lost off his wildly popular mixtape Acid Rap (which had been released a few months before) and I decided to give him a proper listen. But even then, I just didn’t get it and it flew past me.

It wasn’t until he anointed Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo with his heavenly, syrupy verse on the album’s opener, Ultralight Beam, that I came to see that Chance was something special. On a song that featured the angelic vocals of The-Dream and Kelly Price, a brief sermon from Kirk Franklin and a refreshingly ponderous West, it was Chance that shone brightest. 


His verse not only made goosebumps manifest on my skin like no other verse ever has, it also contained these prophetic lines: I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail/He said let’s do a good ass job with Chance three/I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy/Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard that there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet.

A few months later he released Coloring Book (free, of course) and I wasted little time soaking it up. Its joyous and triumphant theme, heavily laced with the uplifting biblical references that he’s become famous for, instantly made Coloring Book one of the stand-out releases in recent memory. 

It continued on the tone of West’s The Life of Pablo, which he played a strong part in forging, and bettered it in substance and direction. It is bouncy and the instrumentals are colourful, setting the scene for Chance to present his vision with surprisingly well-strung vocals and vivid storytelling. And it’s a clear vision from an artist who, looking back at his journey, has always known what he wants and done things his own way.

That’s meant shunning the advances of major record labels to stay independent and releasing his music for free to reach a wider audience. Despite this unconventional approach, Coloring Book has beat out a handful of big budget productions to become the first streaming-only album to ever win a Grammy. It’s opened the door for new ideas and new ways of doing things.

He’s singing, or something close to it, most of the time, but when he raps on songs like How Great, his flow and wordplay is incomparable. 

He trades debauchery for tales of glory, and steers clear of the gun-toting street talk that’s commonplace in his crime plagued hometown of Chicago. Also, it doesn’t follow in the long line of over-the-top braggadocio that’s made stars of Migos and Travis Scott.

Chance loves doing things differently. Look at his video for Same Drugs. Released via a Facebook live stream a week before the Grammys, the video depicts Chance surrounded by puppets. 

In my interpretation, this portrays how he’s come across fake people in his career but has kept true to himself, and how he continues to stand out by doing things his own way while others follow the grain. And apart from Kendrick Lamar, there really isn’t anybody on the hip hop main stage challenging the conventional route like he is.

No Problem, which won the Grammy for Best Rap Performance, appropriately sums up the general theme of the album. Like a colouring book, it’s sprawling, adventurous, with imperfect edges and a range of textures.

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