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Artist of the Year: Chance the Rapper

on December 16, 2016, 12:00am

“It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap,” sings Chance the Rapper in the hook to Coloring Book’s “Blessings”, a rap devotional that, like much of Chance’s recent work, aligns itself as much with Christian gospel as it does hip-hop. In spite of such obvious resemblances, to call Coloring Book a gospel rap album would be a mistake in at least two ways: It’s a mixtape, not an album, and unlike most gospel albums, Coloring Book doesn’t always practice what it preaches. Whereas Chance extols the virtue of prayer on tracks like “Blessings” and “How Great”, elsewhere he raps about getting frisky at the roller rink (“Juke Jam”), drinking all night at the club (“All Night”), and sending hitmen to take care of persistent label execs (“No Problem”). Not exactly Christian values, no matter which side of 79th Street you grew up on.

And yet, for all of its sins and indiscretions, Coloring Book’s defining quality is a kind of technicolor optimism, a notion that all of life’s trials are just stepping stones on the path toward a better, more joyful understanding of the world and its strange mechanisms. “I know the difference in blessings and worldly possessions,” Chance raps in his second verse on “Blessings”, offering up his ex-girlfriend’s unplanned pregnancy as an example of the former. The blessings he refers to in the hook aren’t the typical materialistic trappings that come with hip-hop superstardom. They seem like something we could have, too, if only we knew how to look for them in the darkness of our own lives.

Such is the curious magic of Chance the Rapper, whose work on Coloring Book and elsewhere stood out as a beacon of light (an “Ultralight Beam”, you might say) in a year when so much of pop culture stumbled around in the darkness. Chance gently but persistently refuted the dominant narrative of 2016, expressed in so many tweets and videos and wearily penned obituaries, that blessings have been few and far between.

That a 23-year-old from Chicago’s notoriously violent and underserved South Side could see light where so many others saw darkness is a testament to Chance’s faith and conviction, yes, but it also tells a story about the poisoned state of our cultural conversation in 2016. Within hours of David Bowie’s death on January 10th, people were jumping on the internet and simultaneously coining the phrase that would become the year’s definitive meme: “Fuck 2016.” Later in the year, following a string of tragedies ranging from Prince’s death to Brexit to the massacre in Nice, the Telegraph ran a seemingly serious article entitled, “Is 2016 Really One of the Worst Years in History?”

Consequence of Sound’s 2016 Album of the Year, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, makes sense within the context of “Fuck 2016.” Its narrative of betrayal, heartache, and tremendous human struggle found a proper reflection in the rising tide of post-Trump feminism and the Black Lives Matter movement, which fought against a rising tide of police brutality. But look just one spot down that list of the year’s best albums and you’ll find Coloring Book, a work of art created with an entirely different palette. If Lemonade was the brilliant, bitter pill we needed to swallow in 2016, Coloring Book was a different kind of drug. Smiling slyly and reassuringly on the mixtape’s cover, Chance invited us to train our sights on the heavens rather than blog, tweet, bitch, and moan about how 2016 was literally hell on earth.

In our cynical age, such optimism is often associated with a blindness to reality, as if one cannot possibly consider everything that’s wrong with the world and still emerge smiling. Many of the other albums that rounded out our top 10 — ANOHNI’s Hopelessness, Nick Cave and the Bad SeedsSkeleton Tree, and Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, for instance — found their muse in anger and grief and personal crisis, making them fitting representations of a year dominated by turmoil.

It’s difficult to reconcile that same sense of turmoil with Chance’s positively gleeful raps on songs like “Angels” (“I’ve got my city doing front flips!”) and “All We Got” (“Man, I swear my life is perfect, I could merch it”). And yet it’s clear that he is also troubled by the state of the world, spearheading initiatives like the #SaveChicago campaign in his hometown, appearing in a police brutality PSA alongside none other than Beyoncé, and even leading a parade to the polls ahead of November’s election. In a recent interview with DJ Semtex for BBC Radio 1Xtra, he seemed downtrodden and yet unsurprised by that election’s result. “I knew Donald Trump was gonna win,” he sighed. “And I think anybody in the world who’s surprised by the election of Donald Trump has been ignorant of racism and the tides and patterns of American history and world history.”

The difference between Chance and all the other artists that dominated headlines in 2016 isn’t so much his assessment of the world, but the way he has chosen to react to that assessment in his art. When I sat down with Chance’s fellow Chicagoan and frequent collaborator Jamila Woods earlier this year, she said something about her own music that rings true for Chance’s as well. “Anger doesn’t always have to look a certain way,” she explained. “It might not always look how you expect. Some people might cry when they’re angry or some might yell… [but] there are multiple ways to feel. People might try to police emotions and say anger is bad, but all emotions are useful. They’re all paths toward action, toward getting to another place.”

With Coloring Book, as well as with curated fan experiences like his Magnificent Coloring World and Magnificent Coloring Day, Chance has offered us a refreshingly different path toward that other place. His message may be built largely on a framework of Christian faith, but at its heart is an inclusive sense of hope that adds a glossy, colorful sheen to Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 battlecry of “We gon’ be alright!

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Chance emerged as such an anomaly in 2016, as this is the path he’s self-consciously steered himself down all along. He opted to release his breakout 2013 mixtape, Acid Rap, for free rather than sign with a major label, positioning the move as both “an attention-grabbing thing” as well as an inspiration for other artists to follow his lead. As he explained in an interview with Zane Lowe back in May, “When I decided to make Acid Rap a free mixtape and went away from the deals I was being offered, it was to throw out a beacon and let people see what could come from a free artist. I wanted people to see an independent artist.”

Coloring Book has both fulfilled and expanded upon that vision of independence, positioning Chance as an entirely new kind of hip-hop superstar. As 2015 drew to a close, he made history as the first unsigned artist to perform on Saturday Night Live, and he has spent the last 12 months proving to the world that he can do things his way, on his terms, and still emerge wildly successful.

That’s an important lesson to take away from Chance’s story in 2016, a year in which so many of us experienced not only anger and grief but a sense that the world was spinning hopelessly out of our control. Some of our most basic assumptions were put on trial and ultimately revealed to be flawed, and those of us who threw ourselves behind political campaigns or humanitarian causes were met with a world that fought back violently against progress. To consider an artist like Chance, who has subverted a notoriously intractable industry while creating music that radiates hope and positivity, is to recognize that the fight isn’t over just yet.

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