Two of the biggest albums of this year, Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book and Drake’s Views, are so different from each other that one could be a photo negative of the other. Chance’s album is painted in bright, cartoonish technicolor; Drake’s is in 50,000 shades of gray. Even in the face of tragedy (“Summer Friends”), Coloring Book exudes an optimism so strong it’s like its own religion, while Views brings a short-fused, operatic pessimism to matters as trivial as belatedly answered texts.
The artists themselves have contrasting philosophies. Chance is antihierarchy: He views musical collaboration as so openheartedly communal that on his mixtape, Surf, his trumpet player got top billing. (Also, his touring band has a trumpet player.) Drake, on the other hand, projects the illusion that he is the singular, all-powerful Oz, keeping most of his collaborators and influences safely behind the curtain. Consider that one of these guys once rapped, “Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard that there ain’t one gosh-darned part you can’t tweet,” and the other, that same year, spit with braggadocious defiance, “Fuck going online, that ain’t part of my day.” (Also, the latter guy would rather be banned from every Raptors game for the rest of his life than use the word “gosh-darned” in a song.) In an age overloaded with irony, Chance’s beliefs in God, religion, and the capacity for social change are presented so earnestly that they come off as rebellious. Conversely, as Drake gets older and more successful, his worldview seems to focus more sharply on himself.
If Coloring Book and Views share anything, it’s a pervasive sense of nostalgia, though they are nostalgic for different things. That’s because the people who made them grew up with different reference points, which have resulted in different worldviews. Coloring Book was made by a buoyant, hypercompetent 23-year-old, and Views by a forlorn guy sitting on top of the world, anxiously staring down 30.
They both, technically, could be described as “millennials,” a term that is said to cover such a vast swath of the current population that I have no idea what it actually means. Most estimates say that millennials are people between the ages of 18 and 34, although the loosest definition I’ve seen lumps in anyone born between 1978 and 2004. That span suggests that there is something generationally unified about a group of people who were between 23 and negative 3 years old on 9/11. That is, with all due respect, sort of insane.
In a recent, provocative New Yorker feature about activism on college campuses, writer Nathan Heller summed up the intramillennial generation gap succinctly. “Students in college about a decade ago (my cohort) faced an uncertain future,” he wrote. “September 11th happened, homeland-security projects slithered out in unsettling ways, the Iraq War became a morass, and the world markets collapsed. People coming of age in that era of inevitable evils … might be called the Builders: having reached adulthood on unstable ground, they’re opportunistic entrepreneurs, restless climbers, and deferential compromisers. The kids in college now could be called the Firebrand Generation. They are adept and accomplished, but many feel betrayed by their supposed political guardians, and aspire to tear down the web of deceptions from the inside.”
You probably see where I’m going with this. Drake is the quintessential Builder. Chance is a Firebrand.
Before we go any further, I need to stop here and tell you that I hate the word “millennial.” My fingers cramp to even type it; that semicolon represents a brief pause in which I just turned to my wastebasket and dry-heaved. But as soon as I tell you that I hate that word, I know that I am in a double-bind because one of the things said to be true of millennials is our (“our”) hatred of labels. (I also know that as soon as I began this conversational first person aside, some of the people reading said, “Typical millennial, making it all about herself!”, punched their screens, and broke their devices, if not their hands. Given that they are no longer reading this and perhaps seeking medical assistance, I will proceed.) The point is that I know the more vehemently I deny that I am a millennial, the more villainously some baby boomer ad executive will steeple his fingers as he tries to think up a commercial that speaks to my edgy hatred of labels so well that I will choose it when I am asked, mid-Hulu binge, the most emblematic question of our time and also the digital-era refrain that most sounds like a line out of a David Foster Wallace novel: “Which ad experience do you prefer?” We’re fucked, but let’s take that as a starting point.
Millennials are, of course, demographically predisposed to hate sweeping generalizations, too, but while we’re already making them, let’s go wild. Chance the Rapper is a Young Millennial; Drake is an Old Millennial. Chance is a Bernie voter; Drake, if he can vote, probably supported Hillary but got a lot quieter about it once he perceived that it wasn’t as “cool.” (Actual question: Does Drake have dual citizenship?) Chance takes the daily reality of social media as a given; Drake feels a little uneasy about it because he’s old enough to remember what human interactions were like before it came along. Chance does not worry about things like status and authenticity; Drake grew up in a time when status and authenticity were still important, so he’s kind of freaked out about their sudden and complete erosion. Or, to put it another way, when I first posed this idea to another Ringer staffer, he replied, “Drake wants to make sure you know that he’s never shopped at Urban Outfitters. Chance is like, ‘They got dope T-shirts.’”
If it sounds like I’m being harsh with Drake, at least know that I’m also being harsh with myself. I am exactly Drake’s age, and I will always be exactly Drake’s age — the same way my mom will always be exactly Madonna’s age, which has, for decades, held a warped but ultimately reassuring mirror up to her own maturity. Still, being an Older Millennial, I am concerned enough about my status and waning youth to make sure you know that I am a whole six weeks younger than Drake.
When Drake was 23, Chance’s current age, he released Thank Me Later, his major-label debut — a decent but relatively stilted record that suffered, perhaps, for how much it tried to embody the conventional shape of the Major-Label Debut. (His albums would become more personal and formally daring beginning with the next one, Take Care.) Chance, like many other rappers of his generation (Young Thug also comes to mind) leapfrogged over that entire Major-Label Debut stage of his career. Maybe that stage doesn’t even exist anymore. Lil Wayne, the guy who ostensibly gave Drake his big break when he signed him to his record label, Young Money, has a feature on Coloring Book, as a kind of bridge between microgenerations. Ironically, the song he appears on, “No Problem,” is about how much Chance hates record labels and how much he believes they interfere with artistic vision. The rites of passage that marked Drake’s rise are increasingly being incinerated, and Chance is dancing, freely and gleefully, on their ashes.
Coloring Book is a better, bolder album than Views, and I think it is probably a better, bolder album than Thank Me Later, too. But I feel an odd kind of disconnect with — or, if I’m being really real, perhaps a jealousy of — its we-can-change-the-world worldview, its radical hope. To be clear, Chance makes me deeply optimistic about the future of hip-hop, the future of music, hell, the future of the human race. But, perhaps on a more selfish note, he also reminds me of how quickly things change and how fast time passes.
And yet, there’s something ultimately reassuring about the sheer dissonance of these two very popular rappers — they show how difficult it is to say anything coherent and universally true about “millennials.” It is perhaps foolish to look for a voice of a generation — that’s too limiting, too much weight for any one person to bear. Maybe we should instead pay attention to the conversations, the dialogues that arise from competing voices, the big cosmic playlist that segues “Summer Friends” into “Feel No Ways” and still, somehow, holds together.