“And I still be asking God to show his face.” —Chance the Rapper, 2014
“And you gotta remember that thy enemy is not of the flesh.” —Chance the Rapper, 2019
On “Work Out,” one of four minor singles Chance the Rapper released a year ago now, the man who actually does have everything catalogs his embarrassment of riches. A loving fiancé, a beautiful daughter, and the kind of Grammy-validated social capital only a precious few musicians enjoy—the kind that makes Global Release Day a polite suggestion rather than a firm deadline. The song is also a gentle resignation to the fact that for all his strength and success and good intentions, at best, he’ll have some control over his immediate future. And that’s cool! Everything’s cool. At the very least, he could make sure his forthcoming album didn’t sound “all Usher-y.”
The Big Day arrived last Friday midafternoon, and doesn’t. At least not in the sense that it’s an album-long mea culpa for a past indiscretion, like 2004’s Confessions, which Chance mentions about two bars later on “Work Out.” But listening to Big Day, your mind could very easily drift to Here I Stand. Usher’s 2008 album had both the task of shifting the expectations set by his most crucial work—which spent nine weeks at the top of the charts and has sold well over 10 million copies—and shedding Usher’s sexy-flexy bachelor image. He wore both a shirt and a jacket on the album cover, which caught the artist striding confidently, deliberately forward, through the desert, away from a muscle car. There’s a piece of scripture from Corinthians about “putting away childish things” in the album’s liner notes. Usher, as a man, was very proud, as a man, of being married (to Tameka Foster), and made 18 songs about it. As a man. They were mostly fine. Some were even great.
Chance the Rapper did strip down to his boxers on SNL once, but Big Day is not about shedding his sexy-flexy image. It is, however, mostly about his wife. There are three skits in its 22 tracks—“Photo Ops,” “4 Quarters in the Black,” and “Our House”—that situate the project on Chance’s wedding day, the “big day” at issue. (His wedding band is also featured noticeably on the cover.) It’s his “debut,” but technically his fourth album, if you include his mixtapes, which you might as well do. It is just OK despite most of the music industry being on it, uncredited, so Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard on Track 2 can catch you by surprise. And that’s cool, too! Everybody be cool.
Eons ago, when Chance first planted his flag in the blog realm with 2012’s 10 Day, he wasn’t one of hip-hop’s cash kings, the poster child of a DIY movement, the next Kanye West, or any of that. He was a clever, amiable, quirky 18-year-old with tangled iPhone earbuds serving a school suspension for smoking weed—a sentence that gave him some time to expand on his best ideas. He was an adaptive vocalist and a technically precise rapper, but he was also just an endearing teenager. Acid Rap arrived in April 2013 and on it Chance was the same quirky kid, more vulnerable and less sure of who “himself” actually was, his outlook muddled by unprocessed grief and his first foray into psychedelics. Acid Rap is, narratively, Chance’s Confessions, his benchmark, although 2016’s Coloring Book was the Chance project that had a signature New Era fitted, the one that netted exclusive streaming deals with Apple, the one that spawned its own tour-cum-festival, the one that made him the star of a Super Bowl halftime commercial featuring the Backstreet Boys. Between Chance 2 and Chance 3 he beat a pill addiction and welcomed a newborn baby girl—Coloring Book comes from a place of triumph and thus, sounds triumphant almost to the point of being exclusionary.
There’s been a steadily deepening rift between Chance and his fans in the past four years, and some of that can be attributed to—brace for a bit of metacommentary—the rapidly changing sociopolitical landscape. Coloring Book arrived at a cautiously optimistic time, before the 2016 election. It makes sense that now, as our days grate on through reports of ICE raids and “send her back” chants, we’d have limited patience for relentless inspirationalism. The simpler answer is that Chance has a squawky, mannish boy-voice, an evangelical bent, and a tendency toward zany callbacks to his childhood. “But that advance gotta be bigger than Diddy Kong / I need stock and it’s gotta be Pippi Long,” he raps on “All Day Long.” None of this stands up to too much exposure. There is too much Chance; he is inescapable, literally, which tends to breed ill feeling.
Chance is, obviously, still bankable. It looks more than likely that he’ll land his first no. 1 album this week. But Chance’s approval rating has dropped so low that, well, everything is funny:
Even Megan can’t get me to listen to some new Chance I’m sorry— s*an (@surrealsermons) July 26, 2019
Again, Big Day is OK! It’s good when the fun, nonsensical records are fun and nonsensical—“Ballin Flossin” catches Shawn Mendes gliding over a Chicago House beat; “Hot Shower,” well, maybe should’ve just been a DaBaby song. It’s even great when Chance is honest and vulnerable in his musing about the future. “Sun Come Down” is the platonic ideal of a Chance the Rapper record in 2019—contemplative, suspicious, plaintive about mortality and legacy (“please don’t let my death be about my death”). Although a song with Randy Newman titled “5 Year Plan” is like Chance the Rapper mad-libs, it’s a genuinely thoughtful and occasionally profound song with an eye toward the future, even if the lyrics do read a little like the tinycarebot Twitter account:You gotta schedule vacations in your five-year plan.
Elsewhere, you wonder how good this might have been if Chance were more focused. On “Roo,” Chance is shown up by his younger, seemingly more interested brother Taylor, on a song about growing up that sounds stitched together from several different swaths of ideas. In the order of Francis Starlite–Chance collaborations there is “Summer Friends,” then “May I Have This Dance”; Big Day’s title track is a distant third. “Let’s Go on the Run” is as gleeful and vibrant and high-spirited as anything on Coloring Book and yet, it disintegrates on contact.
On the whole, Chance is doing all of the quirky, joyous, off-kilter stuff he’s always done. It’s just that it’s the same thing he’s always done. In many ways, Big Day feels like a retread of Coloring Book, down to the pop references from the turn of the millennium; from Men In Black to X-Men to Dragon Ball Z. Since we already have the first one, then, it’s difficult to know who Big Day is for, besides the obvious. It’s also difficult to know where Chance goes from here.