Some of my favorite music over the last ten years or so has been Christian rap. A lot of the artists that fall under that umbrella might quibble with that term, but it’s the most recognizable way to term artists as diverse as Lecrae, Andy Mineo, Shai Linne, and Customary- to name a few. It’s been nice to see the Christian music scene embrace a genre that was generally rejected by the dominant Christian culture (which, as far as the Christian media would have had you believe, was super-duper-white) for the majority of its existence.
Clean lyrics and a wholesome message are nice, but Christian rap has blossomed into much more than an acceptable alternative to secular rap. Artists are tackling all sorts of subjects, from the expected (racial reconciliation, sexual sin) to the unexpected but necessary (abortion, public education’s woes). They continue to approach their songs with Jesus as their king, and yet they haven’t confined their subject matter or lyrics to simply quoting Bible verses or to preaching at their audiences.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s a place for that in Christian music- I point you to Shai Linne’s wonderful Lyrical Doxology series, which conveys catechistic theories without sacrificing the appeal of a good beat. But the gospel of salvation through Christ alone speaks to everything under the sun. It takes songs from a wide variety of perspectives, and about a wide variety of topics, to effectively communicate the vast expanse of the gospel’s power. Over the last decade, Christian rap has become the premier place in Christian culture for this kind of gospel extrapolation. And after Lecrae’s last album, Anomaly, debuted at No. 1 on the rap charts, its clear the Christian culture isn’t the only one paying attention.
Chance the Rapper is a, well, a rapper. He’s from Chicago, and he’s risen to prominence over the last few years with a well-loved solo mixtape, Acid Rap, and a well-loved album from his musical collective The Social Experiment, Surf, headlined by his good friend Donnie Trumpet. He became the first artist without a label to perform on Saturday Night Live last December, which speaks both to his meteoric rise and to the general direction of music (see: album sales, labels going under, rich people in charge losing their shit).
Coloring Book is Chance’s new album, released exclusively through Apple Music. This may be recency bias, but it’s mind-blowing how easily this album has dominated the conversation around music. The only record to inspire the same kind of rapturous think-pieces this year has been Lemonade, and that’s in a year that has seen releases from Kendrick, Kanye, Drake, Radiohead (!), Rihanna, country music savior Sturgill Simpson, and the blogosphere’s own James Blake. At this point, Chance is a phenomenon, and that might be an understatement.
Not only is Coloring Book one of the biggest releases of the year, it’s also one of the most joy-filled albums of the year. And by joy I don’t mean happiness, though it is a very happy record in a lot of spots. I’m referring to the kind of joy from Philippians 3:1, where Paul tells the church in Philippi to “rejoice in the Lord”; from Isaiah 58:14, where God tells his people that resting in Him on the Sabbath results in “delight”; from John 10:10, where Jesus tells the crowd that the life he gives is meant to be lived “abundantly”. And it’s not just the music that’s joy-filling- it’s a conscience, lyrical effort on Chance’s part to communicate that God is about joy.
There’s a moment on Coloring Book, following several songs where Chance not only refers to ignoring the devil and listening to sermons but devotes an entire song to how his devotion to God goes beyond the things of this world, when a gospel choir singing Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God” kicks in. I thought the song would transition to Chance’s rapping after the chorus, but the song goes on for two whole minutes. And then there’s a short excerpt from a sermon, saying “God is better than the world’s best thing.” And then Chance raps, expounding on the idea of freedom, and correlating his freedom from a label to his freedom in God. It’s a breathtaking example of the marriage of Chance’s lyrical virtuosity and his exuberance about Jesus.
Coloring Book is a record by Chance the Rapper, by the way. Did I already tell you that? Well, Coloring Book is a record by “Chance the m——–king rapper”, which is how he introduces himself on “Mixtape”, a song that features noted rapper-nihilist, Young Thug. This is the Chance the Rapper who openly admits to doing acid during the making of his last mixtape, which, if nothing else, was appropriate, since it was called Acid Rap. This is also the Chance the Rapper who on other points on Coloring Book raps about how he and his girl don’t have time to enjoy smoking weed anymore, about how he and a girl have grown apart because they do different drugs now, and about how he got his girlfriend pregnant.
If you’re having trouble reconciling the Chance the Rapper who got his girlfriend pregnant with the Chance who wants everyone who listens to Coloring Book to know how great God is, that’s understandable. On one hand we have secular rap, which is unabashed about the realities its purveyors came up in: drugs, sex, greed. On the other hand, we have Christian rap, which, for a time, was almost comically scrubbed clean of profanity or references to struggling with the realities of sin.
Christian rap has allowed its subject matter to more helpfully reflect the world we live in without sacrificing the value of good theology. And secular rap has always been influenced by the African-American church culture. But I’m hard-pressed to remember when we’ve seen the two side-by-side like this in such a bold fashion. This isn’t simply references to Jesus and vague assertions of a hard lifestyle. Chance is taking the openness that has become the trademark of our best rappers (Kendrick, Kanye, Drake- even the aforementioned Young Thug) and applying it twofold to his love for both heavenly and wordly things.
But if we’re expecting authenticity from our artists, we have to accept this- even embrace it. While salvation is a fixed event, the following process of sanctification is far more fluid. Listening to Coloring Book, I feel like I’m hearing a man discovering how much better the pleasures of God are than the pleasures of the world and working out how to cope with that. I appreciate the way that Christian rap has thus far been able to provide an example of what joy in Christ looks like. But I also have a new kind of appreciation for what Chance the Rapper is doing: providing an example of what it looks like to discover that joy.