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Album Review

"How great is our God/Sing with me, how great is our God." We're used to hearing Chris Tomlin's stirring 2004 anthem in church. But on a Grammy telecast? Not so much.

Except that's exactly what happened at the 2017 Grammy Awards. Twenty-three-year-old Chicago artist Chancellor Bennett—better known as Chance the Rapper—not only took home Best New Artist accollades. He was joined by gospel singers Kirk Franklin and Tamela Mann, as well as a gospel choir, to sing his song "How Great," which fuses Tomlin's chorus to Chance's raps.

And that fusion—of a young man's faith to his own profanely and painfully articulated story—can be found throughout Chance the Rapper's third "mixtape," Coloring Book.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Pro-social Content

Spiritual themes are present from the get-go on Coloring Book. Album opener "All We Got" proclaims, "This for the kids of the King of kings/This is the holiest thing/This is the beat that played under the words." The second verse finds Chance talking about church ("I get my word from the sermon"), avoiding the devil ("I do not talk to the serpent/That's holistic discernment"), recalling his baptism … then contrasting it with shoving Satan's head in a toilet, of all things ("I was baptized like real early/I might give Satan a swirly").

As mentioned, "How Great" includes big chunks of Chris Tomlin's song. Chance adds, "Magnify, magnify, lift it on high." He talks of "the type of worship make Jesus come back a day early." Lines allude to Jesus' victory over the devil, and a man (who sounds as if he's preaching) says, "God is better than the best thing that the world has to offer."

"Blessings" is also drenched in spiritual language and more talk of the kingdom of God. "I don't make songs for free, I make 'em for freedom," Chance says. "Don't believe in kings, believe in the kingdom." He also tells us repeatedly, "When the praises go up, the blessings come down." Singer Jamila Woods adds, "I'm gon' praise Him, praise Him 'til I'm gone." James Brown's signature exclamation "Good God!" gets dropped repeatedly too, though in this context it seems to be a recognition of God's goodness instead of the profane way Brown typically said it. Elsewhere in the song, we hear more mentions of faith, prayer, the walls of Jericho falling, as well as Chance's declaration that "I know the difference between blessings and worldly possessions."

On "Finish Line," guest rapper T-Pain talks of ending his spiritual race strong: "All my days, I prayed and prayed, and now I see the finish line/Oh, I'm gonna finish mine."

Two tracks mention Chance getting his girlfriend pregnant out of wedlock—obviously not a good thing. But the birth of his daughter, he says, has been a transformative event. "All We Got" finds him looking forward to marriage ("Tryna turn my baby mama to my fiancée/ … Man, my daughter couldn't have a better mother"). "Blessings" says one of those gifts was "my ex girl getting pregnant and her becoming my everything."

"Summer Friends" tells us that Chance and all of his friends grew up fatherless: "None of my n-ggas ain't had no dad." He also sings about friends being shot on the first day of school, which prompts the lament, "Our summer don't, our summer, our summer don't get no shine no more." Though it's clear drugs were just a part of the world he grew up in, Chance talks about mowing yards to make money while his mom worked at a local salon. "Angels" describes otherworldly protection ("I got angels all around me") in a Southside Chicago neighborhood that's so dangerous that Chance says, "Got us scared to let our grandmamas outside."

Rapper D.R.A.M. tenderly affirms each person's identity with surprising earnestness: "You are very special/You're special too/Everyone is special/This I know is true."

"Same Drugs" admits that trying to change our ways is hard, a battle sometimes marked by failure ("'Cause we don't, we don't do what we say we're gonna").

Objectionable Content

Probably the biggest concern here is language. Profanity, including f-words (one paired with "mother"), s-words, the n-word, "b--ch," "a--" and "d--n," turns up on nine of 14 tracks. Sometimes those vulgarities are uttered by guest performers, as are other harsh anatomical slang words such as "p---y" and "d--k." But Chance dishes his fair share of swears too.

One of the more problematic tracks is "No Problem," which talks about stacking money and using various drugs. Guest 2 Chainz raps, "I ain't put enough weed in the blunt." Lil Wayne talks about smoking marijuana ("I rolled up and let the smoke puff"), abusing prescription cough syrup ("Codeine got me movin' slower than a caterpillar race") and admiring nearly naked women wandering around his house ("Pretty b--ches, centerfolds/Tippy toes around my crib in their robes, just their robes"). Chance adds, "F--- wrong with you? What was you thinking?/F--- you thought it was?"

"Same Drugs" repeats the line, "We don't do the, we don't do, we don't do the same drugs, do the same drugs no more." It's unclear whether the rapper and a former flame are using different drugs, or whether he's perhaps quit and is sad that she's still using. Another possible drug allusion, to the sedative Xanax, turns up in "Angels": "I got caught up with a little Xan." "Smoke Break" talks almost exclusively about smoking marijuana.

Lines on "Juke Jam" could be about two people roller skating together … or perhaps something more physical: "Then I put my waist through your hips and your legs in my arms just to harness you up/Then we hit the floor/All the kiddies stopped skating/To see grown folks do what grown folks do/When they grown and they dating."

"All Night" is about drinking … "all night." (And there's one odd reference to a woman passing gas in Chance's car.)

Summary Advisory

Many rappers occasionally name-drop Jesus or Christian jargon from time to time. What we get with Chance the Rapper's latest effort, in contrast, feels more substantive. Yes, there's still a lot of explicit content here (a subject I'll return to again in a moment). But Chance's focus on Christ seems to be heartfelt and central to who he is and how he sees himself in the violent, unstable world he's grown up in.

Chance launched his Grammy performance with the words, "Glory be to God. I claim this victory in the name of the Lord." And in an interview with Rapzilla last year, he said, "I still think that God means everything to everyone whether they understand it or not or can really see it for themselves or they find God. … We're not free unless we can talk about God."

I think Chancellor Bennett is serious about his faith. For many would-be listeners who share his beliefs, however, the accompanying trappings of profanity and casual marijuana use may very well make it difficult to fully embrace this young rapper as emissary of the gospel he clearly cares about.

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

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