When it comes to joy in hip-hop, Chance the Rapper has a stranglehold.
Rapping in a high-pitched ribbit, he has become one of hip-hop’s signature stars of the 2010s by enthusiastically following a path others rarely even peek down: jubilation, ecstasy, positivity, glee. It’s in his subject matter, and it’s in his delivery—an indefatigable belief in the power of positive rapping.
Chance, 26, got married in March, and large swaths of his new album, The Big Day, are devoted to the joys of wedded life, a topic that has made for very little worthwhile music. The pains of divorce, the wounds of betrayal, the clouds of mistrust—rich muses, all of them. But pure marital bliss is challenging to render as richly textured.
In places here, Chance achieves that with his musical selections; his palette is broad. “I Got You (Always and Forever)” has the swing of the early 1990s—Heavy D, the “Living Single” theme song, and so on—and Chance opens with an early Busta Rhymes flow pattern. The excellent “Ballin Flossin” takes a sample of Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down” and jostles it into an up-tempo house record. “Found a Good One (Single No More)” lays gospel overtones atop a foundation of Miami bass.
This is Chance’s real provocation on this album: suggesting that the same mediums that transmit sin might also transmit salvation. Often his touchstone is the hybrid gospel-pop of artists like Kirk Franklin and Tye Tribbett. Add to that a lyrical approach that emphasizes cleverness in rhyme, and sometimes the result leans toward the tightly wound thrill ride of musical theater.
Take “Eternal,” which sounds like a homework assignment a couples therapist might give someone who’s gone outside the marriage for comfort: “Side chicks can’t take out splinters/Side chicks make they Kool-Aid with Splenda.” “Hot Shower” has a rumble of a beat, but its boasts—“I’m all professional and proper/But my babymama stopped me in a meeting/Just to Airdrop me some nudes”—aren’t aspirational so much as taunting.
The Big Day is Chance’s fourth full-length release, and though he has made a point of referring to it as his debut album, it feels no more fleshed out than Coloring Book, from 2016 (which won the Grammy for best rap album), and is less sonically consistent than Acid Rap, from 2013. And it’s less impressive than either of them. At 22 tracks, it’s overlong and scattered.
And while it features some impressive guest appearances—a pugnacious DaBaby on “Hot Shower,” the nimble Smino on “Eternal”—it also includes some likely first-time hip-hop collaborations—Death Cab for Cutie on “Do You Remember,” CocoRosie on “Roo,” Randy Newman on “5 Year Plan”—that maybe didn’t need to happen. (On “Zanies and Fools,” the sung intro manages a better Newman than Newman himself; it’s one of the album’s standout bits.)
When Chance is at his most ecstatic, he often cuts his lines short, interrupts himself, leans on the primal energy of how he enunciates his syllables. But sometimes he allows himself to wallow, and his talents look different when darkened by shadows.
On this album, the most striking lyrical moment—the one that makes best use of his gift for unlikely rhyme and his penchant for thick storytelling—is the most somber. “We Go High” is the story of how Chance almost didn’t get what he wanted, how he got in his own way on the path to joy. The mood is glum and resigned, but that means that Chance can’t rely on his own liveliness. He opens the song holding a knife to his own chest:
Lies on my breath, she say she couldn’t take the smell of it Tired of the rumors, every room had a elephant Tryna find her shoes, rummaging through the skeletons She took away sex, took me out of my elementI tried to do the single-dad mingle-danceAt the club with the iron in my wrinkled pantsYou could fall much faster than you think you can
It’s cleareyed and convincing—not the wide-eyed boasts of unchallenged love, but the downcast acceptance of a love you have to fight for. It’s entrancing enough to make you wonder what his divorce album might sound like.
© 2019 The New York Times