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May 31, 2016

I almost feel guilty, because Chance the Rapper is clearly a White Sox fan, but as I sit at historic Wrigley Field watching the Cubs from behind an absolutely humongous ballpark hot dog, I feel like I am having a true Chicago moment. And since Coloring Book dropped, I've been wanting to see for myself what is so inspiring about Chancelor Bennet's Windy City. Like he says, "I got my city doing front flips." I wanted a piece of that action.

You don't have to be religious to look for God in things. People have different names for it, but that feeling can be imported over any kind of belief or ideology that helps you to sleep at night. I am having that feeling huffing for breath beside the Navy Pier a deceptively long run away from my hotel in the Central Loop. Chance's "Blessings" are bringing me back to life. Elsewhere on the album he speaks: "I don't make songs for free I make them for freedom." The hugeness of Lake Michigan stares back at me. Other than my music player and a silly bandana, I am completely unbound. Aloof. Free.

I've seen an abundance of reactions to Coloring Book: "this is THE summer jam," or, "this is THE ultimate road trip mixtape." Correct on both counts! For folks who are not in Middle America, I am happy to report to you that we are finally having nice weather. We kind of skipped spring, at least in Southeastern Michigan we did; although the energy of downtown Chicago seems to think they are celebrating it too. It is full on summertime. My partner and I decided to take a weekend trip to the Windy City, a quick four and half hours from where I live in Michigan, to see Beyonce's Formation World Tour.

It was serendipitous that Coloring Book dropped just a week ahead of that drive. With the windows down, despite it being barely eight in the morning and temperatures already rather high, we pulled out of my driveway just north enough of Detroit to have streets lined with blooming trees. Immediately: the parallel to Kanye's winter-weather dirge of dark and thoughtful The Life of Pablo, "All We Got," an opening track full of brightly, sunny optimism and again, the spirit abound. "This ain't no intro, this the entree" Chance remarks while Rachel & I unwrap delicious if not too odd for breakfast tamales from Southwestern Detroit's Mexicantown. "Man I swear my life is perfect, I could merch it / it was a dream, you could not mess with the Beam." Directly referencing "Ultralight Beam," Kanye's God-dream, Chance further situated goodness in the hands of the spirit; "Cause at the end of the day," or in our case beginning of the day and a long drive, "Music is all we got." The Chicago Children's Choir leaves no time to ruminate on that sentiment is a cynical way: "We know we know we got it." I cannot wait to get to this town.

Chicago has been called the City With Broad Shoulders, and I am afraid to put too much weight on the shoulders of Chance, so I take a break to celebrate another beloved Chicago MC, a good friend and collaborator on Coloring Book, Kanye West. "Homecoming" fits the sort of on-the-noseness of an all-Chicago artists playlist on a road trip to Chicago. There's something chilly about it: the bitterness of the lyrics, Chris Martin's snowy voice, the saloon stomp and clap of the piano on the beat. Elsewhere on the album, jadedness about women, past lives, future successes. Standing tall underneath the weight of racial politics, a messy record industry pursuing his unsigned ass, and the most dangerous time to be in Chicago comes Chance. I switch back to Coloring Book's modern, present-tense, current events anthems after barely half of Graduation. He makes hip-hop sound like so much fun. He is the coffee before the drive through Starbucks on Route 96. Part of the reason Chance's disposition is so warm is in his delivery and instrumentation.

In "Blessings," Chance praises God who "gave Donnie a trumpet in case I get a shortness of breath" and in blasts Donny Trumpet, last seen on 2015's splendid "The Social Experiment." His skills as an arranger of free-form jazz and trumpet play brings some much needed levity. You'll never catch me criticizing Beyonce, but the aggressively autobiographical Lemonade is often, like Beyoncé herself, "too much" for me in one listen. Elsewhere, Kendrick Lamar, an artist who will never receive enough praise as far as I'm concerned, is tackling important issues that are literally life and death, and need to have conversations elevated to popular culture in order to simply be heard. Members of Rage Against the Machine, Cyprus Hill, and Public Enemy are uniting to form "Prophets of Rage," which during the election cycle the United States are currently in, seems to only be a platform to express their signature rage and dissatisfaction with the status quo. The stakes are high, and these voices need to be heard. But isn't it a goddamn relief to hear 23 year old Chance The Rapper praise in absolute joy simply because "it seems like blessings keep falling in my lap"?

This is of course not to say Chance doesn't have some kind of social consciousness. Of his Chicago, he raps, "It's too many young Angels on the south side / got us scared to let our grandma as outside" but even then, as we draw closer and closer to Chicago the city and Chicago - Chance the Rapper's playground, I'm drawn to this "City so damn great," despite its complexities and dangers. The optimism is worn within: "wear your halo like a hat, that's like the latest fashion / I got angels all around me, they keep me surrounded." Chance returns again to the spirt and the all-around-ness of the God Coloring Book renders.

I am back again, cursing my lack of breath, my achey knees, my swollen ankle. "I speak to God in public," I listen on "Blessings (Reprise)" while I am sure to curse more quietly, I consider offering up that pain like a prayer. Chance invigorates one in struggle: "I used to dance in high school / I used to pass out music, I still pass out music" calling back again to that freedom he is rapping for. A gust of wind rushes against my damp t shirt, presses its fabric closer to my heart. Conceivably, this wind could be a bit of the Devils I'd left behind at home, even if just for a sunny weekend with my partner. But more so, it could be something different. Something magical, like a spirt, like a good ass job well done.

Turning back towards the Loop with my back to Lake Michigan and facing the city of Chicago fully: "I made it through, I made it through." Putting one foot in front of the other, I find my way back to Rachel, in our hotel room getting ready for the evening. Chance asks a number of questions I believe I know the answer to. "Are you ready for your blessings? Are you ready for your miracle?" Yes, I think as that wind again pushes me onward back into the city. "You got it, it's coming / so are you ready?" The spirit moves through Chance the Rapper's city, through all of us, perhaps through all of our cities and homes. I didn't know to keep my eyes open for that spirit.

I didn't know it would be so colorful.

Image: GQ

Chance the Rapper - Angels (Ft. Saba)
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