Understanding God Through Modern Rap: Coloring Book

A theology of joy permeates Chance the Rapper’s latest mixtape Coloring Book.


This is the first installment of a multi-part series of articles considering the Christian faith and its place in rap music. In this series we want to show that the increased tendency of modern rappers to reference Christian themes in their lyrics represents a desire to use the shared experience of African American Christianity as a vehicle to speak about contemporary life. Further, we want to show that modern rap cannot be understood with a solely reductionist listening. In a sense it is necessary to “try on” the believing perspective of these rappers in order to fully understand and appreciate their work.

Drawing on our collective ideas and feelings about rap we will review the work of 4 artists in 5 albums (Coloring Book by Chance the Rapper, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill, College Dropout by a young Kanye West, good kid, mA.A.d city by Kendrick Lamar, and The Life of Pablo by Kanye West) and speak about the ideas that form the cornerstone of their personal theologies.

More than anything else, however, we are concerned with bringing a grounded Christian perspective and conviction to this discussion. To that extent, we are also going to compare the theology apparent in each of these albums to historical and traditional Christian understandings of God and human life. This is not intended to be a critique of each artist’s personal faith, rather a critique of the theological ideas expressed through their music.

A note before continuing: For the purpose of this series, the use of cursing will not add to or take away from the analysis of Christian themes. Also, not every single song will be discussed at length.


On the aptly named song “Jesus Walks,” Kanye West raps about the almost condescending nature of the music industry towards rappers who speak explicitly about Christianity. He says,

“They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus

That means guns, sex, lies, videotape

But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?”

Although West is by no means the first rapper to speak about Christianity, at the time this song was revolutionary because it was unheard of for a mainstream rapper to be so open about his spirituality. Similarly, while West did not pioneer the use of Christian imagery in rap, he certainly popularized it. That said, it is difficult to trace when the links between Christianity and rap became so explicit. This is particularly jarring considering that Christian imagery has become more noticeable in rap even as it has declined in secular culture.

One line of reasoning could see these two phenomena as tightly linked. The less Christianity becomes sacred to the broader public, the more leeway artists feel they have to use Christianity as a vehicle for discussions about other topics. Ultimately, the issue is gordian in its complexity. However, one prominent thread can be picked out by understanding how Christianity has shaped African American culture, and consequently African Americans themselves.

Unfortunately, when Christianity is discussed we primarily think of white American churches. Yet, the black church has been as crucial to the development of America’s unique spiritual heritage as its white cousin. This is particularly true and apparent in the life of African Americans. In the historical context of a country and culture that has often not welcomed them wholeheartedly, the black church has served as a meeting point and safe place for African Americans. The black church has functioned as the cornerstone of African American culture. Many African Americans go to church as children, perhaps dragged along by more religious elders. Even though they may drift away and become largely secular, many, if not all, are dramatically marked by some aspect of church. For some it is the stirring nature of gospel hymns, for others it is the often theatrical nature of the preaching. One thing is clear–everyone leaves with a base-level knowledge and understanding of the Bible and biblical themes respectively.

We think that our favourite African American rappers are no different in how Christianity and the black church has shaped them. What makes them special is their careful and premeditated effort to use the wealth of African American Christian experience to critique and comment on contemporary life. What many internalize and lose awareness of, they have externalized as a means of sharing their profound experiences.

In this first installment of this series, we will discuss the theology of Chance the Rapper: modern rap’s theologian of joy.

Earlier this year Chance released his third mixtape entitled Coloring Book. Coloring Book is a great album. Among other things, the album is a commentary about inner-city Chicago and Chance’s life as he becomes a more established presence in modern rap. By intention, the album is also full of Christian imagery and symbolism. An uplifting, feel-good collection of songs, it is very much in line with Chance’s style. This is evident from Chance’s distinctive use of sound effects as he raps to his determined fight to ensure his produced music remain a free gift to his listeners. Thematically, the mixtape seems to be fundamentally concerned with joy and joy seeking. This is important because it gives a starting point for understanding the parts of Chance’s theology that he makes apparent in Coloring Book. Listening to the mixtape it quickly becomes obvious that, despite several overt references to Christianity and God, Chance’s theology is primarily about joy. In that sense, it is perhaps not correct to call it a theology at all. To the extent that there is a subject being discussed, it is joy, not God.

The first song on the album is “All We Got.” This song gives us an initial lens through which we should view the album: “At the end of the day, music is all we got.” This means that whether life is good, bad, or ugly, music will always be there to translate Chance’s heart and soul–music will always be there to express your heart; music will always be there to express the heart of the black community. This idea is important because each song on the album communicates an aspect of Chance’s soul and life. Furthermore, the sounds and subject matter in Chance’s music demonstrate the freedom and joy that he experiences through music. Music is important to Chance, and by extension we his audience, because it is a vehicle for seeking and finding joy. In a carefree state of expression he talks about praising God and giving Satan a swirly.

We move from there to “No Problems” (Gaired’s personal favorite). In “No Problems” Chance declares to all label companies that, “I’m gonna do this rap thing my way and if you don’t like it, try me.” This is the first time we see the theme of staying true to yourself. There is a certain joy and satisfaction that Chance derives in staying true to himself. This is an important theme that Chance will come back to later in the album.

As Chance reflects on and laments his childhood, an important brief interlude gives us one of the first looks at the Christian message in his album. In the interlude the female speaker says, “May the Lord give your journey mercy/ May you be successful, grant you favor/ And bring you back safely.” Let’s call this the “God’s got your back” clause. This clause is defined as 1) God will keep you safe, 2) God will help you in your journey, 3) God will give you success. This is the first real theological statement on this album. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this clause, but it is perhaps more startling for what it leaves out than what it brings to the mixtape. Put simply, the statement is not comprehensive.

While the Christian God is indeed a good Father who loves to take care of his children, this care occurs in the context of a Father-child relationship. Chance fails to mention the condition of a truly submitted relationship with God, where one is fully yielded to and dependent on God. To be fair, he need not mention these things to believe in them himself, but a greater foundational understanding of who God is is necessary for understanding the nuanced ideas he alludes to in this brief interlude. It is more significant, however, to consider what it signals when Chance leaves these things out. On a surface level, Chance is talking about praising God. However, a question hangs in the air as to why he does this. At best, Chance is praising God for who he is. At worst, and this is the viewpoint most supported by the interlude, Chance appears to be praising God for what he gives. From the little we know of how highly Chance prizes joy, he appears to be using praising God, just as he used music generally, as a vehicle for his ultimate goal: joy.

In the interlude “D.R.A.M. Sings Special” the vocalist sings, “You are very special.” This interlude is positive and encouraging. It simply affirms the listeners and tells them that they have significance–a necessary and timely message that dovetails well with Christianity’s affirmation of the worth of every human being because they are made in the image of God.

Chance’s theology of joy is perhaps explained most clearly in “Blessings.” In the chorus the vocalist sings, “I’m gonna praise him, praise him ‘til I’m gone/ When the praises go up, the blessings come down.” From this we can pick out three parts to Chance’s theology of joy. First, God (“him”) deserves praise throughout one’s entire life. Second, the best way to praise God is to have joy, which, in the context of this album, is displayed through triumphant and whimsical sounds. Third, when you praise God through joy, he blesses you. These three points make up the cornerstone of Chance’s theology of joy that permeates the album. This focus on joy makes sense when you think about growing up in a city with one of the top murder rates in America, referenced in “Angels.” Submitting to despair would be paramount to throwing your life away or just becoming numb to all the pain around you. The reality of pain and suffering coupled with grandma’s knowledge of God and blessings, produces an understandable theological perspective centered around joy.

Praises turned to joy is a very simple formula for joy and contentment in life. “Blessings” no doubt has a wholesome message–if you praise God, he will bless you–but it is important to know that a balanced theology does not see relationship with God as merely transactional. For instance, God’s blessings are dependent on his undeserved love for us rather than the praises we give him. Additionally, individual conceptions of “praise” may be arbitrary for lack of being informed by the Bible. Praising God is generally thought to look like thanking God for what he’s given you, going to church, tithing, and loving other people, the logic following that when each of those are accomplished, God will bless you. This, however, overlooks the dimensions of personal sacrifice, obedience, and the right attitude that must accompany praise and worship. Chance sometimes seems to be pursuing joy for the sake of praising God rather than praising God for the joy given to him by God.

“Same Drugs” is a relatable song about growing apart from past loved ones. Toward the end of it, we find another umbrella theme of the album. Chance sings “Don’t you color out/ Don’t you bleed on out, oh/ Stay in the line, stay in the line.” This is a nod to the album title and reaffirms a prevailing theme, stay true to yourself. Chance is encouraging the listeners to not lose what makes them a masterpiece. This seems to be the true purpose for Coloring Book. Chance uses this album to encourage all of his listeners to be themselves and take pride in what makes them unique and special.

At this point, about halfway through the mixtape, a relatively clear image of the theology in Coloring Book has taken shape. Joy is what makes life worthwhile, particularly amidst life’s struggles, and it should be pursued with zeal. God gives joy through his blessings, and as a result he should be praised for those blessings. Yet, all this talk of joy seems strangely idyllic in a world with deep problems like the refugee crisis in the Middle East and America’s continued struggles to confront and deal with racism. We are not implying that it is the responsibility of a 23-year old man from Chicago’s Chatam neighborhood to speak about or confront these issues. Chance makes music for fun and joy and he is entitled to do that. But this is perhaps why the type of Christianity found in Coloring Book, one grounded primarily in a theology of joy, sometimes rings rather hollow.

Although Coloring Book covers both light and dark subject matter, such as frequent mentions of the high rate of murders in Chicago (“Angels”), somehow the album never seems to descend fully into or confront the darkness around us. It manages to remain unmarred by ugliness because joy is at the core of almost everything that happens in Coloring Book even when it is not explicitly stated. More crucially, it manages to remain unmarred by ugliness because it lifts up its nose and almost refuses to look at it. That is why Chance can go from “Summer Friends” to “D.R.A.M. Sings Special” to “Blessings” in ten minutes. Joy lifts up and encapsulates those moments where he is telling his listeners of their inherent self worth and distances those moments where he is talking about the death of so many people. Chance tells us to “Wear your halo like a hat, that’s like the latest fashion/ I got angels all around me they keep me surrounded.” But as one commentator on Genius puts it,

“Along with being an encouragement to not be ashamed to wear your faith on your sleeve, … [it] may also be a reference to just how many people are dying in Chicago from violence, so many to the point that it has almost become like a fashion trend, to the point where not even children are safe…”[1]

His theology of joy keeps what is in truth a very dark image from totally overwhelming his listeners. However, it also keeps those same listeners from being able to fully engage with, and feel the pain, of all those who, like Chance, have been touched by Chicago’s violence. Without an openness to God it is near impossible to understand why Chance consistently uses joy in this way. More importantly, without an openness to God it is easy to see this use of joy as correctly unbalanced but impossible to understand why a more nuanced view of joy is both possible and necessary for dealing with life’s tragedies.

Die-hard fans of Chance the rapper know that his faith and joy are inextricably tied up with his relationship with his grandmother. Chance’s grandmother looms large when Chance talks about religion. If you’ve listened to what he’s said and rapped about his grandmother, Chance almost treats his grandmother as both a metaphorical and literal messenger from God. Nowhere is his grandmother’s influence on him more clear than the Christian contemporary hymn inspired “How Great.” The song is simultaneously a song about God’s incredible greatness and an eulogy to the grandmother who caused him to begin to take his faith seriously, and who passed away just a few weeks before he recorded the song. The choir sings that God’s name is the name above all names, that he is worthy of all praise, and that Chance’s heart will sing how great his God is. This is easily one of the most vulnerable songs on the entire mixtape.

The song starts with a sermon where the preacher essentially argues that God is better than the best thing that anyone has to offer. Chance raps about a variety of different subjects touching on themes from his mother’s love to his role as a representative of Chicago, but always skillfully tying his subject matter back to the Bible. Chance clearly draws on a deep well of knowledge about the Bible. For instance, he mentions the final book of the Old Testament written by the prophet Malachi. This reference is downright esoteric to a secular culture. In fact, the lengths that Spotify goes to to make sure most of the references are understood is slightly surprising and indicative of how much of Chance’s message is lost when his listeners do not at least try to put themselves in his shoes. For instance, when Chance mentions a mustard seed, Spotify notes that “This line refers to Matthew 17:20 of the New Testament, where Jesus tells his disciples that faith as small as a mustard seed is enough to move mountains.”

A second song titled “Blessings” concludes the album. As far as final songs go, it is gorgeous. Chance’s lyricism dovetails perfectly with the choir’s quiet singing and eventually the choir takes over. Towards the song’s midpoint, the choir sings, “Are you ready for your blessings?/ Are you ready for your miracle?” Chance tells the part of the story that a lot of people remember: God is going to bless you. And following Chance’s style, joy produces praises, which produces blessings, which produces joy, etc.

Coloring Book is a great album with many Christian themes and symbols. Chance is able to present an attractive and compelling joy because of the overlaps between the apparent theology of his mixtape and a more nuanced theology grounded in the Gospel. To that extent, a believing perspective is necessary to understand and appreciate the true power behind Chance’s understanding of God and joy. That said, whether by choice or for other reasons, Coloring Book’s theology is limited because it presents a hollowed-out Gospel solely based on a personal theology of joy that is unable to fully confront the all-too-apparent evils of day to day life. In this regard as well, a believing perspective also helps illuminate the limitations of a theology focused primarily on joy, rather than the joy-giver.

Amidst all this joy one feels a slight hollowness. Given that the cornerstone of Chance’s Christianity is joy much is left unsaid and unaddressed. For instance, even if Chance can maintain joy in the face of the death of Chicago’s youth (both physically and metaphorically) is this enough for us his listeners? Consequently, when all is said and done and the listener is presented with Chance’s joyous response to the challenges and difficulties life throws at him, we cannot help but wonder whether Coloring Book’s theology of joy would be sufficient if Chance were to lose his daughter, his girlfriend, and the gift that has brought him such acclaim–his ability to rap. Said differently, how joyful would Chance be were he to lose everything for which he joyfully praises God?

 

References

1 Christopher R. Weingarten, Jon Dolan, Jon Freeman, Brittany Spanos, Joseph Hudak, Mosi Reeves, Kory Grow, Keith Harris, Richard Gehr, Maura Johnston, Patrick Doyle, Joe Levy, Andy Greene, and Rob Sheffield, “50 Best Albums of 2016,” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, http://www. rollingstone.com/music/lists/50-best-albums-of-2016-w451265/young-thug-jeffery-w451312.

2 Tom Breihan, “Premature Evaluation: Chance the Rapper Coloring Book,” Stereogum, SpinMedia, http://www.stereogum.com/1877062/premature-evaluation-chance-the-rapper-coloring-book/franchises/ premature-evaluation.

3 Britt Juliuos, “Review: Chance the Rapper Turns Atheists Into Believers on ‘Coloring Book’,” Spin Essentials, SpinMedia, http://www. spin.com/2016/05/review-chance-the-rapper-coloring-book.

4 “Angels Chance the Rapper,” Genius, Genius Media Group, Inc., http://genius.com/8052220.

 

Damilare Aboaba graduated from Cornell in 2016 with a BA in economics and government. He is currently studying at Columbia for an MSc in applied analytics.

Gaired E. Jordan is a Cornell Engineering graduate. He currently resides in NC, working as an engineering tradesmen.

Emani Pollard is a senior in the ILR School. She leads a Christian Union at Cornell Bible study and enjoys drinking tea year round.

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