Hip Hop’s Soundtrack for the Spiritual but Not Religious



I caved some time last year and signed up for a music subscription service and figured that since I was paying for a service it would be worth changing my music listening habits.  Part of that resulted in my rediscovery of old classics that the music service thought I would like.  For example, I was provided with an Aretha Franklin playing list and the next week a Donnie Hathaway playlist appeared.  The other part of changing my musical habits meant me using the radio function.  While I knew this function existed before, I didn’t use it quite as much as when I was paying for the service.  Amongst my most played radio channels are those provided by Snarky Puppy and Robert Glasper; jazz fusion with progressive rock and jazz respectively.  While at work, walking to my next meeting, I was listening to the Snarky Puppy radio channel and the sound of a piano—certainly two pianists playing as the chords I heard required more than two hands—comes through my headphones.  Intrigued enough to not hit the skip button, this intrigue quickly turned to elation as I heard the throaty and elastic familiar sing-song of the verse come through by the rapper.  I quickly pulled out my phone from my pocket trying to figure out how and why I didn’t even know he had released an album and what actually was the name of this song.  I was listening to the then-sleeper hit “Sunday Candy” featuring soul singer Jamila Woods.

As it turns out, I was late.  Chancelor Bennett, better known as Chance the Rapper, the Chicago MC, had partnered with Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment to produce the album Surf earlier in 2015.  I had heard of Chance right before his freshman album Acid Rap dropped in 2013.  Being from Chicago, I appreciated it for its native beats reminding me of the sounds of my adolescence in the frenetic 160bpm of house music known as Chicago juking.  But to be honest, part of what kept me listening to Chance’s music was that on more than one song he employed a classic three-part harmony sound that yes, had an old school R&B feel to it, but more so, it sounded like Gospel music.

A contemporary of Chance, Kendrick Lamar throughout his two albums good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly, he intersperses his spirituality with his street philosophy.  Whether intentional or not, Kendrick became part of a new vanguard for mixing what amounts to theology and hip hopOne of Kendrick’s most famous lines from the song he performed at the 2016 Grammys simply stated “But if God got us/then we gon’ be alright.” After this mixtape album Coloring Book, part of this new vanguard must include Chance.  Combined with Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam,” Kendrick and Chance are artists at the pop cultural forefront shaping a soundtrack designed for the spiritual but not religious.

Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore album To Pimp a Butterfly was released with critical acclaim beyond what anyone could imagine.  It wasn’t just that his album was good, but it was also that it was good at the right time.  Prior to this second album, Kendrick had been open in interviews about his faith and what it meant to be a Christian for him so the themes of faith and and belief didn’t seem out of place to hear in his lyrics.

Given the other reviews at places like Slate and NPR and social media users proclaiming that “Chance is my new favorite Gospel rapper,” its undeniable that Chance—with the blessing of his musical forefather Kanye—tapped into something that was novel.  While Christian rap has been established for a while with artists like Lecrae out in front, and hip hop and R&B sounds have been utilized by Gospel artists dating back to the early 90s, those were sounds that uniformly stayed within the confines of Gospel music as a genre.  What Chance has done over the last two albums has been able to resurrect pieces of Gospel music, specifically mass choir music, and incorporate them seamlessly into the relatively mainstream hip hop sound.  For example, on “Sunday Candy,” the use of Milton Brunson’s “It’s Gonna Rain” is an obscure enough song that would only be known to adults or young adults of a certain age—just about anyone who’s not in Chance’s assumed demographic.  Even on this new album, Chance samples from Fred Hammond’s “Let the Praise Begin” with the refrain that says “Are your ready for your blessing? Are you ready for your miracle?”  Even as the full gospel choir sound of “How Great is Our God” exudes cultural negritude despite the song being written by the white praise and worship superstar Chris Tomlin.  There were smaller, perhaps even more recondite references to Gospel songs such as “Shaback barak, edify” which again, for lovers of Gospel music would know that this is a direct reference to a song written by—another Gospel artist who appeared alongside Chance at his latest Saturday Night Live performance. However, by the next song, he’s taking a “smoke break” with lyrics explicitly describing marijuana use featuring well known Atlanta rapper Future.

1462543619-chance-the-rapperThe album yo-yos between what most would delineate the sacred and the secular, going from one extreme to the other.  Many Gospel singers from the early years of the commercialization of the genre were faced with pressure from their church communities that would extol them for singing exclusively at their church or on Gospel music record labels, and vilify them if they sang with R&B groups.  For so many years the stark contrast between the two genres left deep rifts between artists and their native communities.  However, the cultural baggage that many artists of previous generations had to navigate is non-existent with a millennial generation.  For while many would see an album featuring the Chicago Children’s Choir in one track and then 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne and then back to Byron Cage, then Future and then Kirk Franklin not just as contrapuntal musically, but also ideologically, it could be possible that for this millennial generation that this is normal.

Coming out of a Black Lives Matter crucible where social media mavens produced soundtracks for the movement—knowing how songs in the civil rights era played a key role in protest solidarity—there has been much clamoring about the need for a classic sound for this urban millennial generation.  When the chart topping hip hop songs are largely focused on material accumulation and some of the more sordid things of American opulence, Coloring Book draws deeply from wells not consistently experienced under the guise of hip hop.  This provides an opportunity for an unchurched generation to maintain their status as “spiritual, but not religious.”

Writer Sean Fennessy of the now defunct Grantland termed the genre of music that Chance produces as utopia rap— “a better tomorrow, today.”  While this notion of utopia rap perhaps categorizes this music in its present format, it also encapsulates a proleptic soul aesthetic that takes the best elements of today and projects them onto tomorrow. Part of the critique in the 1980s and 1990s surrounding the popularity of hip hop was that classic soul music was lost as a result.  Soul music was the timbre, tone and lyrics of artists such as Ray Charles, James Brown and Jackie Wilson, to Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.  Even with neo-soul artists like Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo, many wondered could the new class ever gain the same mainstream status that their predecessors had.  With many critics considering the decade of the 2000s up until recently, a wasteland of black cultural music production as pop artists from Soulja Boy to Drake dominating the landscape with popular songs focused on catchy dance moves or locking one’s self into the prison of solipsistic lyrics where a middle class actor-turned-rapper constantly portrays himself as the quintessential tragic rapper.

Through this mixtape album, Chance casts down his nets into the depths of millennial hip hop spirituality which is a social and sonic admixture of post-adolescent silliness (“I give Satan a swirly”) to heavy theology offered on the track featuring Jay Electronica that almost requires a professor with an emphasis in New Testament to provide an exegetical hermeneutic.  It is a depth in which a 20-somethings can feel comfortable, a no judgement zone in which their spirituality is not relegated to a Sunday morning experienced and divorced from the vicissitudes of their daily life.

Sonically, this mixtape is all over the place—much like the daily lives of millennials listening—but the consistent lyrics from Chance and the featured artists ground it in such a way that you don’t feel lost as he wanders through every imaginable music genre native to black American culture. His partnership with Donnie Trumpet and Social Experiment (SoX) is what makes Chance as an artist shine as hip hop music flattens its sound for the ease of looped radio play all day on four-hour time slots.  Chance, Donnie Trumper and SoX produce real music in an era dominated by studio produced beats and tracks.  This is not to subordinate the skill, talent and musicianship that goes into music production, but the texture of this mixtape makes it stand out from the rest in ways that easily resonate with a generation that’s spiritual and not religious.

Chance’s lyrics do what most of contemporaries who get tons of radio play aren’t able to do: give some type of fulfillment, be it cultural or spiritual.  In Chance’s case, he’s able to do both.  Despite the nihilism that’s found in many hip hop lyrics, the reason why Gospel music and Christian music as genre’s flourish isn’t just because church-going people are listening, but because they draw from deeper things than just one’s self.  In a millennial generation struggling for identity, where political sensibilities find their footing with a 74-year-old white man from Vermont rather than the first female frontrunner of a major political party, there’s a yearning for something that’s real and has a detectable level of authenticity and genuineness to it.  The ability for the mixtape album to go from smoking weed in one track to praising God in the next exists as an authentic life presented to the listeners.

It felt a bit weird to not be riding down the Dan Ryan to get Harolds on 87th street as I listened to this album.  The feeling of homesick washed over me initially, but turned into an indigenous euphoria for being able to relate to what it means to be a proud son of the South Side of Chicago.  Undeniably, this mixtape resonates largely with what culturally home means to so many people.  And perhaps this is where Chance, also known as Lil Chano from 79th, as an artist flourishes.  Acid Rap existed as an homage to adolescent impetuousness and to Chicago.  While it didn’t make a huge splash nationally, it was a celebrated album in Chicago.  Any artist, especially a rapper whose currency is the value of their lyrics, who raps about their hometown undoubtedly thrives off of being a hometown celebrity; one that the city is proud to claim.  As a native Chicagoan, I beamed with pride as I heard Chance call out landmarks all throughout Coloring Book. Harolds Chicken. The Rink. 79th street. WGCI 107.5. Jukin. Grand Crossing. Chatham.  Home has the power to provide fulfillment to many and coupled with hometown pride, this album excels at providing a distinct brand of natal cultural fulfilment.

The ultimate takeaway for a millennial after listening to this mixtape album is that you can have God and your green without any qualms.  Perchance, the keepers of the religious castles would blanch at the intentional greying of secular and sacred lines. Yet, the ability for Chance to deem sacred an aural compilation such as Coloring Book speaks to the dogged determination of a generational zeitgeist content with living in the liminality that the grey areas provide.  Should we count ourselves lucky enough to be drawn into the gray spaces that Chance colors musically and lyrically in this euphonic book, our better tomorrows can be experienced today.

Keep it uppity and radically truthful, JLL



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