Chance the Rapper’s Tedious Benediction

Chance the Rapper’s Tedious Benediction

Chance the Rapper’s Tedious Benediction

On The Big Day, Chance gets swallowed up by the pomp, circumstance, and symbolism of his long-awaited debut album.

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When Chance the Rapper went on Twitter a few days before his wedding to relay how he met his wife, he adopted the rosy warmth of a children’s librarian. “Storytime,” he announced alongside an image of her as a kid. The picture was taken long before Chance was famous, on the day of their introduction as young Chicagoans, and for his “storytime,” it functioned as both a relic of that day and a totem of Chance’s adolescent attraction. The tale he spins, of seeing her perform Destiny’s Child songs at an office party, is yearning and goofy and sincere. As he builds to the climax—“I knew I was gonna marry that girl”—his conviction is obvious. He sees that distant day not just as trivia for his fans but also as formative, a serendipitous moment that guided him from dancing at school talent shows to snagging spots on the Billboard charts.

The Big Day, his latest album (and technically his first, if you believe the distinction between mixtape and studio LP matters), uses his marriage to evoke the same sense of anointment. Combining variants of hip-hop, indie rock, house, R&B, and gospel, the record presents, across 22 songs, marital bliss as a kind of omni-force that shapes the entirety of Chance’s life. Being a husband, he wants us to believe, makes him a better dad, a stronger Christian, and a bolder artist. Accordingly, The Big Day is his coronation, storytime for what he views as his grandest tale. The record is certainly heartfelt and joyous, but its gushing heart rarely adds up to more than empty devotion. As Chance re-creates his big day, claiming marriage raps as an act of independence, the line between storytelling and branding blurs.

Chance has said the record is inspired by the dance floor of his wedding and the many genres and people that were brought together to celebrate his union. Bottling moments of collective joy and celebration has been a through line in his work since his breakthrough mixtapes. First there was 2012’s 10 Day, a freewheeling mixtape recorded during a two-week high school suspension. It introduced him as a goofy and precocious deviant with a knack for clever wordplay and easygoing melody. Then came 2013’s Acid Rap, an addled portrait of sudden adulthood that was as giddy and exuberant as it was anxious. These mixtapes set off a bidding war across the music industry, but he chose to remain unsigned. Surf, his 2015 compilation with his band, the Social Experiment, used his budding fame to make polyglot music with all his friends. By 2016’s high-flying gospel-tinged mixtape Coloring Book, he was rap’s biggest independent success story. Surrounded by his friends, his family, and his accomplishments, he felt blessed. “Man, I swear my life is perfect,” he sings on “All We Got.” The next year, he won three Grammys.

The Big Day is built to capitalize on this momentum and Chance’s perspective at the start of this new era in his life. It contains reflections on fatherhood, marriage, and responsibility that leverage his blissful present in service of plotting his future. A tent-pole event with a grandiose vision, it’s certainly his most ambitious record. A true student of Kanye West (who was a guest at his wedding and serves as his mentor), Chance goes maximalist, finding eclectic and offbeat pairings from all corners of popular music. Combining the soaring harmonies of R&B acts like SWV and En Vogue with the dreamy alt-rock of Death Cab for Cutie and the dance music of Chicago, the album aims for an expansive idea of love and community in both sound and content. But in his invocation of marriage as the ultimate transformation, the biggest party, Chance gets swallowed by the pomp and symbolism.

His triumph has no arc, no narrative. The first song is the upbeat and joyful “All Day Long,” and the record sticks to that exultant mood. Chance is in awe of his partner and their union, but rarely articulates how it came to be, what shapes it or might have prevented it. “Eternal” celebrates love as an everlasting experience rather than an achievement. “Side chicks can’t dance like this / Side niggas can’t dance like this,” he sings with a perplexing smugness. It’s unclear whether he’s alluding to infidelity or difficulties within his relationship or just shaming lovers caught up in unorthodox arrangements. That ambiguity fills the record and mars his success story. He often sounds defensive and self-satisfied despite professing joy.

“I Got You (Always and Forever),” another toast to lifelong commitment, frequently deviates from its new-jack groove to spurn perceived doubters. “Ever since I kissed her / Everyone seem like they got somethin’ to say,” Chance raps. The same sentiment appears on “Sun Come Down,” in which he pivots from thanking his loved ones to revisiting negative comments on his wedding photos. As he repeatedly disrupts the show to grunt at the peanut gallery, his euphoria starts to feel strained and impersonal. It’s hard to tell whether this is the best time of his life because that’s how he truly feels or because that’s how it’s supposed to feel.

The closest Chance comes to presenting his marriage as something other than fated is “We Go High,” which uses Michelle Obama’s famous mantra from the 2016 Democratic National Convention to hint at a rockier time in his love life. Rapping in a mournful murmur, he performs with a palpable sense of relief, as if recalling a near-death experience. It’s an apologetic but also cryptic song. “Tired of the rumors, every room had an elephant,” he says without elaborating. “It’s true, God. This union was for you, God,” he says, again alluding to a story that he hasn’t told. That sense of reservation is what makes the record feel so contrived at points. Chance celebrates his love without defining it, without making it concrete. His Cinderella story is all ballroom and glass slippers, the evil stepmother and backbreaking chores and misery all cast aside.

While most of The Big Day’s weaknesses can be attributed to its grueling length and Chance’s narrow writing, there’s also something structurally stunted about the record. The subtext of his elation and his imagery is that black matrimony is a particular form of modern-day miracle. It’s an understandable feeling. Black families were broken up during the slave trade, dispersed during the Great Migration, and continue to be strained by poverty, government indifference, and white supremacy. It’s been a long, wearying journey for black Americans, and through necessity and grit, marriage has become a regular stronghold against this country’s daily horrors.

For black celebrities in particular, who taste success but can still be touched by prejudice, marriage is a unique kind of victory. Celebrity couples like Jay-Z and Beyoncé, Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union, and Michelle and Barack Obama hold a special place in the black imagination for their fortitude against American fuckery. Held up as scions of what black love looks like when everything goes right, they are treated almost like nobility. The loaded optics of these unions can obscure the relationships themselves, and you can feel the effects of those pressures on The Big Day. While Chance doesn’t treat his partner, Kirsten Corley, like a trophy wife exactly, a kind of erasure occurs as he relentlessly extols their love.

One of the few moments Corley feels like a flesh-and-blood person rather than a muse is “Zanies and Fools.” Interpolating “Impossible/It’s Possible” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (the 1997 TV movie was notably one of the first depictions of Cinderella as a black woman), the song finds Chance again telling the story he told on Twitter. His voice drops, ascends, and breaks as he builds to the moment where he first sees Corley performing when they first met. “Out from the back came three lil’ survivors / In formation, choreo tighter / One on the left, I think I might like her / One on the left, I think I might love her,” he raps. A moment of vivid testimony rather than rigid scripture, it’s one of the few times Chance’s black bliss doesn’t feel so allegorical, so ready-made. As Nicki Minaj closes out the track with her own fairy-tale romance, storytime finally feels magical. That sense of rapture is fleeting though, and it’s revealing that Chance’s full-throated embrace of the pageantry and symbolism of marriage ultimately obscures what it celebrates. A finish line without a race is just a ribbon.

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