Chance the Rapper Recounts Life and Revels in the Moment on Debut Album ‘The Big Day’

Chance the Rapper is a figure that defies categorization, especially in the world of contemporary hip-hop. His steep rise to stardom, on the basis of only three self-released mixtapes, is a beaming validation of the independent route for recording artists. 2012’s “10 Day” was born out of a high school suspension, and 2013’s “Acid Rap” took inspiration from chemicals — typical stages in the evolution of a juvenile artist, maturing in front of listeners. After a fraught period plagued by addiction and relationship issues, Chance rebounded in 2016 with the highly acclaimed, gospel-heavy “Coloring Book,” which made history as the first independently released streaming-only album to win a Grammy. The rare positivity of the mixtape, along with Chance’s impressive record of activism, and genial persona have made him a beacon of hope, generating much anticipation of the next step to come. Chance has long teased the release of his first studio album, hinting vaguely that it will, for some reason, deserve that specific designation. While the record, “The Big Day,” showed up later than expected, and without the expected, previewed tracks, it’s safe to say it was worth the wait. Featuring a sweeping selection of artists, ranging from Nicki Minaj and Shawn Mendes to Gucci Mane and Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, the album takes inspiration from Chance’s wedding. Having started off as a single father, but ultimately coming to terms with his paramour, Kirsten Corley, and tying the knot, Chance has written an album about relishing the feeling he had on his wedding day. While this may seem like a narrow focus, Chance employs it in a way that encompasses a myriad of other issues and ideas, but always leads back to the joy at the core of the feeling.

Opener “All Day Long” begins with Chance declaring “And we back,” a catchphrase he’s dropped since the days of “Acid Rap.” He rightfully pats himself on the back for going the independent route, boasting, “I still could hit up Sony today and get a loan,” but adding, “But that boy advance gotta be bigger than Diddy Kong.” The pun on Nintendo’s Gameboy Advance comes in a string of references to everything from LeBron James to Pippy Longstockings, immediately establishing the playful, nostalgic tone that runs through the album. Chance’s signature gospel tinges are also immediately in place, and it’s at once an ebullient, celebratory affair, with fast rapping. punctuated by taut snares snare fills, and John Legend belting away a chorus that exudes positive energy. Legend’s lyrics, “We can’t be out here pleasin’ everybody… We know who we are,” encapsulate the central message of staying true to yourself, while the Chance’s jubilant repetitions of “Today is the day” drive home the recurrent theme of reveling in the moment.

“Do You Remember,” featuring Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, builds further upon the lighthearted, retrospective mood. While this collaboration could have easily turned out awkward — think Kanye West’s “Homecoming” from 2007, with Chris Martin — Gibbard sounds surprisingly at home alongside Chance. The chemistry is understandable, considering the two met years ago and discovered themselves mutual fans. A bright, effusive production from Justin Vernon and Francis Farewell Starlite among others makes a major impact, and Chance continues to bask in the glow of his titular wedding day, vowing to “hold that feeling forever.” He dwells on this idea throughout “Eternal,” a sunny and swaying, funky cut, full of wah-wah guitars, meticulously layered, soulful vocal samples, and a verse from rapper Smino. There’s a latent, carefree playfulness to Chance’s rapping, rooted in old-school hip-hop stylings, that is especially pronounced on “Hot Shower.” Over a back-to basics beat, Chance, MadeinTYO, and DaBaby take turns dropping colorful, idiosyncratic verses.

A reflective moment comes in “We Go High,” a song about making it through a rough phase in a relationship. Chance humorously captures the down-and-out moments in lyrics like “I tried to do the single-dad mingle-dance / At the club with the iron in my wrinkled pants,” eventually concludes “I found out diamonds make pressure,” and ends up directly thanking god. What follows is the joyous reconciliation of “I Got You (Always and Forever),” a festive, full throwback, from the retro drum machine sounds to the gleeful neo-soul melismatic vocals from Ani Lennox, on to Chance’s boom-bap era triplet flow and jokey inflections. By the end, we’re back to the recurrent theme, as Lennox sings, “I got you, you’ve got me.”

“Photo Opp,” a skit in which a father figure jokingly prods two brothers to get along, prompts “Roo,” a song about fraternal solidarity, joining Chance with his brother, fellow rapper Taylor Bennett. It’s heartwarming to hear all the preaching about family and such manifest in a collaboration between brothers. There’s a particularly interesting appearance from indie duo CocoRosie, and Chance seems to fit their rather outré stylings, sounding happy, a bit deranged, then out of breath, before settling into a steady groove, and absolutely owning it. He grows more eccentric yet on the especially catchy title track, featuring Francis and the Lights. It’s fairly consistent with the album so far, with Chance declaring it’s “the greatest day of my life,” except with the twist that “the only way to survive is to go crazy.” The instrumentation is deconstructed, as if bearing the weight of the statement, and the song takes a wild left turn, with screeching, abrasive sounds of who knows what. Then comes — let’s just say a surge of tourettes, which itself makes the album. You’ve got to hand it to Chance for taking chances. 

Things stay on the weirder side with “Let’s Go on the Run,” Chance’s unhinged singing veering boldly out of key. This is some type of abstract art, and it’s entertaining to imagine what the reaction to this would have been, had it been the public’s first introduction to Chance. Knox Fortune drops a verse, followed by a priceless, designedly lazy verse from Chance at the end, reminding us of his impressive versatility. He further showcases this on “Handsome,” switching abruptly from cool, collect rapping to a manic frenzy of crazed bellowing. He fleshes out a full track, merely embellishing the main lines, “I look good” and “You look good,” and rapper Megan Thee Stallion goes to town with a gratuitous short verse, taking liberties with the theme. Then, on the Gucci Mane-featuring “Big Fish,” rapping becomes the focus. Chance gives a piece of his mind, and really gets into the rhythm, as if entranced, occasionally erupting into the one-off melodic outbursts that have become a signature move. He and Gucci rap with conviction, about their struggles, persistence, and ultimate triumph.

“Ballin Flossin” brings back the cheer, an upbeat number so frivolously festive that it finds Chance, at one point, breaking into the Buckwheat Boyz’ “Peanut Butter Jelly.” Shawn Mendes shows up for chorus duties, in a strikingly different form from the histrionics of “In My Blood.” Here, it’s all cool, mellow falsetto, and the collaboration couldn’t have worked better. All this revelry comes to a halt upon “4 Quarters in the Black,” another family skit that poses hefty questions: “We see the success, but what’s next? Do you have health insurance? A retirement plan?” This escalates into a chaotic chorus of nagging warnings in tandem with jarring, ringing bells — a strident reminder of the conscientiousness and humility at the core of this album. Chance inhabits a strikingly different universe from that of the typical mainstream hip-hop artist. This ushers in “5 Year Plan,” which shows Chance at his most fluid, versatile, and free-spirited, ultimately concluding, “You can get over anything — almost.”

“Get a Bag” is on the more bizarre end. Chance really stands out from his peers in how willing he is to go with his instincts. Perhaps that’s what got Kanye’s attention in the first place. Your interpretation of the chorus lines “You want a bag, you get a bag” is as good as anyone’s, but it’s a reasonable guess that it deals with empowerment, and taking what you want from life. Fittingly, the beat is all balloons and cotton candy, and CalBoy delivers a sunny, Auto-tune verse. “Slide Around” takes the mentality a bit further, with full hip-hop braggadocio. It’s the little instinctive, impromptu touches that make Chance shine the most, like his “ch-ch” interjections between phrases here. There’s a refreshingly mellow appearance by Lil Durk, as well as a verse from the indomitable Nicki Minaj, although it’s just a tease compared to her second feature later on. 

Chance gets reflective again on “Sun Come Down,” a series of ruminations. It’s perhaps the most effusive outpouring of sentiments, with lyrics like “Please don’t let my death be about my death… Please make my death about my life.” Chance has always stood out as someone who practices what he preaches, which makes the sincerity of a song like this especially strike a chord. He wears his heart on his sleeve, with plenty of talk about his marriage, including clever references to diamonds, bringing to mind the album’s cover art of a diamond-encrusted CD, and fitting everything into a cohesive whole. If you ever doubted Chance’s happiness regarding his marriage, you need only hear the beaming jubilation of “Found a Good One (Single No More),” featuring Murda Beatz. It’s a throwback to the early ‘90s dance stylings of artists like Shannon, with an especially thrilling, sped-up bit near the end.

As admirable as all Chance’s positivity may be, the humility can get a bit much, as on  “Town on the Hill.” Chance calls out “Father,” elongating his a’s like a small child, then marveling, “You really love me.” At points, one can’t help but wonder how something like this can even pass outside of, say, a Christian outreach project for urban youth. Still, it’s hard not to find yourself eventually won over again. The following track is a skit, featuring a little girl recounting how she used to shuttle between her parents’ separate houses, but now stays in their shared home. This prompts the climactic closer “Zanies and Fools,” with Chance taking a proud trip down memory lane, in a torrent of speedy rapping over a tribal, percussive flurry. He raps about gaining self-confidence through the years, and recounts in detail when he first met his wife. A choir of little girls sings a refrain of “It’s possible,” interspersed with some traditional African singing. Then, Nicki Minaj comes through, and gets the final word. She goes through her whole journey, from her Trinidadian origins, taking a slight jab at the “land of the free,” and reiterating the gist of her famous outburst on taxes. She goes on to liken herself and her husband Kenneth Petty to Bonnie and Clyde, and, of course, to emphatically remind us of her ultimate, glamorous, rags-to-riches triumph.  

There has been no shortage of speculation regarding how Chance the Rapper’s long-anticipated studio debut would turn out. How exactly would it transcend “mixtape” categorization, and constitute something allegedly deserving the increasingly cryptic “album” designation? It’s fair to say “The Big Day” generally surpasses any previous efforts in both scale and scope. The roster of guests is, needless to say, a major attraction. More important, however, is the quality of the features. No appearance comes across as even remotely forced or gimmicky, which is especially noteworthy considering the impressive stylistic range on display. Whereas Chance’s three mixtapes each centered primarily on a single focus, his first album draws inspiration liberally from his entire life. Somewhat ironically, this unprecedentedly comprehensive subject matter comes condensed, in a newly pointed sublimation. In his memorialization of the titular “Big Day” of his wedding. Chance celebrates all the struggle and persistence that led to it, the joy that came out of it, and the values that it represents. Of course, he expresses this with his trademark gospel proclivities and winsome sincerity, making for an album that takes all his acclaimed attributes to the next level.    

The Big Day” is available July 26 on Apple Music.