Despite its status as the most popular religion in the world, with over two billion believers, Christianity is still seen as a niche genre when it comes to things like movies or music. Christian films such as God’s Not Dead have been successful, but they nonetheless tend to stand out as “Christian” films.
Christian music has a built-in audience as well, but it’s rare for music with church themes to rise to prominence in the mainstream, particularly in the rap scene. That’s why Chance the Rapper is so notable. The Chicago rapper’s Coloring Book mixtape was one of the most acclaimed hip hop releases of last year and he managed to pull it off with gospel-influenced songs full of religious praise.
On the opening track “All We Got,” Chance performs with Kanye West and the Chicago Children’s Choir and raps about staying positive in the face of temptation. He pulls off such bravado as “I might give Satan a swirlie” that emphasizes his beliefs while still maintaining a playful attitude.
On “Blessings,” Chance considers how he has been blessed in life and shows his appreciation through undying praise. The religious influence continues on songs such as “Angels” and “How Great,” which opens with the introduction of Nicole Steen singing “How great is our God?” Chance also had an unforgettable feature on “Ultralight Beam,” the opening track on Kanye West’s latest album, The Life of a Pablo. In that song, Chance established his devotion through lyrics like “Glory to God” and making “pillar of salt” allusions when talking about his ex-girlfriend.
Chance has been able to implement Christian themes into mainstream rap is nothing short of impressive. What’s even more noteworthy is that it hasn’t seemed to be a liability. Coloring Book received mass acclaim and was a commercial success, which was solidified when Chance earned seven Grammy nominations. There is a precedent for this happening, though. Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” was a huge hit over a decade ago that dealt with religious themes.
Part of the reason why Chance has been able to succeed with a gospel style is that he isn’t overbearing about it. The first thing that strikes you about songs like “All We Got” and “Ultralight Beam” isn’t how heavy it is on Christian imagery, but how much positivity and joy comes from it. Chance clearly uses his religion to inspire powerful lyricism, but he is wise to emphasize the music over the message.
It also helps that Chance balances out Coloring Book so it doesn’t feel entirely like a sermon. Songs like “No Problem” and “Same Drugs” put the religious message on hold a bit, but they don’t negate it; instead they just show Chance’s versatility, which is a very important quality for an artist to have, hip-hop or otherwise.
It’s refreshing to see an artist like Chance doing his part to make music with gospel and church influences “cool” again. It isn’t done in a forced manner and truly feels genuine. Chance might start a new wave of gospel rappers, and demonstrate how hip-hop shouldn’t be pigeonholed.