Chance the Rapper’s “Debut” Album Disappoints Only Because It’s Not Really His Debut

With The Big Day, the wunderkind tries to outdo Coloring Book and ends up spreading himself thin.

Chance The Rapper arrives for WE Day California at the Forum in Inglewood, California on April 25, 2019.
Chance The Rapper in Inglewood, California on April 25. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The Big Day is technically Chance the Rapper’s debut album, although this designation is a farcical bit of marketing pedantry even by current standards. For all practical purposes The Big Day is Chance’s hugely anticipated successor to 2016’s Coloring Book, a nominal mixtape that was nonetheless albumlike enough to win Best Rap Album at the Grammys, place fourth in the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, and enjoy near-universal inclusion on critics’ albums of the year lists. The Big Day is, in reality, a follow-up record, and the trickiest kind: a sequel to a breakthrough work that transformed its maker from a cult phenomenon to one of the brightest stars in contemporary pop.

The Big Day also arrives in the wake of a prolonged period of overexposure and, in some corners, backlash. Coloring Book’s successes brought renewed skepticism toward Chance’s claims to being an “independent” artist, especially once he copped to receiving half a million dollars from Apple for (temporarily) exclusive streaming rights. In 2017, Jordan Sargent of Spin reported that Chance and his manager had pressured MTV News into taking down a lukewarm concert review, a petulant bit of back-channel lawyering that smacked of entitlement. His outward anti-corporate posture has been undercut by armfuls of endorsement deals, including ubiquitous television spots for the likes of Nike, Doritos, and Kit Kat.

Of course, overexposure shouldn’t be a criteria for musical judgment, and Chance’s ascendance to A-list stardom has been well-deserved: Coloring Book was a great record, and he’s one of the most charismatic and magnetic live performers around. The Big Day does, however, leave the impression that he’s a bit overextended. At 22 tracks and nearly 80 minutes long, the album feels like the handiwork of someone who’s procrastinated packing for a trip and just crams everything they can grab into an oversize suitcase on the morning they’re supposed to leave.

There are an extraordinary number of features and guest contributors, including Timbaland, Megan Thee Stallion, Shawn Mendes, Gucci Mane, and Nicki Minaj (twice). Some of these are inspired: En Vogue lend vocals and songwriting to “I Got You (Always and Forever),” a charming throwback to ’90s New Jack Swing. Up-and-coming North Carolina MC DaBaby offers up a killer closing verse on “Hot Shower,” a track whose rattling 808s and retro rhyme schemes sound like something that might have come out of Def Jam in the mid-1980s. Others feel more like the musical equivalent of stunt casting: the much-discussed Death Cab for Cutie collaboration “Do You Remember” is awkward and inert, while “Roo,” which features CocoRosie and Chance’s younger brother, Taylor Bennett, feels like three or four different songs struggling to happen at once.

A lot of The Big Day sounds a lot like Coloring Book—much of the co-production is once again handled by Chance’s Chicago-based buddies, such as Nico Segal (formerly known as Donnie Trumpet) and Peter Cottontale, and sonically the album largely maintains the tuneful enthusiasm of its predecessor. The opening, “All Day Long,” seems to deliberately highlight this continuity, opening with Chance’s familiar incantation of “and we back … ” and its title even containing echoes of Coloring Book’s opener, “All We Got.” That 2016 track featured Kanye West; “All Day Long” features John Legend, a far safer choice in 2019 that foreshadows some of this album’s inclinations.

The Big Day isn’t a bad record—Chance is far too talented for that—and there’s certainly no lack of ideas here. (If anything, its ideas have their own ideas.) But it rarely feels particularly revelatory. At various points The Big Day aspires to be about many different things: marriage, parenthood, fame, faith, love, and death, to name just a few. These are enormous topics, but when broached with the major-key inspirationalism that often feels like this album’s default setting, they can too easily become grist for platitudes. Even less-sunny exceptions feel contrived: “We Go High” opens with Chance recounting his partner withholding sex due to his infidelities (“My baby mama went celibate/ Lies on my breath, said she couldn’t take the smell of it”), but in hip-hop’s A.D. (After Drake) era, such confessional self-flagellation feels like its own genre cliché.

There’s also a heaping dose of what’s come to feel like Chance’s preferred conceptual fallback: nostalgia. A startling amount of this album is devoted to reminiscences on Chance’s childhood, his come-up, and generally everything about his life and world prior to the moment he’s at now. The amount of pop culture references of a certain vintage, in particular, start to become overwhelming: Disney films, X-Men, Pippi Longstocking, Back to the Future, Dragon Ball Z, Diddy Kong, the Men in Black franchise, Good Burger, “Peanut Butter Jelly Time.” Most of the time these allusions don’t seem to serve any purpose other than simply to exist. “Do You Remember” starts to do some clever things with the cyclical nature of the culture industry (when he reflects on a summer of Aladdin and Simba, is he waxing nostalgic about his own youth or his daughter’s?), but it stops well short of anything resembling critique. After all, why bite that hand: Chance served as a voice actor and “consultant” for the latest regurgitation of The Lion King.

Nostalgia is a tricky muse, and if it isn’t tethered to something present and immediate, it quickly devolves into solipsism. Coloring Book was steeped in nostalgia as well, but in surprising and compelling ways. That album presented an artist standing on the precipice of enormous fame, knowing that he’d just made music that would catapult him to superstardom and feeling not entirely certain about the leap. Songs like “Summer Friends” and “Same Drugs” were stalked by ambivalence and even melancholy, deftly playing on the knowledge that the underside of nostalgia is loss.

But of course, you really only get to make that album once. Now that Chance is so enormously successful, all the “remember when” business grows cloying and the pop culture pileup starts to resemble some BuzzFeed listicle about Things Only Millennial Kids Will Remember. And, needless to say, an awful lot has happened in the country and the world since Coloring Book was released in May 2016. And while Chance is certainly under no obligation to politicize his music, the almost complete avoidance of current events is a bit odd, particularly in light of the fact that Chance has become increasingly politically outspoken in his civilian life.

The Big Day is a moderately disappointing work but by no means fatally so, and may ultimately be looked back upon as a necessary bridge to a future that Chance himself may not even be currently aware of. There are moments of real beauty, particularly on its back half, when the album finally starts to breathe a bit more. The best of these is “5 Year Plan,” a ruminative work about time and ambition set against an elegant gospel piano figure. Chance’s collaborator on this track is the great Randy Newman, who co-wrote the song and contributes a ragged, lovely vocal performance on its middle section. Newman is 75 years old, and while Millennial Kids Will Remember him mostly for his work with Pixar, he’s one of the best songwriters alive: a master of humor, self-effacement, and lacerating insight. It struck me in listening that much of Chance’s very finest work bears a certain similarity to Newman’s in its combination of play and pathos, when he stops dwelling on his own precociousness and fixes his gaze outward. Chance the Rapper is still an incandescent talent with enormous room to grow, but to borrow from one of his favorite books, it’s time he put away childish things.

The Big Day cover
Chance the Rapper

The Big Day

The “debut” album by Chance the Rapper.