I’m not religious, I don’t go to church, but I’ve loved gospel music for as long as I can remember. Growing up in a black Missionary Baptist church meant spending most of my Sundays in a pew—eating candy, doodling on scraps of paper, and being reprimanded with stern nudges from my mom when I dared to fall asleep as the service hit hour five. The one part of the service that always captured my attention was the music. I’d sit through the sermon, just waiting for the moment Pastor Hightower would pick up his guitar, signaling the choir to stand. For me, experiencing gospel music was a transformative experience. It wasn’t religious; it was watching in amazement as my neighbors and friends joined their voices to become something else, something large and joyful. Their everyday personas vanished. This was my introduction to music as a kid.
It was difficult to explain just what it was about gospel music that continued to click with me well after my mom stopped forcing me to go to church. Before I had access to LimeWire or a CD player, I had Sister Purifoy’s rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” At college pre-game parties, friends would look at me in confusion when I threw a Kirk Franklin song into the “get pumped” mix. It wasn’t until Chance The Rapper that I found someone who could articulate exactly why gospel music was so important to me. Not only that, he also captured the traditions and themes of church and gospel music that have made it so important to everyone from Aretha Franklin to little kids forced into pews on Chicago’s South Side.
Coloring Book is clearly Chance’s love letter to Chicago, but the infusion of gospel makes it perhaps the most thoroughly “Chicago” album ever made. According to Robert Marovich’s book A City Called Heaven: Chicago And The Birth Of Gospel Music, Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood was the birthplace of gospel—a mere 14-minute drive north of Chance’s Chatham neighborhood. Coloring Book pays respect to this history in intricate ways. It combines staples of gospel music like sermon, testimony, and rising choral voices in a way that mainstream artists have not been able to achieve. Labels fear their artists being relegated to the “gospel” category—a concern Chance doesn’t have to address, as he’s a free agent. His decision to give Chicago’s gospel history the spotlight makes clear his dedication a part of Chicago culture that’s often seen as a niche category.
Chance The Rapper knows this isn’t the case, and has hinted at his respect for black church culture in songs like “Sunday Candy.” Coloring Book boldly celebrates the gospel music around that culture and its influence on popular music. A long history of gospel and R&B musicians have blurred the line between the two genres, paving the way for Coloring Book’s unique sound: an album that features Justin Bieber drawing parallels with both old and new school gospel legends like Mahalia Jackson and Kirk Franklin. The next 60 minutes will attempt to show what helped Coloring Book get there.
1. “(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley,” Thomas A. Dorsey, featuring R.H. Harris, Mark Wilder, Don Meehan, Precious Lord Recordings Of The Great Gospel Songs Of Thomas A. Dorsey (1973)
Thomas A. Dorsey is known as the Father Of Black Gospel Music for a reason. As the music director at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago from the 1930s into the 1970s, he crafted the sounds of what is now known as traditional “old school” gospel music. Combining Chicago soul and blues with Southern black oral traditions brought north in the Great Migration, Dorsey cemented the connection between joy, hope and black church music—themes clearly present in motivational framework of Coloring Book. There isn’t a gospel singer alive who doesn’t have at least one of Dorsey’s songs in their repertoire, but even mainstream artists like Elvis Presley had hits covering songs of Dorsey’s like “(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley.”
The Highway Q.C.’s were a Chicago gospel all-star boy group in the 1940s and ’50s. Originally led by Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls stepped in to lead the group when Cooke’s career took off. The lineup changed a lot, but always featured some of the best male voices from Chicago’s South Side, including Johnnie Taylor and even a young Curtis Mayfield. Many members of The Highway Q.C.’s would go on to have mainstream careers, but their legacies as gospel musicians went beyond Chicago. In 1973, Ebony magazine nominated the group for the Gospel Hall Of Fame in their First Annual Ebony Black Music Poll among legends like Mahalia Jackson and The Soul Stirrers. The group would be active for over 50 years and many of its later members can still be found in Chicago choirs today.
Sam Cooke’s 1970 album The 2 Sides Of Sam Cooke is probably the best predecessor for an album that best balances a musician’s duality between religion and pop culture. Backed by The Soul Stirrers on every track (Cooke joined the group after leaving The Highway Q.C.’s), the album is half gospel classics and half love ballads. Cooke doesn’t attempt to blend the two halves like Coloring Book does. In fact, the split is made quite clear on the album cover, which features half of Cooke’s face in a stained glass window and the other half as artwork traditional to 1970s soul. Despite the quick transition, Cooke pays homage to his gospel roots, while making it clear that those roots don’t define him. While many have wondered if Coloring Book represents a new path toward the “gospel rap” genre for Chance, albums like The 2 Sides Of Sam Cooke prove such limits aren’t necessary—he can do both separately and together.
The Impressions weren’t a gospel group, but when Curtis Mayfield joined and penned the hit “People Get Ready,” his Chicago gospel background is clear as he asks us to “just thank the Lord.” “People Get Ready” became a civil rights anthem and a successful single for the group, proving the importance of the joyous themes of gospel music at a time of racial and political tension. It makes sense then that Chance The Rapper would call upon those same themes on an album dedicated to Chicago—a city whose name has almost become synonymous for corruption, police brutality, and violence. While Acid Rap’s “Pusha Man” paid tribute to Mayfield’s hit “Pusherman,” Coloring Book mirrors Mayfield’s ability to make accessible religious hits.
Coloring Book doesn’t just align itself with the musical history of gospel: It takes us to church. Black churches offer an interactive experience as the congregation shouts, claps, and stands whenever it moves them. It’s improvisational: The choir’s routinely 20-minute set stretches to 40 if the spirit demands it. Rarely is the reverence captured, as it tends to be easily mocked in movies and on TV. It’s even harder to pay respect to the experience without visuals, yet Coloring Book manages to do it in short interludes like “Summer Friends, ” as prayers begin to rise above the track. In the sermon of “How Great,” we hear “God is better than the world’s best thing.” Aretha Franklin’s 1972 Amazing Grace, a live album recorded at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, remains the standard, as Chicago’s Reverend James Cleveland (a member of Thomas A. Dorsey’s Pilgrim Baptist Church) delivers a sermon and the congregation is heard begging, “Take your time, Aretha.”
Most of the time when gospel choirs are used in mainstream songs, they’re relegated to the background or used somewhat like a prop to signal a song’s supposed “soulfulness.” Coloring Book instead gives the talented voices of the choir center stage, in songs like “All We Got” and “How Great.” A strong choir can make or break a service. Sitting through a three-hour service, only for the choir to stand and be boring, felt like a punishment. On “Sunday Candy,” Chance jokes about his grandmother complaining in church, “Why the gospel choir got so tired?” The Grammy-nominated, Billboard-charting Chicago Mass Choir shows us why that’s a legitimate question. As the various sections of the choir are given their chance to “represent,” the skill of these performers can’t be denied.
It’s no secret that Whitney Houston got her start at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, but “I Look To You” captures her continued reliance on gospel at a difficult point in her life prior to her death. That’s why this rendition of “I Look To You” by R. Kelly, performed at her funeral, is particularly moving. R. Kelly’s ties to Chicago gospel are well-known; he even helped out on Chance The Rapper’s religiously toned “Somewhere in Paradise.” So it’s no surprise he’d be chosen to perform one of Whitney’s most moving gospel songs at her funeral service. I remember watching Houston’s funeral with my family; it was the first time I’d seen the celebratory “homegoing” services I’d grown up with properly represented on TV. That’s what Coloring Book feels like: a realistic, respectful look at the most personal ways the church centers itself in the lives of its congregation through addiction, family, death, birth, and love.
A lot has been written about the religious and spiritual references in Beyoncé’s Lemonade, but early in the singer’s career, nearly every Destiny’s Child album featured at least one gospel song. As Beyoncé embarked on her solo career and defined herself as a superstar, the religious tracks grew sparser and sparser. With Lemonade, she had reached a point in her career where she could return to the religious influences we hear in “Gospel Medley,” as prayer and the bible are referenced continuously. If anything got us ready for the religious experience of Coloring Book this summer, it was Auntie Yoncé (as Chance affectionately calls Bey on “All We Got”) setting the stage for a summer of pop hits that could be as catchy as they are meaningful.
9. “Stomp (Remix),” Kirk Franklin and God’s Property, God’s Property From Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation (1997)
If Thomas A. Dorsey invented old school gospel, Kirk Franklin has to be given credit for creating the new school. Prior to Kirk Franklin, gospel hadn’t changed its sound beyond its initial blues and soul influences. Franklin sought to bring hip-hop and rap into the mix. He is a talented bandleader who commands a stage, talents Chance has clearly picked up as they collaborated on tracks like “Finish Line/Drown” and Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam.” At the 2015 Pitchfork Music Festival, Chance brought Franklin out to do a rendition of “Sunday Candy,” along with Franklin’s own hits like “Miracles In Heaven” and “Brighter Day.”
10. “Higher Ground,” Missy Elliott, featuring Yolanda Adams, Kim Burrell, Dorinda Clark, Karen Clark-Sheard, and Mary Mary, Miss E…So Addictive (2001)
On “Higher Ground,” a hidden track on the 2001 hit album Miss E…So Addictive, Elliott included a gospel song that joined some of the biggest names in the genre? In a prelude asking both religious and mainstream audiences to let her celebrate God in her own way, she says, “I had to make a record that gives thanks to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. A lot of people are quick to criticize me for the music I sing, but see that don’t change the belief that I have in God.” Whether she chooses to represent that belief in rap or gospel songs is up to her. Coloring Book’s ability to go from infectious dance songs like “All Night” to “How Great” point to a similar desire.
An important aspect of the black church is testimony, a space where sins, hardships, and forgiveness are openly vocalized and shared among the congregation. Lauryn Hill’s “To Zion” features the honesty of this act as she sings of turning to God when she discovers she’s pregnant and her friends beg her to focus on her career. Hill is no stranger to gospel music (look no further than her stellar turn in Sister Act 2), but “To Zion” is a deeply personal look at her religious convictions. The same can be said of Coloring Book, as Chance uses spirituality to discuss becoming a father when he discovers his ex-girlfriend is pregnant. While “Ultralight Beam” kept the audience at bay from his relationship with his daughter—“My daughter look just like Sia / You can’t see her”—Coloring Book focuses on the ways his daughter has changed him.
Chance showcases another lesson he picked up from Kirk Franklin throughout Coloring Book—unconquerable joy. Both “Blessings” and “Blessings (Reprise)” speak of the Lord’s ability to provide in even the darkest of circumstances. The positivity of “I Smile” is infectious whether you’re religious or not, a feat many of Franklin’s songs achieve.
D’Angelo spoke of the gospel influences behind Black Messiah in a 2014 interview, specifically citing Chicago quartets Pilgrim Jubilees and The Violinaires. “Prayer” is a clear example of that influence as he sings of his dedication to the act and recites The Lord’s Prayer. Black Messiah was considered a “second coming” in D’Angelo’s career. To many, the album launched the current renaissance period of black musicians thoroughly embracing their blackness and showcasing the black experience through music—albums like To Pimp A Butterfly, Lemonade, and Coloring Book owe it for starting a conversation they’ve made more detailed.
Could a list on Chicago gospel and rap exist without Kanye West? Absolutely not. Chance begins Coloring Book with “and we back, and we back” on “All We Got” with Kanye West and the Chicago Children’s Choir at his side. It feels like he’s signaling a return of the old Kanye, the one who used to complain about the industry’s mandate that “you can rap about anything except for Jesus.” With The Life Of Pablo and Coloring Book, both rappers prove that Jesus is a topic worth covering on mainstream releases.