Chance the Rapper has finally arrived — sort of. It was perhaps appropriate that the Chicago rapper bided his time dropping “The Big Day” — though advertised as a Friday release, it didn’t pop up on streaming sites around midnight, as most albums do, but rather well into the morning on July 26. Understandably, fans hungrily waiting online implored him throughout the night to press the upload button.
It might not be entirely hyperbolic to call the release long-anticipated. Chance’s career goes back eight years to the waning days of the mixtape era, when rappers would drop tapes in quick succession before striking while the iron was hot with a first album (usually after signing a record deal).
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But Chance has famously remained independent since his first mixtape, 2012’s “10 Day,” and his stunningly precocious 2013 breakthrough “Acid Rap,” soaking up mainstream fame — hosting “Saturday Night Live” and leading ad campaigns — and waiting on his proper “album” entrance. Granted, he also rose at a time when defining a project as a mixtape versus an album was a muddied and largely arbitrary of de facto rules. (Notably, his last mixtape, “Coloring Book,” took home the 2017 Grammy Award for best rap album.)
Nevertheless, “The Big Day” is just that — Chance the Rapper’s official entree –.and perhaps partly due to the hype, it ultimately feels lacking. The 22-track album, supported by an eclectic feature cast, builds in some ways off of the themes of his last release, but with far less of the economical vision and invention to be expected from one of rap’s pre-eminent stars. Ironically, it may be Chance’s least cohesive work yet.
“Coloring Book” offered a hip-hop gospel sermon — even moments of thoughtfulness or tragedy were translated into exultant terms — in the form of a star-studded and, at times, transcendent celebration. It displayed an evolving step from the sticky flows and relentlessly creative youth of “Acid Rap,” which witnessed the undulating, at once beaming and spiraling turns of a psychedelic trip. (See the carefree youth of “Pusha Man,” followed by, on the original mixtape version, the prolonged, stifling silence that transitions into aggrieved, mournful memories of bloody Chicago summers on “Paranoia.”)
If Chance was a freshman of family and faith on “Coloring Book,” “The Big Day” is his more grounded affirmation of this stage of adulthood — with a daughter on the way and basking in the godly glow of a life of promise. Indeed, the title itself is primarily a reference to his recent wedding. On this debut, pieces of contemplation stand alongside an uneven mixture of blithe, if uninspired, tracks made for TikTok videos — like iterations of his latest single, “Groceries,” which was left off the album — and a smattering of ‘90s hip-hop homage.
With “All Day Long,” Chance introduces the album with a rapid-fire flow after first echoing his trademark opening track refrain, “And we back” — a throwback not only in phrase, but also to the streak of joyously frenetic opening songs of his previous releases. While Kanye West helped open “Coloring Book,” Chance is nicely complemented here by a John Legend chorus. The following “Do You Remember,” an ethereal collaboration with Ben Gibbard, frontman of Death Cab for Cutie, reminisces with a poignant nostalgia about childhood summers — an early indication of the coming reflections of a man entering marriage and officially growing out of the threads of youth.
Love is most enjoyably celebrated on his retro offerings like “I Got You (Always and Forever),” which feels less like a throwback than a veritable time machine to the carefree hip-hop of the early ‘90s. The bouncy “Ballin Flossin” does the same, but with a surprisingly well-paired Shawn Mendes chorus.
The joy of companionship, though, is tempered with an acknowledgement of its challenges. On the titular song, a Phil Collins-esque wedding track featuring Francis and the Lights, he qualifies the “greatest day of his life,” singing, “But the only way to survive is to go crazy.” (The song’s romance is abruptly cut by a spasm of screamo-chants — reminiscent of Frank Ocean on his song “Biking” — an experimental flair that comes off here as jarringly off-putting.) On “We Go High,” he hints at struggles of fidelity, rapping: “Lies on my breath, she say she couldn’t take the smell of it.”
Elsewhere, on “Five Year Plan” and “Sun Come Down,” Chance is introspective, giving glimpses of a life that has been caught in a tornado of experience since high school. The album’s length feel most tiring on a handful of songs — “Hot Shower,” “Handsome,” “Get a Bag,” “Slide Around” — that, even amid standout features from the likes of Megan Thee Stallion, come off as soundtracks for viral dance videos. Each feels like a fun, carefree single — several of them together on an album becomes glaringly tedious and excisable.
On “Coloring Book” and “Acid Rap,” each song, strong or weak, had the verve of a fully realized vision. On “The Big Day,” Chance’s mixture of reflection and fun is translated in his reliably impressive wordplay and flows, but its production palette can feel confusingly packaged and at times lacking intention. The result is a somewhat flat record that contains shades of Chance’s supreme talents, but lacks the dynamism of his previous works. It is undoubtedly Chance’s big day. But it’s hard not to feel a little let down.
Chance the Rapper
“The Big Day”