Is Chance the Rapper a Poet?

Written for Acculturated

June 9th, 2017

The idea that rappers are the modern poets, the Shakespeares, Tennysons, and Keats of our age, has been pushed for a while. This writer at The Daily Beast seems to think it’s true. So does Jay-Z. And this Oxford professor. But just because both rhyme doesn’t mean rap and poetry are the same thing, and fortunately something—perhaps rap’s seemingly required use of the B,N,F,A,S, and P words?—has prevented the public from ever fully embracing the idea. While I truly believe rap and poetry will never be one and the same, there is one rapper now who is bringing his medium closer to the airy heights of poetry than it’s ever been. That artist is Chance the Rapper.

Before adopting the moniker by which he is known throughout the world, Chance was Chancelor Bennett, son of an aide to Senator Barack Obama, and an aspiring musician. He came to the attention of the music industry after he released a mixtape titled 10 Day, which derived its name from the suspension Chance was serving for marijuana possession when he wrote the music on the tape. He followed that up with a mixtape called Acid Rap, which contained songs like “Good A** Intro” and lyrics I’d initially planned to provide a censored example of, though ultimately left out because even in their censored state they were still far too vulgar. And yes, this is the man I’m arguing is elevating rap as an art form. Let me finish! Because it wasn’t long after Acid Rap that Chance had a volte face. He converted to Christianity and cleaned up his life. His conversion is reflected in his music, especially in the album Coloring Book, which includes frequent references to a certain life-changing Jewish carpenter (Jesus). The album is frequently described as a rap gospel album, and a choir can often be heard on the tracks.

While many of the songs on Coloring Book fall short of my full-blown admiration—“No Problem,” “Mixtape,” “Angels,” and “Smoke Break” are some of the more problematic ones—there are others that reach for the heavens in a way I’ve never heard rap do before. “All We Got,” “Blessings,” and “How Great” have a religious depth to them that is lacking even in most rap written specifically for a Christian audience (yes, that’s a thing).

Though rap still will never be poetry—for many of the same reasons music in general is not literature and Bob Dylan didn’t deserve that Nobel Prize—Chance has at least made it more poetic. His decision to bring his Christian faith into his music sees Chance aligning himself with poetry’s lengthy interaction with religion. I am no rap historian, and with only nineteen years under my belt I’m far too young to have spotted any trends in music, so there’s a good chance Chance is not actually the first rapper to do so. He is, however, the first I’ve noticed to bring Christianity into his music and achieve any level of mainstream success. Chance’s songs still aren’t devoid of swear words, but there has been an inverse relationship between his use of not-so-niceties and Biblical allusions, and Bible mentions are on the rise. The songs he’s written that focus on his walk with Christ are among the best songs in his oeuvre, and easily some of the best music out today. It could be argued that they are the reason Coloring Book won the Grammy for best rap album this year.

Chance is currently travelling all over the United States as a part of his spring tour—including two stops in my home state of North Carolina!—and at every concert he’ll have a chance to show fans of his music what rap is truly capable of being. Not poetry, but not crass rhymes without any depth either. It can be something in between, but something, one hopes, that leans a bit more to the former than the latter.