[Editor’s note: Sometimes an album doesn’t quite rise to the level of a full-length assessment, nor a full-throated endorsement; it can nevertheless be worthy of time and consideration. This post, the first in what’s intended as an occasional series, documents three noteworthy releases from the past few months, each of which offers something of value.]
Chance the Rapper, The Big Day
Theologian Dallas Willard has defined Christian joy as a “pervasive, constant sense of wellbeing,” rooted in the sovereign character of the Divine. It is to the enduring credit of Chicago’s Chance the Rapper that he has channeled this virtue better than anyone else in popular music, specifically across three well-received mixtapes that offer a hopeful countenance as a rebuke to cynical times. His confidence in the LORD is as buoyant as ever on The Big Day— his first proper album, Chance says, though the value of this distinction is nebulous. The problem is that the kind of joy Chance exudes is most affecting when it’s pushing back against something; Coloring Book cast him as a plucky underdog on the road to redemption, trusting God’s goodness to see him through fractious times. There’s not as much dramatic tension on The Big Day, its nearly 80 minutes chronicling the gladness of heart Chance felt at his wedding, when all his cares seemed so far away. No one begrudges him happiness, of course, but the scale of his joy isn’t quite as impressive when it starts up on the mountaintop rather than down in the valley; at worst it feels too easy, at best like it’s lacking critical context, a lighthouse beacon in search of shadows to scatter. His positivity spills over into the music itself, which is always admirable but only sometimes arresting. Despite some of the best technical rapping of his career, Chance allows himself to get dunked on over and over by the likes of Nicki Minaj, Megan Thee Stallion, even his cousin Taylor Bennett. That he’s such a jovial, hospitable master of ceremonies speaks to the album’s generosity of spirit, even if it also makes it feel oddly uncentered, like an unruly parade of well-wishers who tend to overshadow the man of the hour. Chance designed the record as a tribute to all the music that pulls him out to the dancefloor, and it’s sequenced like a DJ set, alternating between ruthlessly taut beats and crowd-pleasing cheese. The intention is pure but the long runtime results in oversaturation: On the one hand, it’s genuinely exciting to hear Chance enlist both En Vogue and Kierra Sheard for the champagne-popping R&B “I Got You (Always and Forever),” and on “Ballin Flossin” he and Shawn Mendes sink their teeth into lite wedding-reception disco that’s surprisingly convincing. To unearth those gems, though, you’ve got to get through “Do You Remember,” a Death Cab for Cutie confection that sounds like white bread puree, plus some momentum-killing skits and the chirpy James Taylor remix “Get a Bag.” Throughout, Chance looks upon his nuptials through rose-colored glasses, often coasting on good vibes but occasionally breaking through with commendable wisdom: He’s enough of a realist to know that not everyone who shows up for your wedding will support you through your marriage, that you’ve gotta include vacations in your five-year plan, and that believing in the sacred bonds of marriage has only ever been the province of “Zanies and Fools,” labels he wears with honor. Based on the album’s cool reception among critics, it’s fair to say that not everyone quite buys Chance’s relentless ebullience, nor his laudable reverence for marriage as an institution. Those critics won’t steal his joy, and he deserves some credit for that; but with any luck, the haters will be just loud enough to make Chance the Rapper sound defiant again come album #2.
Beyonce, The Lion King: The Gift
No need to watch the Jon Favreau film, nor even to revisit the 1994 Disney original, for this movie tie-in to resonate. In fact, there was no reason for Beyonce to pepper her album with little snippets of dialogue from the movie, mercifully brief but totally superfluous in setting the scene. These songs, almost uniformly excellent, speak for themselves, and go even deeper than their source material in navigating the tension between personal destiny and cultural lineage. “BIGGER” beholds the vast expanse of the universe not with nihilistic remove, but with a sense of purpose and place; “MOOD 4 EVA” one-ups the jokey nonchalance of “Hakuna Matata” by reimagining it in the chest-pumping vernacular of hip-hop. A number of songs reflect pan-African pride that’s more specific and more deeply felt than Disney’s take on the Sarengheti, and nothing’s anything less than svelte and purposeful until you reach “SPIRIT,” which may or may not have been written with the members of the Motion Picture Academy in mind. What Beyonce really deserves is an award for lifetime achievement in A&R; her guest list is arguably more impressive than Chance the Rapper’s, and everyone from JAY Z to Tierra Whack to Burna Boy brings serious game.
Solange, When I Get Home
Allegedly, the album is dead… or at the very least on life support. Nobody told Solange, whose When I Get Home can’t be imagined as playlist fodder. Her previous A Seat at the Table won Pitchfork’s Album of the Year honor and a host of comparisons to classic R&B joints; it was a case study in clean, contoured songwriting, all of which is blown up for this free-flowing suite of synths and floating vocal hooks. Maybe it belongs on the same astral plane as Stevie Wonder’s pastoral Secret Life of Plants soundtrack, or even the shifting grooves of Miles Davis’ 70s records. You might miss her crisp formalism, but in its place you get the humid atmosphere of the Knowles’ family’s native Houston, bottled here for your consumption. These grooves abound with both musical and lyrical allusions to Solange’s geographic center, and to the way place can shape a person. For outsiders, these references are intriguing; for natives, they may very well feel like home.