It's not until after the three-minute mark of Coloring Book’s "How Great" that you hear the voice of Chance The Rapper. Prior to that, you're greeted by a sea of voices, steadfast in their collective proclamation of the greatness of God. To describe the extended intro as "heavenly" is as cliched as it is an understatement, as the chorus is divine and seems to go on longer than a sermon.
My initial plan was to cut out the intro, shortening the track so that it would start right before the rapping begins since that's what I really wanted from the song, and from the album in general. Ultimately, I decided to leave the elongated introduction untouched and over time I've grown to love it, even seeking it out on occasion.
Despite being raised as a Catholic, I am not a religious person in the slightest, and at first, I was a bit off-put at the overt religious themes of Coloring Book. I recognize the positive effect that faith can have on a person and a larger community, but strict adherence to organized religion to the point where it blinds the eyes from science and basic human decency can and has caused more harm than good.
With Coloring Book and The Life Of Pablo, two of my favorite and most played releases of 2016, I've been conflicted with the idea of listening to "gospel music," however much that term actually applies to the two projects (especially TLOP). And yet, they’ve helped shape my own faith despite not making me think for an instant that I need to set foot in a church.
I had a moment earlier this year that changed my life. During a historical tour of Barcelona on my first ever trip to Europe, while I should have been excited to hear about the rich history of the city, a hangover and general exhaustion instead led to me ignore my tour guide in favor of looking around on my own with my headphones affixed to my ears.
I saw dozens of churches, but it was their architecture and age that struck me, as opposed to any sense of holiness. But as narrow streets gave way to a wide expanse of land, the sun seemed to beam down twice as hard, and my iPhone shuffle landed on “Ultralight Beam.”
There are specific moments where music hits some neuron buried deep inside the brain. It's a feeling that can’t be forced, but everything just clicks and in that moment every thought is consumed and shaped by the music playing. There I was, in a foreign country, hearing the same little girl that opens TLOP screaming, “We don’t want no devils in the house!” that I had heard so many times before, but this time it was different.
I looked around to see smiling young children playing as the synths coursed through my body. Kanye began his pleading for serenity and peace as I was looking around at the hundreds of people around me, all enjoying their lives on a glorious sun-filled day. Suddenly, “this is a God Dream” hit me with clarity, I had never felt before, and by the time Chance’s verse began, every problem I’ve ever had in my life had been washed away in a state of bliss. Every word hit with force, and “Glory be to God, yeah,” in that moment was no longer religious preaching but a realization of just how beautiful life can be.
I'm far from an emotional person, yet by the time Kirk Franklin uttered his first word I realized I had actual tears running down my face.
I went to church hundreds of times growing up, only to later abandon it altogether. I've listened to preachers old and young trying to get their message through to no avail. I've taken classes on religion in an attempt to get a grasp on different faiths and find something that spoke to me. I've done drugs recreationally and spiritually, chasing a moment of clarity that I’ve heard and read about but never quite experienced myself. Yet there I was, listening to Chance The Rapper, Kelly Price, and Kanye; closer to God than I’ve ever been before.
Going back to Coloring Book in the wake of such an experience changed the way I thought about the album. Raps about God, religion and faith no longer felt preachy, but more so reminded me of the joy those things can bring to life. Chance may be speaking about a particular God, but even without that same belief, there’s a broader message and appeal to take away.
These days, I’ll start my mornings with “How Great”—no skipping ahead necessary. Nodding along to “How great is our God?” seemed odd initially, but the pure adoration shines through any dissent on my end, and even at a distance, I can fully understand the sentiment. The lyrics are deeply interwoven with religious imagery, but the music is uplifting enough to make me feel spiritual without any specific faith. “Blessings” may revolve around praising Him, but blessings will continue to come down as long as there is a reminder to look out for them.
Even if I don’t necessarily align with all of his beliefs, Chance and his music (and of course, Donnie’s trumpet) embody the warmth, soul, spirit and joy of the world around us. The Chicago native's music is a church where everyone is welcome, I’d like to think even the nonbelievers, and it has given me more satisfaction and a sense of togetherness than any actual church visit I’ve made in my life.
Midway through “How Great,” we were treated to the following:
"The first, is that God is better than the world's best thing. God is better than the best thing that the world has to offer"
I’m not sure if that’s true because I don’t know God. I’m not sure if I’m any closer to understanding the forces of the universe. When I’m going through shit, I don’t have the convenience of chalking it up to God’s plan. I don’t have God to turn to and Heaven to look towards. What I do have is music, and that's divine enough for me. What I am sure of is that I've experienced the highest of highs through music, and I can always count on music to return to Heaven, even if it’s still here on earth.
These days, that's all the faith I need.
By Brendan Varan. Follow him on Twitter.