On 9 March 2019, Chance the Rapper donned a white tux and married his long-term partner at a service in Newport Beach, California. The Chicago star’s long-awaited debut album is a confetti shower of sweet-hearted hip-hop forged in the fulsome emotion of that day. A wedding ring gleams on its cover and comic skits threaded throughout the record pull you inside a riotous reception, as the rapper, real name Chancelor Bennett, reckons with his journey to marriage and the leap into adulthood it represents. “Took the scenic route but this is the way,” he reflects as The Big Day gets into gear, nodding to his and wife Kirsten Corley’s rocky road to matrimony (the pair split in 2016, entering into a legal dispute over their daughter Kensli before reconciling and announcing their engagement last year).
What follows is an album that, true to tradition, combines something old and something new, subtly expanding Chance’s sound without ever straying too far from the sentimental gospel-pop heart of his last release, Coloring Book, which won the Grammy for best rap album in 2017.
Debut albums, like marriages, are milestones best not rushed into in, it would seem. The 26-year-old dropped his first mixtape in 2012, had his breakthrough with Acid Rap in 2013, and is now a hip-hop household name, enlisted for collaborations by everyone from Kanye West to Cardi B and invited to host Saturday Night Live. Coloring Book, another free release, cemented his place at pop’s high table, making The Big Day a “debut” by an artist with an already seismic influence on the culture and community his music stems from.
Chance arrives at this album no longer just Chance the Rapper, but Chance the Humanitarian (he donated $1m to impoverished public schools in Chicago), Chance the Media Mogul (he recently bought a local newspaper) and Chance the Potential Politician (last year he contemplated a mayoral run in his hometown). Then there’s Chance the Symbol of a Changing Music Economy: his refusal to sign a record deal, and eagerness to sign commercial deals with conglomerates such as Apple Music and Doritos, has sparked intense debate about what it means to be independent in 2019.
The only real difference with The Big Day is that you can spend money on it: it’s once again self-released and features the same vibrant production that lit up Coloring Book. The opening track, All Night Long, establishes the album’s celebratory mood in a champagne uncorking of breathless rhymes over hyper-bright synth stabs, with John Legend crooning the chorus. Elsewhere there’s We Go High, an emotional rap confessional that finds the historically guarded Chance lift the veil on past mistakes: “My baby mama went celibate / lies on my breath, she said couldn’t take the smell of it,” he confides, an apparent admission of infidelity that feels significant given his angry responses in the past to his private life becoming public (“Y’all better do y’all jobs and stop worrying about how good my family is,” he tweeted at the Chicago Sun-Times in 2017 in response to an article detailing his and Corley’s court proceedings).
Hot Shower is more playful, trading bars with MadeinTYO and DaBaby over powerful blasts of bass and rattling hi-hats, while the Ari Lennox-starring I Got You is an absurdly smooth wedding-vows R&B bop (“I’m tryna go to heaven with ya,” he raps at his betrothed). You might expect to find these sort of collaborators on a Chance the Rapper release: ditto Nicki Minaj, who cameos on the excellent Zanies and Fools, and this year’s breakout rap firestarter, Megan Thee Stallion, whose verse on Handsome is characteristically captivating.
More surprising but equally welcome are appearances by Toy Story tearjerker Randy Newman, who advises that “time has come to take it all in” on 5 Year Plan, and Ben Gibbard of emo mainstays Death Cab for Cutie. The latter’s vocals on Do You Remember, a tender tribute to the rapper’s childhood, help make for an instant Chance classic, happily harking back to past summers that seemed to last forever.
Like a lot of weddings, it drags a little: at 22 tracks and almost 80 minutes long, The Big Day is too big for its own good, with songs that could have been excised. Get a Bag’s gags about how Chance “stopped smoking cigarettes, now pussy tastes like key lime” feel pretty inessential next to 5 Year Plan’s emotional plea to never let life pass you by.
What is Chance the Rapper’s own five-year plan following The Big Day? There’ll be some who listen to this debut album (whatever that term means any more) and hope for more invention and variation in his next steps, when the star’s til-death-do-us-part commitment to cheery, church-rap cutesiness begins to tire. For fans though, The Big Day will endure well past any seven-year itches.