Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, Free for CAPC Members
In Imagine, Steve Turner proposes that Christians ought to learn to understand art better and should feel able to participate in the arts more freely.
Chance the Rapper’s latest offering Coloring Book is equal parts gospel, rap, and big brass. After a few listens, I loved the album for all of the same reasons I loved The College Dropout, the soulful 2004 debut of Chance’s fellow Chicago native and mentor Kanye West. The infectious mix of black church choir, childish ad-libs, playful rhymes, and spiritual musings feels earnest, and the 23-year-old’s scratchy delivery embodies both hope and idealism while also acknowledging the difficulties of coming of age.
Glimmering at the center of Coloring Book is the gem “Same Drugs.” For those who have followed Chicago hip-hop for a while, the track will be immediately reminiscent of Kanye’s single “Homecoming.” In his 2007 collaboration with Chris Martin, West personified Chicago—the Windy City—as Windy, a childhood girlfriend who helped him grow up. Chance’s “Same Drugs” plays off the city’s moniker in a similar fashion; casting himself as the idealized boy-who-never-grew-up, Peter Pan, he allows us to listen through the open window to his intimate conversation with Wendy—that is, Chi-town. As Chance and his hometown quietly take turns sharing their sides of the story of his maturation, though, we begin to wonder who really changed—Wendy or Pan?Chance refuses to believe that the world’s wings will always be clipped. He sees in the eyes of his daughter the possibility of a New Wendy—a renewed Chicago and a better world.
Chancellor Bennett grew up in West Chatham, a neighborhood of Chicago plagued by violence and murder. As he quips in an earlier track “Summer Friends,” he and his buddies were “Socks-on-concrete, Jolly Rancher kids…bunch of tank-topped, nappy-headed, bike stealin’ Chatham boys.” To a ragtag bunch of naïve lost boys, though, Chicago was Neverland. They were completely oblivious to the bloodshed taking place in their own backyards: “We was still catchin’ lightning bugs when the plague hit the backyard / had to come in at dark cuz the big shawtys act hard.” As a child, his world was so small—“79th Street was America then.” In “Same Drugs,” however, Chance’s innocence begins to unravel as Peter Pan realizes the world isn’t Neverland, and his Wendy—or rather, Windy—has grown up.
The song begins with a moment of hesitation—almost as if Chance’s Pan is not sure how to start the conversation. Breaking the awkward silence with a boyish beatbox riff, Chance begins: “We don’t do the same drugs no more…” The hook isn’t about drugs per se, but about the things in life that hold relationships together. Chance sheepishly admits that the intoxicating magic that once held he and the city together has dwindled. Somewhere down the line, whatever it was that drew them close disappeared. But who walked away? Who changed?
Like Peter Pan perched on the window ledge, Chance starts the first verse asking, “When did you change? / Wendy, you’ve aged / I thought you’d never grow up / I thought you’d never…” From Chance’s perspective, the world has changed. While he is the boy who never grows up, the city of Chicago has grown old around him. Pain, suffering, and uncertainty crept into relationships that were once sources of happiness. The neighborhood that seemed to be filled with fantasy, wonder, and innocence is no longer a place for children. In 2014, gun violence robbed him of close friend Kevin Ambrose. He somberly croons, “Window closed, Wendy got old / I was too late, I was too late / A shadow of what I once was…” Sometime—while Chance was chasing his dreams as an aspiring rapper—the window closed. The people, the places, the past that he remembered lost their magical glow. Like Peter Pan, he returns to find he’s too late to stop his Wendy from growing up.
In verse 2, however, Wendy gets a chance to respond, gently chiding her Peter for his naivety: “Where did you go? / Why would you stay? / You must have lost your marbles / You always were so forgetful.” The verse recalls the fictional Peter’s forgotten promise to return every year to whisk Wendy off for spring-cleaning; instead of keeping his word, though, his visits grow less frequent. Always the center of his own story, Peter’s adventures off in Neverland distract him from commitments and forgotten friends. With forgiving tenderness, Wendy remarks, “You were always perfect / And I was only practice.” Still, she wistfully wants Peter to remember: “Don’t you miss the days, stranger? / Don’t you miss the days? / Don’t you miss the danger?” Each time Chance returns to his old neighborhood, his old friendships, and his family they insist they’ve stayed the same. He’s the stranger.
Chance’s parallels to the Pan narrative raise an important question: Could it be that all of the time away has changed him? Was it reasonable to expect his Chicago home to stay the same while he was away? The effects of the “same drugs”—the excitement, the camaraderie, the young days spent as lost boys ruling the neighborhood—have faded. He’s coming to terms with the realization that the magical aura of childhood lies not in the childhood itself, but in the child. Home, friends, family, and neighborhood are all kids know, after all. As the Windy City quietly converses with Chance, then, a notion begins to bloom in his mind: perhaps the changes in Wendy are mostly due to Pan’s coming of age. As Chance returns to Chicago, maybe it’s not the city that has aged, but his own perspective.
The song softens to a pensive finish after the second chorus, as if the conversation is ready to break off; However, the piano interlude turns from conclusion to bridge as hope revives. With the sound of a pulsing choir looking on and a soft shimmering of sonic fairy dust, Peter reminds Wendy what made her soar: “Don’t forget the happy thoughts / All you need is happy thoughts.” Speaking to a city awash in crime, broken relationships, injustice, and the crippling responsibilities of adulthood, Chance invites Wendy and his listeners to remember a simpler time: “The past tense, past bed time / Way back then when everything we read was real / And everything we said rhymed.” Can the city remember better days? Can people remember what it was like to be kids staying up late, reading nursery rhymes and make-believing?
As Peter Pan, Chance refuses to allow himself to become jaded by his broadened perspective. Instead, he invites the Windy City back to a state of innocence: “Wide eyed kids being kids / Why did you stop? / What did you do to your hair? / Where did you go to end up right back here? / When did you start to forget how to fly?”
When did you start to forget how to fly?
This line chokes me up every time. “When did the magic start to wear off?” Chance wonders. But who is Chance asking—his city, or himself? He’d like to pretend he’s still the boy who never aged, but despite his best efforts, he’s growing up.
His moment of clarity comes as he catches himself interacting with the new Wendy—his daughter. In many ways, Coloring Book as a whole embodies Chance’s newfound perspective as a father. Brandon Breaux who painted the album’s cover art, told The Fader, “[Chance] was holding his baby daughter in the shoot because he wanted to capture the expression he had on his face when he looked at her…” As “Same Drugs” concludes, the proud father encourages his daughter, “Don’t you color out / Don’t you bleed on out, oh / Stay in the line, stay in the line, Dandelion.” Over a coloring book, he finds himself encouraging his new little daughter to grow up: Stay in the lines. Don’t transgress the boundaries. Don’t go off into the fanciful and free-spirited.
As the song fades, Chance invites us to ponder how we are raising up our own Wendys. Yes, our perspective on the world changes as we begin to see our past, our relationships, and our problems with eyes wide open—but how will we shape the next generation? Will we rob our children of their fantasy and innocence by crowding their minds with our problems? Or will we see our children as an invitation to return to the “happy thoughts,” to “the days,” to the “danger” of childhood adventures?
Coloring Book feels strangely out of place in the summer of 2016, with its racial tensions, heartbreaking murders, riots, and injustice. Chance’s bouncy upbeat positivity is “everything the people can’t be” in this moment. “Same Drugs” shows us that Chance is not blindly optimistic; this album is tethered to reality. However, he also refuses to believe that the world’s wings will always be clipped. He sees in the eyes of his daughter the possibility of a New Wendy—a renewed Chicago and a better world.
In so many ways, “Same Drugs” embodies the Christian hope. The Bible encourages believers to look forward to a time when we will never forget the happy thoughts: “‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’” (Revelation 21:3-5)
As Christians, we are so often eager to see children mature into God-fearing young men and women. Perhaps, however, we need to take some time to ponder how our children give us the chance to return to the simplicity and hope of the Christian faith. Each successive generation of children is a God-given reminder that one day the heartbreaking knowledge of good and evil that has ruined the world will be erased. Childlike innocence will no longer be mere naivety; it will be a reality we experience through the renewal of our returning Savior Jesus Christ.
We believe a time is coming when we will return to the garden, when we will dwell with our God in eternal, unfading joy, and when death, evil, pain, and sadness will melt completely away. Neverland is not pure fantasy but a future hope. When our Pan returns, may he not find his Wendy has grown out of her simple faith, simple hope, and simple joy.
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