By Christian Holub
May 13, 2016 at 05:08 PM EDT
Mike Pont/Getty Images

It’s been three years since Chance the Rapper first broke through into the mainstream with his Acid Rap mixtape. That glorious mix of Chicago spunk and soulful production actually holds up as well as ever, which is part of the reason the rapper’s ever-growing fanbase has gotten so thirsty for the proper follow-up. And after years of exciting Chance guest verses (including a prominent role on his trumpet player’s solo album Surf), the long-awaited “Chance 3” project is finally here, and with a proper name, too: Coloring Book. As with Chance’s previous efforts, Coloring Book‘s sunny attitude and pretty hooks will undoubtedly provide an excellent soundtrack to the rest of this spring season, but here are a few things that stood out to us on our first time through.

Things kick off with a reverse “Ultralight Beam” and the Ghosts of Kanyes Past

Even though fans have been waiting years for it, the world has never been more primed for Coloring Book. That’s thanks primarily to Chance’s scene-stealing, star-affirming contribution to “Ultralight Beam,” the shining first track off Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. As a witty Chicago rapper with a love of soul music, Chance has been compared to Kanye basically since he started out, but this was the first time they had properly collaborated, and it brought the house down.

Fitting then, that Chance’s mixtape kicks off with a Kanye guest spot, on “All We Got.” Unlike “Ultralight Beam,” which was set firmly in Kanye’s College Dropout mode (soulful gospel), Kanye is all AutoTuned here. 808s & Heartbreak was a game-changing album for Kanye, but he rarely goes back to draw so deep from the AutoTune well. Then, as the song goes on, the sunny sound of the Chicago Children’s Choir transitions into a big, Yeezus-like beat. In some ways, Chance didn’t just get one Kanye here — he got three.

And as great as the “Ultralight Beam” verse was, it was really Chance’s story (“look at little Chano from 79th”). “All We Got,” by contrast, focuses on Chance’s partner, the mother of his young daughter: “She like music, she from Houston, like Auntie Yonce / Man, my daughter couldn’t have a better mother, if she ever find another, he better love her.”

Chicago gets its shout-outs

Thanks to high-profile appearances on The Life of Pablo and Saturday Night Live, it’s safe to say Chance has a national following now. But Chance is a Chicago boy through and through, and Coloring Book is peppered with references to the Windy City. It starts right away with the singing of the Chicago Children’s Choir on “All We Got,” continues with the shout-outs to radio stations like Power 92 on “Angels,” and also includes contributions from Chicagoans like Chance’s cousin Nicole (listed as such) on “How Great.” Even the spoken-word outro, which grows out of the library open mics and spoken-word performances where Chance got his start, rings of Chicago. Let’s just say there’s a reason Chance was the first rapper to get a billboard on a Chicago expressway. He has thoroughly embraced his role as the city’s musical ambassador.

The sound of growing up and growing apart

Coloring Book’s emotional spectrum is a little staggering in its breadth. Label disses exist side-by-side with praise-hands gospel and backyard-barbecue jams. One of the songs that definitely hits the hardest, though, is “Same Drugs.” Here, Chance trades his typically intricate rhymes for sparse lines that hit hard: “We don’t do the same drugs no more” and “I was too late, I was too late.” What a poetic, unpretentious way to describe how it feels to grow apart from someone you once loved.

One of the great joys of Acid Rap was how youthful it sounded, how it reveled in the joy, anger, and fun that comes with discovering your own voice. Coloring Book still has that spunk in spades, but it’s now tempered by a bit of wise maturity.

Young Thug takes the guest spot crown

Long before they ever worked on a song together, one connection you could draw between Chance and Kanye was their uncanny ability to consistently get the best out of their collaborators. Guests always come onto their albums in top form, and Coloring Book is no different, from Francis & the Lights’ impeccable Bon Iver impression on “Summer Friends” to Jay Electronica’s high-speed power on “How Great.” Of all these, it seems like Young Thug takes the crown with his fiery verse on “Mixtape.” Like Chance himself, it sometimes seems like Thugger can’t help but improve with every song. But even his summer-stealing verse on Jamie xx’s “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” and trilogy-capping performance on his recent Slime Season 3 mixtape pale in comparison to this “Mixtape” contribution. You’ll make yourself dizzy trying to untangle each line (“bad little mama, she getting’ it, Obama / She sting like a bumblebee, hot as the sauna / She shine like a Rolex, got that from her momma”), while Thug just keeps racing ahead.

Both God and Caesar get their due

For a second there, it seemed possible that Chance 3 might end up being an album of Christian rap. All of the singles released over the past few months (“Angels,” “Somewhere in Paradise,” “Blessings,” even the “Ultralight Beam” verse) were gospel in sound and tone, even with Chance’s trademark wordplay. But Coloring Book ends up striking an impressive balance between religion and secularism. “Somewhere in Paradise” is nowhere to be seen and the remaining heaven-looking songs (like the remixed hymnal of “How Great”) exist side-by-side with party anthems like “All Night” and nostalgic reflections like “Same Drugs.”