Track of the Day: ‘How Great’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In the middle of Chance the Rapper’s new album, Coloring Book—right after a dance tune about “drinking all night” and before a song called “Smoke Break”—a full gospel choir breaks out. “How great is our God,” they proclaim, drawing from the immensely popular 2004 Chris Tomlin single. The song creates a bit of genre cognitive dissonance, combining the squeaky-clean, saccharine world of contemporary Christian music with a rap album full of creative beats and lyrics about everything from drug addiction to kids’ books from the ’00s.

But here’s the well-known secret of gospel music: It’s incredibly catchy. The better question is why more artists don’t include song-length samples of this kind of music in their work.

The gospel intro, credited to “my cousin Nicole,” isn’t just for show. Chance’s lyrics are theological, too. He talks about “faith of a pumpkin-seed-size mustard seed,” a reference to the biblical parable in which Jesus teaches that the Kingdom of Heaven grew from just a mustard seed. He uses words like “exalt” and “glorify.” And “the book doesn’t end with Malachi,” he says—in other words, the Bible doesn’t end with the New Testament.

Spencer has a great review of the album here. He focuses on the abundance of Millennial nostalgia:

In the context of Chance’s ministry across the album, it’s a reminder of an empathetic truth that’s obvious to people early in life, when the world and everyone in it seems new. Religion can remind adults of that truth if they’ve forgotten it. So can music.

Update: A reader, Michael, points out that I made a mistake. I meant to say that Chance’s line “the book doesn’t end with Malachi” could be interpreted as “the Bible doesn’t end with the Old Testament,” rather than the New (the Hebrew Bible ends with the Book of Malachi). Michael goes on to offer his own fascinating interpretation of the line:

It seems to me that Chance is pushing back against a belief that has become pervasive on the internet, a belief that can be summed up in the phrase, “the god of the Old Testament” (the implication being that the god portrayed in the Old Testament is the vengeful “rape and pillage” kind of deity indicative of religion in the ancient world, as opposed to the peaceful God preached in the Gospels and New Testament). The Malachi line is making the connection that the same God that appears to Israel in the Old Testament (the God, it should be reminded, who delivered the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt—a story with a long history in African American theological history) is the same that brings faith, hope, and love in the New Testament.

Got other thoughts about Chance the Rapper’s religiosity? We’re curious to hear them: hello@.

(Track of the Day archive here)