The service that will take place Sunday in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art will not be the biggest such celebration the Benjamin Franklin Parkway has seen. After all, Pope Francis said Mass on the Parkway in September, and John Paul II did the same on his visit to the city in 1979.
But make no mistake: Chance the Rapper will be taking the Budweiser Made in America mass audience to church Sunday. (Side question: Since Budweiser has officially changed its name to America this Olympic and election-year summer, shouldn't the concert properly be called the America Made in America Festival?)
Chance is the must-see sub-headliner on the final day of the fifth annual Jay Z-curated fest, which will be closed out Sunday evening by stadium-size British soft-rockers Coldplay. Along with household names like Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar and worthy upstarts like Jamila Woods, Chance is the leading figure in a movement that is bringing gospel into musical union with mainstream rap.
The mission statement with which Chance - full name: Chancelor Bennett - is getting his message across is Coloring Book, the mixtape-slash-album he released this spring as a streaming-only entity. On it, Chance and his fellow Chi-town-conscious poet Woods (more on her later) ecstatically chant: "I'm gon' praise Him, praise Him till I'm gone / When the praises go up / The blessings come down."
Coloring Book, which came out this spring exclusively on Apple Music and which is now available on all competing services, is the first full-length project Chance has released under his own name that isn't completely free. To hear it, listeners have to subscribe to a streaming service like Apple Music or, later, had to sit through ads on a service like Spotify.
It's the third and last in a trilogy of increasingly ambitious mixtapes, following 2012's 10 Day and 2013's Acid Rap, both of which were given away online. That's why Chance's trademark fashion statement is a baseball cap with the numeral 3 where the team insignia should be.
In a sign that the president of the United States is as confused about how the music business works these days as everybody else, the rapper told the NME (New Musical Express) that on an April visit to Washington, President Obama took him aside and "told me I needed to start selling my music." After his visit, Chance said, the first family has been "bumping" Coloring Book in the White House. (Malia Obama went to see him at Lollapalooza.)
The president isn't Chance's only fan. He's doing fine, thank you, giving his music away. The album title is the inspiration for Chance's own stadium-size gathering, the Magnificent Coloring Day Festival, which will take place Sept. 24 in Chicago's Cellular Field, with John Legend, Alicia Keys, and Philadelphia's Lil Uzi Vert, among others. The success of Coloring Book - its songs were streamed 57 million times in its first week of release - prompted the Recording Academy to change its rules to give streaming-only releases award consideration.
A peek at Coloring Book's song titles - "Blessings," "How Great," "Angels" - alerts the listener that the rapper has responded to times of trouble and strife by drawing on his background in the African American church. On the opening "All We Got," which features West, Chance rhymes, "This is for the kids of the king of all kings, this is the holiest thing / This is the beat that played under the Word / this is the beat that ain't like what it herd." Elsewhere, indie rocker Francis & the Lights, who makes his voice sound like an Auto-Tuned chorale, appears, as does R&B gospel choir leader Kirk Franklin.
The spiritual content in Chance's music isn't new this year. Guesting on a remix of Tinashe's otherwise secular "Ecstasy" in 2013, he rapped, "I love you like grandma love Jesus / Like Jesus loves you, like pews love preachers." And on "Sunday Candy," the 2015 supercatchy single by Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, the Chicago band that he moonlights with, Chance and Woods conducted a courtship.
"I come to church for the candy, your peppermints is the truth," he raps, playfully flirting with Woods, whose fabulous debut, HEAVN, available free on the SoundCloud streaming service, uses Lake Michigan as a baptismal metaphor for the cleansing power of song.
Of course, concerts in many ways serve as secular ritualistic worship services. Celebrity superstars are treated like larger-than-life deities. (The overused and virtually meaningless term icon once had religious connotations.)
At Made in America, Jay Z himself is not on the bill, but concertgoers will aim to catch a glimpse of the mogul whose nickname is Hova - short for Jay-Hova - hopping on stage with a disciple or two. Later this week in South Philadelphia, worshipful fans of differing demographics will pay respects to Bruce Springsteen at Citizens Bank Park and Adele at the Wells Fargo Center, for two nights each.
It's rare, though, for religion to overtly make it into mainstream music that isn't pigeonholed as some sort of Christian-hyphenate, whether rock or rap. True, on the country charts, Jesus does take the wheel, as Carrie Underwood sings. And popular choir leaders like Franklin and Camden County's Grammy-winning gospel artist Tye Tribbett infuse their music with plenty of heated hip-hop energy.
But those artists don't reach the kind of mass audience Chance now commands, not to mention the reach achieved by West, who continually teased his 2016 release, The Life of Pablo, as a "gospel album." Of course, with the man whose last sonic salvo was called Yeezus - in which he declared "I Am a God" - you're always getting a gospel album: The Gospel of Kanye. And, yes, his fall excursion, which comes Oct. 4 to the Wells Fargo Center, is called the Saint Pablo Tour.
It's no accident that Chance, Woods, and West all hail from Chicago, a city whose high murder rate has become a focal point of political debate in this mean season. In two appearances on Saturday Night Live, Chance made reference to the 2014 shooting of 17-year-old LaQuan McDonald by a Chicago police officer. Searching for answers in the face of tragedy is leading artists there and elsewhere - Lamar, whose recent work is also shaped by gospel influences, is from Compton, Calif. - to grieve and seek reassurance in traditional sources.
The Life of Pablo, though frequently profane, often walks in sacred waters. Much of that has to do with the presence of Chance, who grew up a fan of West's and now works alongside him. West, in turn, blamed Chance for the delay of Pablo's release because the younger rapper argued that "Waves," which he cowrote, needed to be included.
Chance's presence is felt starting with the opening "Ultra Light Beam," which features Franklin and finds West repeating the incantation "This is a God dream." On his verse, Chance confidently rhymes with infectious optimism: "You can feel the lyrics, spirit coming in braille / Tubman of the Underground, come and follow the trail / I made 'Sunday Candy,' I'm never going to hell / I met Kanye West, I'm never going to fail."