Chance the Rapper begins his latest mixtape, “Coloring Book,” smiling audibly. The smile, infectious as it is, acts as an instrumentation all its own. It’s no coincidence that the verse lines directly following it are about his family: a girlfriend he hopes to marry, Kirsten Corley, and their daughter, Kinsley:
Tryna turn my baby mama to my fiancée
She like music. She from Houston like Auntie Yoncé
Man my daughter couldn’t have a better mother
If she ever find another, he better love her
There’s genuine joy here; at the time they were written, the lyrics suggest they were in a committed relationship. But there’s a magnanimity, too; he has already considered a future in which their relationship may end — and rather than reaching a bitter, begrudging conclusion, he’s preemptively wishing her well.
It’s quite the mature sentiment for a 23-year-old first-time father. And though being so gracious may be easier to imagine hypothetically than to carry out in practice, Chance the Rapper has nonetheless provided a new generation — one with the highest instances of unmarried families in contemporary history — a solid template for healthy co-parenting. And he managed to do it in two couplets.
This couldn’t have come at a better time. Hip-hop has never had a great track record for co-parenting depictions. A very recent reminder of that came last weekend when Outkast’s Big Boi tweeted an offensive, polarizing meme about black mothers. The meme uses a photograph of Florida Evans from television’s “Good Times” with the headline “Mothers in the 70’s” beside a photo depicting “Mothers Now.” It’s a photo of a woman spread-eagle in a bikini as a small child looks on. The punchline below the images is: “And we act like we don’t know what’s wrong with these kids.”
Online, the meme was decried by some as shortsighted and mother-shaming, as it reduces all contemporary parenting experiences to a single sexualized image and it places the complete onus of children’s upbringing on mothers with no mention of or call for accountability to fathers. Other Twitter critics pointed out Big Boi’s long history of lamenting the idea that he even has to make spousal support and child support payments on tracks, perhaps most notably on “Ms. Jackson,” which is arguably hip-hop’s most famous co-parenting song.
At the time of the song’s release in 2000, Andre Benjamin and Big Boi were 25, just two years older than Chance the Rapper and already parenting with women they were no longer dating. “Ms. Jackson” was praised for its candor and vulnerability and its concessions that it’s difficult to raise children with someone from whom you’re romantically estranged. The song was without peer back then. But few critiqued its defensiveness or the tone of complaint underlying its pretense of apology.
That “Ms. Jackson” has never really been dethroned as hip-hop’s co-parenting anthem says a lot about how the genre continues to view post-breakup parenting. Despite separate interviews from Benjamin and Erykah Badu, his son Seven’s mom, in which both report that they’ve successfully co-parented throughout Seven’s childhood, Outkast has never revised the duo’s thesis or themes of resentment.
And despite the prevalence of rap songs by male artists praising their single mothers for having successfully parented them in the absence of their fathers, there has been a relative dearth of songs that either praise their co-parents for doing the same or that make a case for why it’s so important to share parenting responsibilities after the romantic love is gone. Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up,” which mixes exhortations for men to be more present in their children’s lives, pro-choice arguments and praise for women raising children under difficult circumstances, is one counterexample, but it’s still more theoretical than personal.
“Coloring Book” is being praised for many things, but its advocacy for healthy co-parenting, both inside and out of romantic couplings, is one of its biggest draws for me. Perhaps the ideas Chance the Rapper has presented here will be part of a much larger conversation about the ins and outs of raising children before marriage and after breakups.