Here’s the problem with random, late-night album releases: whether you listen to it instantly or get up eagerly the next morning, you’re going to be running on inadequate sleep. Here’s the problem with inadequate sleep: it puts you in a bad mood. Here’s the problem with being in a bad mood while listening to the unexpectedly-released Surf: you won’t like it.
Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment
Surf is one of the highly anticipated albums of the year, with many fans waiting to see what new magic comes true when phenom Chance the Rapper gets his hands on a project. However, this album was advertised as a collaborative effort to involve more of The Social Experiment band, led by Nico Segal — trumpet player with Chance and previously with Save Money companion Vic Mensa.
Time and time again, Chance and the SoX crew offer their emotions through music so honestly it can be off-putting if you’re not ready for it. They create music that straddles the line between euphoric delight and cheesiness. Try seeing the group live; they push their listeners to the brink of their emotional capacity and ask them to trust that no one will fall off a cliff. Much of the time, it works to great effect, creating a satisfying vibration that puts a smile on your face. But, if you’re in the wrong frame of mind, as I was for my first listen through of Surf, the music will fall flat in your unwelcoming ears.
So, before evaluating Surf we need to understand what it is. First, it’s not a rap album. We’ve known that from the beginning. Chance has said repeatedly in interviews leading up to the release that this has been Donnie Trumpet’s project. Segal controlled the project from day one, according to Chance, and he orchestrated a variety of sounds and genres, combining his own playing ability with the musical abilities of a swath of other great talents. For those looking for a follow up to Chance’s fame-making Acid Rap, you will not find it here.
That’s not to say there isn’t rap, or even good rap. Chance delivers several delightful verses throughout, most notably on “Wanna Be Cool,” that are crafted more delicately than those from Acid Rap. And then there are the features. Big Sean, J Cole, Busta Ryhmes, B.O.B, Janelle Monae, BJ the Chicago Kid, Noname Gypsy, Jeremih, Quavo of Migos, D.R.A.M., Jesse Boykins III, Erykah Badu, Raury, King Louie, and Jamila Woods all make appearances on “Surf” (So much for not a rap album, huh?). The internet is still trying to compile the full list of contributors; the track list includes no feature credits. Each guest provides their own flavor to their respective songs, with superpowers like J Cole and Busta Ryhmes delivering reliably solid verses and others, most notably Quavo, blending surprisingly well with Segal’s instrumental creations.
More than anything we’ve seen so far from this branch of the Chicago-based Save Money crew, Surf pushes the boundaries of experimental hip hop, being simultaneously too musical and too carefully crafted to fit nicely into any specific subset of the genre. Segal exhausted his creative abilities to great and compelling effect here, wielding a variety of genres across the tracks. “Slip Slide” resembles a New Orleans marching band, centering on drums and horns; “Nothing Came to Me” and counterpart “Something Came to Me” display Segal’s remarkable trumpet playing chops, creating a theatrical, explosive sound; there’s also the ethereal, dream-like tracks such as “Warm Enough” and “Questions,” which employ more computer crafting.
The album is a magic trick. Segal and The Social Experiment take musical concepts we’ve seen before and blend them before our eyes in a way that’s hard to get our head around — here I have an ordinary rap verse, now watch what happens when I do THIS! If I had to take a stab at defining the genre, I’d call it endorphin-drenched, attempting to make the listener feel warm and fuzzy inside through pretty sounds and nice words. At the same time, Segal and company challenge listeners to internalize the sound as is, without trying to understand intent or complete definition.
Surf requires several listens, even if you woke up in a good mood. There is so much going on within each track that you can’t fully evaluate it until you understand just how much work went into it. Upon revisiting “Something Came to Me,” I realized the intricacies of the base underneath the trumpet, all together creating a stirring, infectious instrumental. Each track is rich in musical flavor this way, conjuring unavoidable sentiment and calming joy. Aside from the many tracks with singular genre influences, the culmination of effects can be found in the irresistible tracks like “Wanna Be Cool,” “Slip Slide,” and the previously-released “Sunday Candy.” These are the ones that conjure a smile almost without fail.
As Andrew Barber — writer for local Chicago blog Fake Shore Drive who got an exclusive first listen of Surf — described, the album “was meant to be played in the whip. It’s a summer album.” He’s right, it’s an ear-pleasing delight, but it’s also going to grab the attention of hip hop as another large step toward a new age of rap music.
For all the “it’s not a rap album” talk, there are too many big-names laying verses here for this to go overlooked by anyone. The collaboration of this eclectic group offers an unwritten consent that this is the direction hip hop is heading. Plus, Chance, Donnie and the whole SoX crew are gaining a public gravitas of their own as they explore new ways to create rap. While it might not be a rap album right now, it is likely a sign of things to come in the genre. When we look back on this decade in music history, Surf may serve as a landmark when mapping the transition into the next generation of rap.