Published Jun 02, 2015For the better part of a year, Chance The Rapper has been warning us about his crew the Social Experiment and their upcoming Surf album, the first real follow-up to his 2013 mixtape, Acid Rap, which launched the career of the rapper born Chancelor Bennett. Since then, he has played nearly every major festival in North America, collaborated with Bieber, Wayne and Madonna, and become the industry's latest success with no label backing and no album available for anyone to buy.
But this isn't a Chance The Rapper album. It's a Donnie Trumpet album. Wait, who? Donnie Trumpet (real name Nico Segal), alongside Nate Fox and Peter Cottontale, make up the core of the Social Experiment, what began as Chance's touring band and has since morphed into the production crew of which Chance is a part, but not the leader.
Surf was released via the increasingly less surprising but still sudden late-night iTunes Store appearance (yet still not listed on the Canadian store as of this writing). What is notable, and an iTunes rarity at least, is that the "Buy" button is replaced by the "Get" free designation. Surf is the wavy dream of Chicago kids longing for the California coast. Appropriately, this ambitious endeavour begins with Pet Sounds-like angelic harmonies on "Miracle" before a marching band leads us into "Slip Slide," evoking College Dropout memories and demonstrating Chicago juke influences.
Surf takes form as slow and soulful songs like "Windows" and "Caretaker" sandwich the uptempo "Wanna Be Cool," on which Chance wrangles a cheesy chorus into something only he could make a jam. Those same opposing styles even find themselves mashed within a single song on "Just Wait." The switch from chilled and atmospheric to something that makes you move is what defines the undertow and crest of Surf, and it's best exemplified by the colourful Broadway-bound video for "Sunday Candy".
The breadth of guests here is both deep and wide: J. Cole, Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu, B.o.B., Janelle Monáe, Big Sean, Quavo of Migos, Jesse Boykins III and more. Just as prominent are Chi-town acts like BJ the Chicago Kid, Saba, King Louie and Noname Gypsy, the "tragic actress on a movie with no screen" we first met on Acid Rap's "Lost." But at no point does any feature steal the show. Both the established stars and lesser-known friends add to the collective, each an important cog in the wheel of an efficiently run machine.
The big question lingering over Surf is: Who exactly is Donnie Trumpet, and why has he been designated as bandleader for this project? His trumpet is prevalent throughout, but usually buried in the mix of instruments and vocals. In keeping with the bohemian mystery of the collective, it's not entirely clear who has done what, but we do get a couple of solo Donnie tracks. "Nothing Came To Me," previously teased in a short, single-shot Cara Delevingne-led video, channels the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun." Later, "Something Came To Me" adds a sparse, midtempo drum track to Donnie's effects-heavy horn comps and suddenly his role as composer made clear.
This isn't a Chance The Rapper record, but it's proof of Chance's vision. Surf succeeds on multiple levels: as a rap album, as a soul album, as a showcase of musicianship and as proof that the industry ladder can be ascended without a label or sales. It will be years before we can draw any meaningful conclusions from the Social Experiment, but it's proving fascinating to observe in the meantime. (Independent)