Surf – Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – Album Review

In 2013, Chance The Rapper dropped the critically acclaimed Acid Rap and quickly became one of rap’s sweethearts with his giddy flow, and go-to “igh!” ad-lib. Acid Rap was met with universal acclaim scoring an 86 on Metacritic; ranking 12th on Pitchfork’s year-end top album list; and earning a nomination for best mixtape at the the BET awards. He rode that momentum from the mixtape for a little while before Chance seemingly disappeared from the scene and went into hibernation with his Social Experiment team. Eventually, word got out that Chance was involved in a project titled “Surf,” and through various reports and rumors, some expected this project to be a Chance exclusive.

When Surf finally dropped on May 29th of 2015, some of the most common criticisms included: “Not enough Chance” or “This isn’t a proper follow-up to Acid Rap.” To clarify: This is not a Chance The Rapper exclusive. The project’s visionary is trumpeteer Niko Segal (a.k.a. Donnie Trumpet) and “Surf” is his debut album. Chance The Rapper and the live band consisting of Peter “Cottontale” WilkinsNate Fox and Greg “stix” Landfair form The Social Experiment (including Donnie), playing a vital role in every aspect of the album. Don’t expect a Chance-centric album similar to that of Acid Rap because (and I repeat) it is not a Chance exclusive. However, don’t dismiss the album because of the fact there is a lack of Chance – because it’s amazing. Oh yeah, and they just gave it to us! For free!

The Social Experiment, photos courtesy of The Social Experiment

The Social Experiment, photos courtesy of The Social Experiment

Yet why wouldn’t you like the music? It’s an amazing fusion of a variety of genres all melodically blended into sixteen songs. The moods of the album fluctuate through ups-and-downs like ocean waves. If “Miracle” – the album’s opener – doesn’t give you an impression of the atmospheric capability of this album, I don’t know what will. After a minute of choral ‘ooh’s,’ delicate piano, and soft synths, Chance drops an amazing verse as the soft drums and piano glides in beneath his words like a feather swaying down towards the earth. As the verse ends – the beat putters out and the male vocals return: “If it’s a mir-a-cle.” Suddenly the instrumental swings full force into a blissful array of synths and vocals. Notice the subtle ‘la-la-la-la’ added towards the end to perfectly captivate the beachside bliss of the opening track.

“Slip Slide”  features the energetic Busta Rhymes setting the feel-good mood: “Ayo, Mr. Chance The Rapper, I greatly appreciate the way you rolled out the red carpet; allowing me to articulate on how I stand on my two beloved – yahhh!”  The child-like chorus featuring the catchy “Slip, slip, slip, sliiiide” is introduced before any rapping takes place and is only made better by Janelle Monae’s vocals around the 1:40 mark. B.o.B. then drops a surprisingly infectious verse “Never made it to college and dropped out as a student / My GPA started with a decimal like Dewey / That’s lower than low, that’s lower than most / But if you thought I wouldn’t make it you slower than slow.”  The final minute features a melancholic Chance amidst a backdrop of children’s ‘yay’s’ which perfectly introduces “Warm Enough.”  Noname Gypsy once again (for those who remember her incredible verse on “Lost”) drops a very emotionally engaging verse to lead off the song: “Our city is bleeding for crimson / I don’t protest I just dance in my shadows.” However the song’s best verse comes from J. Cole who spits an incredible verse over a beat that gradually builds beneath a soothing strum of acoustic picking. Once the drums kick in at the 2:40 mark J. Cole spits: “Cause to me you a dime, and I’m still a nickel / And you know niggas say every coin got two sides / Well if you knew both minds / Not sure you’d like what you find / I’ve made mistakes, I want to tell you but can’t make up my mind” – a beautiful way to cap off a beautiful song.

There are two instrumental tracks on the album; titled: “Nothing Came To Me” and “Something Came To Me.” The blaring sound of the first horn on “Nothing” is rather off-putting but it comes full form into a beautiful symphony of echoing trumpets towards the end. The emotion carried within these horns are uncanny; it’s an extremely anxious sound that warrants a frantic mood. Towards the end of the album, “Something” ties the two instrumentals together. “Something” is a much more confident track with exuberant bursts of trumpets backed by a nagging percussion. It’s pretty obvious the Miles Davis approach they take with these two tracks – once again crossing over genres seamlessly – but the end result is executed wonderfully.

For those who say it all sounds like an interlude, or are off-put by the lack of verses, I would advise looking a little closer: On “Windows” there’s the infectious “Caaareful” that echoes throughout the “la-la’s” and spacious drums; the frenzied jazz instrumental over shouting at the beginning of “Just Wait”; the moving “Why do some of us get to heaven too soon?” followed by a dazzling shower of ‘why’s’ on “Questions”; the soothing acoustics at the beginning and end of “Pass The Vibes”; there’s too many to list, really. Even if you aren’t inclined to dive outside of the rap world when it comes to music (as is the case with myself), there’s still a chance you will love some of the genre-switching that occurs on this album because it’s just so damn artistic.

There’s Big Sean’s excellent verse (No, really, it’s Big Sean I swear) on “Wanna Be Cool”: “Maybe because my older bro was on the honor roll / And the other one was always up in front of the honor / So I’m in the middle like the line in the divide signs.” Who knew Big Sean, B.o.B., and J. Cole would emerge from this album with three of the best verses – proving that the Social Experiment brings out the best in people. “Familiar” is also a highly recommended track that features King Louie and Quavo rapping over delightful flutes and horns – and as odd as it sounds it works. The song is enhanced by the chorus which features Chance’s classic short internal rhyme scheme: “Card-board, cut-out / Sharp-teeth, smart-mouth / Smile-big, small-waist / Big-hips, cut-paste,” and the poignant “Forgiiive me, but you look fa-miliiiar.” On “Go” Joey Purp drops a great verse: (“Sharks in the water still fishin’ for the man / Surf’s up, smoke somethin’, young Purple, I’m the man”) – which is made even more impeccable by the strings and chorus in the closing. It’d also be a shame to forget the highlight “Sunday Candy” – an ode to grandma’s everywhere. If I haven’t the said phrase ‘beautiful horns’ enough, I’ll say it one more time – the horns on this track are beautiful. Chance does his thing throughout his verses but the track is highlighted by the Jamila Woods chorus: “You got to move slowwwly / Take it in my body like it’s ho-llly.” I can’t quite describe all the fanatics that occur at the end – but it’s an extremely fun and feel-good moment – which rivals the end of “Family Business” on Kanye’s first album.

My goodness, there’s just too much to love. If you like Chance, you should like this. If you like rap, you should like this. If you like trumpets, you should like this. If you like music, you should like this. It’s really one of the most wholesome projects that has been associated with rap, and belongs in the discussion with the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s and the To Pimp A Butterfly’s of the world in terms of artistic statements. It probably won’t because of how fun it is, or how Chance is still perceived as an up-and-comer, but if you give this album enough time you may realize just how outstanding this project is. And they gave it to us for free! For free!

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