A Brighter Modernism: Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment’s Surf, Reviewed

It’s irresistible, I tells ya.
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It’s irresistible, I tells ya.
Chance the Rapper Surf Artwork

Surf (self-released) 

You remember this one, they gave it away like a week ago? Yeah, well, it’s incredible. Not that it needs my help, being incredible and all. Dazzlingly colorful in its instrumental palette. Harmonically sophisticated. Rhythmically eclectic. Impeccably-sequenced yet with every track standing strong on its own. Atmospheric from front to back through varying tempos and dynamics, through ebullient crowd-pleasers and anxious repose. Without getting too sentimental, this album’s like a heartening re-statement of everything American bohemia can do well in feverish times. Sure, it’s balmy and comforting, a Summer Record through and through. But even at its softest and most lysergic, it’s never passive. The emotional scope is wide and true. It’s capable of destroying you in the space of a few seconds and then sweeping you to your feet moments later. And they just gave it away!

Buzzed from vague reports that Chance the Rapper would be a key contributor, Surf’s the product of a multi-gender, multi-racial Chicago collective of musicians. Though deliberately unspecified in its free release (US iTunes only, as I write) it was presumably directed in large part by producer/trumpeter Nico Segal, aka Donnie Trumpet. It’s likely that plenty of critics will fumble this album. Thank the combination of (a) little prior information to go on and (b) the fact that they won’t be able to convince themselves that Surf is an “official follow-up” to Chance’s 2013 Acid Rap. I just can’t wait for all the exciting reviews that’ll acknowledge Surf’s “upbeat vibe” while landing in a mushy middle and “hoping Chance eventually provides a proper follow-up that delivers on blahdiblahdiblah.”

Anyway, here’s the lowdown. Segal and trombonist J.P. Floyd were part of the Vic Mensa-fronted Chicago group Kids These Days. Their collegiate rap rock seemed pleasant but it never would’ve led me to predict this new stuff. With Chance now hosting, Surf sees Segal and Floyd working alongside Chance’s stunning live band. Crucial keyboards, guitar, and drums are provided respective courtesy of Nate Fox, Jeff Gitty, and Greg Landfair, who all deserve to be named. They’re also joined by a generous lineup of guest rappers and singers. They range from obscure friends who deserve big(ger) breakthroughs (Jamila Woods, Kyle, NoName Gypsy, D.R.A.M.) to outright stars (B.o.B., Erykah Badu, Busta Rhymes, J. Cole, Janelle Monáe, Big Sean). It’s telling that the stars seem to appreciate the opportunity just as much as the band does. On “Slip Slide” Busta Rhymes gives a big bearhug thanks that exemplifies the spirit of camaraderie. On the same track, B.o.B.’s plays the grin machine he can be at his best. J. Cole spits an airtight verse on “Warm Enough” that’s punchier than almost anything he’s rapped on his own records.

The crowd-pleasers are big and full, richly accessible and eccentric at the same time. Some bloom from their first moments. “Slip Side” coronates Busta’s entrance with spaghetti western horns turning to party fanfare. The rapper’s aforementioned thanks gives way to a ridiculous hook where Chance goes, “I don’t wanna slip, slip, slip, sliiiide!” He sings the word “slide” with a goofy childlike whine that…well, it slides. The textures in that song and throughout Surf keep moving, layer joining layer. Sassy horns join glitzy synth-funk blasts. Muffled beat-boxing joins sweaty guitar ripples. In “Slip Slide” specifically, there are these almost scarily gorgeous female voices that come in under the chorus around the 1:50 mark. They deliver a kind of unconscious, daydreamy cosmic sensation that’s rare. “Familiar” goes straight for an impromptu playground dance party. Flutes and muted trumpets pepper in over florid piano runs and guitars pinging and chirping, everyone trading bars and offsetting each other. It’s irresistible, I tells ya. Even if it’s a song calling out the “usuals.” And single “Sunday Candy” was delightful to begin with but makes even more sense in context as a big singalong culmination of Sunday rain. Here rain is treated as something energizing and glorious instead of something gloomy. (Note how the piano and then the drum programming starts plinking apart like rain patter on a steel roof.) Picture Timbaland’s work on Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience, but more organic — and with a vocalist who’s not gratingly insincere.

And yet even at its most infectious this music can pivot on a dime, emotionally, and the effect is often shattering. “Just Wait” opens with overjoyed trumpet, soloing and blending with synth and trombone, a fount of melody on a Saturday night. And then it drifts into soft lo-fi bedroom electric guitar and voices groaned beyond recognition. Chance rhymes “fair skin” with “American” with “air’s thin” with “everything.” It’s devastating. A few tracks earlier, “Wanna Be Cool” opens with a Beach Boys pastiche and moves into a quirkily syncopated anthem to individuality. Big Sean is surprisingly on-point, and Kyle’s boyish verse just makes me want to give him a hug. “Okay, let’s remember that shopping at Payless it just means you pay less, it don’t make you bae-less, if you don’t get re-tweets it don’t mean you say less, okay?” And yet that song’s followed immediately by “Windows”, delivering the same message darker and wearier, the sore aftermath of the party. Even the joyous “Slip Slide” closes with a hollow outro for Chance to state what few admit: “It ain’t so easy/But it’s not so hard/To stand up/Stand up/But it’s just too easy/To sit back down.” The voices in the moving opener “Miracle” hum “It’s a miracle” to themselves. And the sense of wonder that “family’s eating/Mama’s singing” lets you ruminate on how much of a miracle those things are considered daily by people who aren’t you.

Chance the Rapper Social Experiment

(Dan Garcia/The Early Registration)

The notion of organic and digital sounds commingling is key here. “Warm Enough” sets its scene with organ and horn washes, conjuring a damp tropical atmosphere met with a vocal tone as pure as water. “Whoooo are you…” it goes, and even though it’s soft it immediately commands your attention. It’s a beautiful bit of melody reinforced by a dreamy ensuing rap from NoName Gypsy lisping over slippery guitar runs. “I don’t protest, I just dance in my shadows/Hallowed be thy empty.” Appropriately, when Chance takes the next verse the drum programming becomes stuttery and twitchy, blatantly synthetic to accentuate his anxious flow and voice. Even the tracks short enough to be fairly considered interludes are distinct, especially the striking way Jamila Woods is harmonized repeating the word “why” in “Questions” and the blurry harmonies of “Caretaker” (with D.R.A.M.’s lower register giving well-needed ballast).

There are two instrumental tracks on Surf, their melodies led by the horns of Segal and Floyd. I promise I’m not being lazy when I compare them to Miles Davis. It’s pretty clear that’s who they’re going for. But they’re specific, and interestingly so. Melodically, the two tracks recall the mid-/late-‘50s Milestones/Porgy and Bess era, an aching empty modernism, sharp buildings and shellshocked Edward Hopper skies. Sonically, though, they approach from the trepidatious “looped fragments” vein of early-‘70s work like “Go Ahead John”. The first instrumental here is “Nothing Came to Me”, the second “Something Came to Me”, and we’re meant to feel the weight between the two. “Nothing” is just the piercing horns themselves, clipped and echoed but very anxious and a little brooding in the way they feel out their space. “Something”, by contrast, evokes new promise, the empty modernism naturally revealing itself. Where the horns in “Nothing” were clipped and looped but still the lead tones, the horns in “Something” are equalized in the mix by loud, humming synth that becomes compressed and blared to the point of almost physical wooziness.

Quibbles? Well, I suppose the brief “SmthnthtIwnt” isn’t anything special (despite a tense rap from Saba), and “Rememory” meanders outside of Chance’s “morse code” rhymes until a maternal Erykah Badu arrives. But even those tracks are tactfully placed to disorient you, and they do the job fine. A proper ending to “Familiar” would’ve been nice, though. Oh, and Joey Purp’s verse in “Go” is douchey. For a breakup song that’s so blatantly referencing Estelle and Kanye’s “American Boy” (and with a bass line straight from Beyoncé’s “Blow”), it would’ve been nice if they gave a woman a verse, instead of just adding a second dude to give another kiss-off. But the swooning arrangement makes up for a lot.

Surf will probably be likened to “jazz-rap” by some people. But I can’t recall any canonized jazz-rap album with as much sonic breadth. Or as much varied lyrical force. Lofty admission: as these “real” and “fake” sounds blend and overlap and disguised each other, memories of Another Green World and Songs in the Key of Life, conceptually, ran through my mind, in the way the music split the difference between the new machines and the manual and organic, weaving throughout with brightly-colored strings. Ultimately, I have no idea where this music came from…but, thank you. They just gave it away! 

A-

Surf is out now on iTunes for free.