Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment,
Cheers to the 13 rappers featured on Surf, an album that's nonetheless billed, appropriately, as a jam band's grand pop gesture. Donnie Trumpet runs shit here; Chance and Busta just live here.
Officially, Surf is a (free) album by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, that latter collective accounting for Chance the Rapper's side-hustle as a lead singer. These distinctions are a crucial notice for anyone who downloaded this thing in hopes of hearing Chance's sequel to Acid Rap, though that album and this one do have a few guest artists in common—BJ the Chicago Kid, Saba, Noname Gipsy—all of them Chance's fellow Chicagoans.
Song credits aside, however, Chance the Rapper is the definitive voice of Surf. It's his grandma and his fanclub we're hearing about on "Sunday Candy," and it's his individuation that we're celebrating as gospel on "Windows." Chance is featured on nine of the album's 16 tracks, which otherwise invite variously unaffiliated rappers —J. Cole, Quavo, Kyle, et al.—one at a time to the Social Experiment's sandbox, which runneth over with optimism and unabashed childishness. Here's an album where everyone's shout-outs to Ma$e and EPMD aren't crafted as genre nostalgia, but rather as reconstruction of a childhood in general.
And yes, even trappers and gangsta rappers grew up watching cartoons like the rest of us, so it shouldn't be such a surprise (though it is) that King L and Quavo are, arguably, the best suited to Surf's Nickelodeon uplift on "Familiar," with King L turning his nose and his back to snooty Parisians and instead waving hey to several Kardashians. "Slip Slide," with its marching drum rolls and funky Jupiter-8 zaps, is a literal parade of such playful confidence and features Busta Rhymes as Rafiki and Simba in one: "A hundred grand on the child that always ran from the wrong/Standing on his own two but wanna stand with the strong."
Album single "Sunday Candy" is a glitterbomb of major brass, live bass, trap snares, 808 builds, fingersnaps, and Baptist choir organ breaks. The song, like the album overall, is an omni-genre whirlwind that's indebted to Morris Day as much as it's evocative of Broadway musicians Robert Lopez, William Finn, and Lee Breuer. Surf is filled with mosquito-high brass and swaggering trombone in its brightest moments ("Just Wait"), and a wakeful vibraphone in its downstroke ("Pass the Vibes").
Surf is filled with mosquito-high brass and swaggering trombone in its brightest moments, and A wakeful vibraphone in its downstroke.
For the most part, Surf's mellower cuts are the instrumental solos or else songs where a single rapper or singer carries the song on their own. Alone, Chicago rapper Saba is his typical self, young and tightly wound, on "SmthnthtIwnt," which ends with crashing surges of chimes and guitar. Roller rink funk ditty "Go" is a rare moment of simply coasting on the good vibes, and "Caretaker," featuring "Cha Cha" singer D.R.A.M., is the one extended interlude too many.
With all its conch-passing and overall sense of beach towel community, Surf is Michael Franti minus theory and smarm. Which isn't to suggest that this is nothing more than a goofball field trip to the shore; Surf's general theme is caution, careful relation to other people, and the power of even the most gradual courage. ("In your way you're on your way," Erykah Badu sings on "Rememory" as bedtime approaches. "You're safe.") By album's end, the musicians and listeners alike have done some measure of growing up, though thankfully having succumbed to the work known as love rather than to cynicism. Surf is a boardwalk picnic with sunset views of the Ferris wheel, grassy laughter, and paper plates smeared with blueberry shortcake.
Justin Charity is a staff writer for Complex. Follow him @brothernumpsa.