The origins of Surf, Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment’s new release, are hard to explain. A lot of the attention the album’s received stems from the involvement of Chance the Rapper, a virtuosic MC from Chicago, though this isn’t his project, and the Social Experiment are really more interested in ambitious soul than in hip-hop. But because Surf tries to execute a tough balancing act, the backstory is especially important.
Chance broke out in 2013 behind Acid Rap, an arresting, self-released project that sold well, earned critical praise, and propelled him into the studio with massive stars (Justin Bieber). Labels came calling too, and Chance’s course seemed obvious — he would follow in the footsteps of an artist like A$AP Rocky, secure a massive advance and jump into the world of high-fashion, jet-setting and models.
Instead, Chance did the opposite: he ignored the labels and put his solo career on hold to join a team, Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, an instrumental squad composed of Donnie, Nate Fox, Peter Cottontale, and Greg “Stix” Landfair Jr. The result of their efforts, Surf, dropped Thursday evening.
This album has been a long time coming. Last October, Chance told Billboard the project would arrive by the year’s end. FADER’s January cover story on the Social Experiment also suggested the record would be out soon. In late April, Chance said it would be out in a week. A month later, it arrived in the middle of the night — downloadable for free on iTunes.
Because Surf has been about to arrive for so long, and because it’s rare for an immensely talented individual to forgo a solo career to pursue a team-effort, the process behind the album has been the subject of intense scrutiny. In a FADER interview, Chance said every song, “has like 50 people on it.” Trying to map the personnel on Surf is no easy feat: you encounter young up-and-comers (Raury) and old stalwarts (Busta Rhymes), singers (Jeremih) and rappers (J. Cole), artists with past hits (Erykah Badu) and present hits (Big Sean) and a slew of folks mostly unknown outside Chicago. (This group ethic is really less novel than it seems — think about the long credit lists on records by Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Beyonce.)
But lists of names don’t tell you what something sounds like. Surf is based mainly in soul — both the late ’60s, psychedelic variety and the early ’00s “neo” strains — but also in gospel, the Beach Boys, ’70s easy-listening, disco, and ’80s funk. Yes, Chance the Rapper is “featured” on 7 of 16 songs and appears on more — but Surf still isn’t really a rap album. The MCs sound subservient to the instrumental flow, and production-wise, it has very little in common with contemporary hip-hop.
Not that Surf sits on an isolated island. D’Angelo, Kendrick Lamar, and Hiatus Kaiyote have all explored a similar blend of R&B history in recent months. Horn sections and live band records that want the listener to be aware of their live-band-ness are more common than they were five years ago.
Still, the Social Experiment is sunny and upbeat relative to most of their competition, closer in spirit to Pharrell‘s winsome, lightweight G I R L album. Chance is an avowed fan of the gospel artist Kirk Franklin, and that type of optimism — if not the sonic muscle — can be heard all through Surf. In case you can’t pick up the theme, it starts with a song titled “Miracle,” full of angelic harmonies. There’s even a track called “Wanna Be Cool” about not wanting to be cool that aims to melt any cynicism the listener may possess. To declare either the desire to be cool or uncool is almost automatically cliché, but the Social Experiment doesn’t think in those terms. For them, purity of intention outweighs the possibility of triteness.
Not all the collaborators share those intentions though, which is a danger of a team-project. When guests deviate from the cheerful feel, the result can be hard to make sense of. The most glaring example is “Familiar,” a song featuring Chance, his fellow Chicagoan King Louie, and Quavo from the Atlanta rap trio Migos. It’s a blunt, sexual track, a long way from the almost-huggable platitudes of “Wanna Be Cool.” Combining it with the old-fashioned instrumental textures on the record makes it seem even more jarring.
But the tracks that break away from perkiness end up being the most exciting. “Caretaker” features the Virginia rapper D.R.A.M., a relatively-unknown quantity who recently made headlines when Beyonce announced her appreciation for his track “Cha Cha” via Instagram. In D.R.A.M.’s short, 90-second tune, he shows himself to be an adept singer, crooning with sensitivity and grace — “even if you got a man now, I’d be forced to understand that” — over pretty waves of backing vocals. The album’s drifting final track, “Pass The Vibes,” is similarly appealing, channeling the innocence and willful, blissful ignorance of late ’60s sunshine pop.
These feel like little interludes, quick digressions from the main event that sometimes overshadow the material around them. Much of the album is frenetic — full of bodies and larger-than-life. But the muted and downcast moments end up being memorable, tender and affecting.