With Surf, Chance the Rapper and his friends have pulled off one of the greatest bait-and-switch schemes in modern popular music. What was originally billed as a straight-forwards follow up to the Chicago emcee’s 2013 surprise hit mixtape Acid Rap is finally upon us after almost a year of fake-outs, and it’s not even a Chance the Rapper album.
Chance is merely a member of an ensemble of musicians fronted by Nico Segal, a relatively unknown trumpet player and music fusion aficionado who goes by the stage name Donnie Trumpet. There is no doubt that this tactic will alienate quite a few casual fans, but maybe that’s the point of all this: to show that good music is about more than just recognizable names. Maybe the whole thing really is a social experiment as the name of the band implies, to see how far fans are willing to follow the artists they idol. And maybe (and this seems the most likely) these guys just want to make a great album about being happy and positive, and they don’t give a f**k about who listens.
Segal has had an impressive career in his near-21 years of age, including a gig as part of Frank Ocean’s touring band, but he originally started as a trumpet player for the Chicago-based indie/hip-hop/neo-soul fusion act Kids These Days, which also featured Vic Mensa. Mensa, a longtime collaborator and friend of Chance is conspicuously absent from Surf, although it makes sense seeing he’s been busy collaborating with Kanye West and getting signed to Roc Nation and all that.
While his buddy is finally getting the fame he deserves, Chance has been consciously avoiding the spotlight, following a massive tour and a string of high profile appearances on tracks by the likes of Madonna, James Blake and even Justin Bieber. Nowadays, he seems more focused on promoting other members of his community.
In addition to hosting open mic nights in his home neighborhood, Chance packs Surf full to the brim with up and coming Chicago voices, like R&B crooner extraordinaire Jeremih, and emcee/singer double threat NoName Gypsy. Even though Surf is packed to the brim with guests, they are always utilized carefully and constructively, and the bright sonic textures that the band creates never feel lost or obscured.
In addition to the songwriting and instrumental arrangements, the production here is pretty spectacular throughout. There are quite a few moments that feel reminiscent of Flying Lotus’ recent work, especially “Rememory” which features an awesome cameo appearance from Erykah Badu at the end. In addition to the Medulla Oblongata, Surf has quite the list of star features, which is typical of the first release after a breakout mixtape.
J. Cole continues his tradition of delivering feature verses that are better than his album material, as does Big Sean, even Busta Rhymes, who I’ve never been a fan of, manages to translate his manic energy surprisingly well to the marching-band-inspired “Slip Slide“, which also features a great appearance from Janelle Monae. This song, and lead single “Sunday Candy” are really the only songs on the album that feel like an extension of Acid Rap – the rest is uncharted territory.
While the band manages to coax out some good verses out of artists I’ve never been a fan of, even their best efforts can’t pull anything worthwhile out of Migos’ Quevo, whose typical turnt-up nonsense feels incredibly out of place amongst the main lyrical themes present on the rest of the album. While a couple of the featured artists do mention drugs and sex, Chance barely mentions such topics, instead opting to talk about positivity, spirituality, the importance of music, and the unimportance of trying to be cool.
Regardless of his hipster appearance and massive cult following, being cool has always been something Chance has shied away from, even poked fun at. As he said back on his hilarious, unhinged feature track on Vic Mensa’s 2013 track “Tweakin'”, “Bumpin Kanye like it just came out / No songs with Kendrick, we just hang out“. It’s easy to imagine the kid just hanging out, carefree with a LOT of rappers that other artists would sell their first born child to make music with.
But here he is, barely appearing on half the songs on his band’s debut album. Donnie Trumpet however appears on every single track, and like Chance, demonstrates the wonderful ability of knowing when to be subtle with his instrument. While the horns are definitely out in front on a lot of tracks, the ones where it is really stunning and unique, is when effects and fancy production to twist the sound beyond its normal limits, allowing it to sit nicely with the synthesizers and keys and vocal tracks instead of dominating them.
Nearly every song that he’s on features a little bit of singing as well as rapping, and he always sounds like he’s just so happy to be singing. Every bit of angst he has seems to be flushed out in his verse on the epic, slow-burning Jai Paul-meets-Thundercat sonic bliss of “Miracle” (which, let’s face it, is definitely the best opening track of any album this year so far), where he seemingly stumbles over finishing a line and then sighs “F**k… Still ain’t did shit with the beat” halfway through his verse, only to start building momentum again, a momentum which he doesn’t let down for the rest of the album.
The other members, including Peter Cottontale (who has produced tracks for Vic Mensa and others), drummer Greg Landfair Jr., and Nate Fox, all hold their own as part of an ensemble that seems equally comfortable with ambient mellow noise and party music. Like many of the best experimental groups, styles are constantly changed, sometimes in the same song, and a wide variety of influences are felt, but nothing ever feels repetitive or old.
Tracks like “Go” and “Just Wait” have no qualms going full-on disco, with the latter taking an unexpected but welcome nosedive into psychedelic indie rock halfway through. “Windows” demonstrates a blissful, slightly melancholy mix of African Pop music and Animal Collective, while Chance sings a series of warnings about throwing caution to the wind. Most interesting though, is the way that through pure energy, there are some songs where the group seems to be channeling the Jackson 5 – and it’s exhilarating.
Surf is a remarkable piece of work. Chance, Donnie and company have managed to take the idea of expanding Hip Hop, the same idea that Kendrick Lamar and The Roots have been cultivating for years now, to unprecedented new levels. This album is a celebration of youth, joy, and music, and the complicated relationship that exists between those three concepts. It’s so good that its minor flaws are buried under a layer of sonic bliss so deep that not even Migos and J Cole can dig through it.
This is the perfect kind of album to play for an ignorant old white person who likes jazz and other black music but thinks that Hip Hop is all about sex and violence. It’s a testament to the creativity of a new and shockingly young generation of musical talent. It might not be the album that we were all asking for after Acid Rap, but none of that matters anymore. Never have the words “pleasant surprise” felt more accurate. Download Surf on iTunes for free here.
Words by Nick Hart