This album is technically Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment. But I would be lying if I said I haven’t been referring to it as “Chance’s new album.” That’s only because of the huge role Chance the Rapper plays on it. Although he attempts to be just another member of the band, he still seems to take center stage when I hear “Surf.”
Chance the Rapper hails from Chicago and debuted with his self-released album “Acid Rap” in 2013. That received significant praise and ultimately elevated Chance to teenagers and adults, seeming to take on the new millennium’s ideal of escaping Thoreau’s box of mainstream sound. After such success with his first album, there was much anticipation as to what Chance would do next to match, if not top, his already well-received sound.
So often it’s the second album that makes or breaks an artist. It defines whether the first album was a fluke, or if this guy is here to stay. Many artists will try to replicate their initial output to maintain the crowd-pleasing image. But after one listen of “Surf,” there is hardly any easy comparison to “Acid Rap” — it is a complete work all its own. The disregard for matching the sound of his first album is comparable to the success of Alabama Shakes’ second album “Sound and Color,” which was anything but mainstream and anything but the same. (I had to mention “Sound and Color” at least once. Seriously, check it out.)
But this album really isn’t Chance’s; it’s Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment’s.
Nate Fox, Peter Cottontale and Greg “Stix” Landfair, Jr. make up the Social Experiment. The band has been touring with Chance all year, perhaps as a reminder of the much-anticipated “Surf” album to drop. In concert, “Sunday Candy” has become a crowd favorite, accompanied by an elaborate music video featuring a Broadway-feel dance number and story line. This was the first song released from the album and made the wait for the rest almost unbearable. In my opinion it’s the most complete song on the record. It holds the greatest balance of instrumentals, gospel harmonies and an upbeat, euphoric feel.
At times the album had an almost overwhelming sense of instrumentals, but that was only after the first listen. It took me three listens to fully decide how I felt about it. I think that came from having to shake the idea that this isn’t Chance’s album. He is featured on seven of 16 tracks and appears on others. But once again, it’s not his. And by the third listen I finally arrived at a complete appreciation for the instrumental production of Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment.
I think it was important they did this. They must have thought listeners would approach the album as I had. They needed to move away from having a star of the show in Chance, and instead put the rest of the band on display for its unbelievable talents.
iTunes classifies the album as pop, but I don’t feel that does this work justice. It won’t be played on any top 40 stations anytime soon, if ever. It’s almost too good for that. There’s an eerie beauty radiating through most of the songs. But it’s also inspiring. The gospel undertones throughout bring the album to a divine stature in the minds of my eardrums and the feels of my soul.
Certain elements of this album remind me of the Beatles’ album “Yellow Submarine,” in which there were multiple orchestrations of songs omitting actual words. “Nothing came to me” provides an ironic twist to this concept. As the title suggests, there is no speaking or singing in the song. Apparently, nothing did come to say. Even without lyrics, I still loved the song. It starts off a bit slow, but at around 1:40 it picks up and adds a new element that completely had me hooked.
In recent years the incorporation of big bands, specifically horns, into rap songs has become huge (um, thank G-d). Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” really hit this idea hard and was extremely successful. The Social Experiment succeeds on an equally impressive level of production. Donnie Trumpet’s, well, trumpet, adds a unique element to the album that makes the songs complete and provides absolute beauty. Certain parts of the songs reminded me of Justin Timberlake’s “20/20 Experience Part I,” in which grand separate developments appear almost like movements.
Once I rapped my head around the idea that this wasn’t Chance’s album and fully embraced the Social Experiment, I had to take time to account for all of the guest appearances. There are almost too many to capture and take note of. Artists like B.O.B, J. Cole, Raury, Jeremih, and Busta Rhymes are just a few examples.
For maximum pleasure I would highly recommend your first listening of this album be with the lights off, on your favorite chair, no distractions in the air, and definitely with a pair of headphones on. “Rememory” is the best example of the complete production elements throughout the album. It contains a lot of dramatic oscillations, sending a sound from one ear to the next and back almost like a boomerang effect.
Overall, just yes. Listen to this. Then listen to it again. So far, I have listened to the full thing three times and every time has been a significantly different experience. And I want to emphasize that one very important word — “Surf” is a complete experience.