Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment: Surf

Surf feels less like the progeny of Chance the Rapper's Acid Rap and more like its twin brother, and it will likely be remembered with the same high esteem.
Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment

So just how influential has Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap become in the two years since it came out? It got so popular that some people actually burned this free online mixtape to CD, put a barcode on it, and actually convinced certain stores to sell it. Although that sounds like a ridiculous gambit, it sold enough copies to actually appear on a Billboard chart ranking, despite the fact that it was released online for free.

Yet those who experienced Acid Rap first-hand know full well just how powerful it is: coming off as a confidently laid-back update of De La Soul’s D.A.I.S.Y. Age aesthetic, Chance’s debut feels fully formed right out the gate. His high-pitched yips and excitable flow sound like nothing else out there; his verses drip with jokes, familial anecdotes, outrageous slant-rhymes, and good-ol’-fashioned charisma. A team of producers helped craft an album that sounded fresher and more exciting than most of his major label brethren.

Acid Rap was even hailed as a landmark in some circles, and before long, the young Chicago native wound up dropping guest verses with everyone from Madonna to Justin Bieber, but outside his spots with BFF Childish Gambino, it was obvious that something was missing in those Top 40 affairs. Chance gave the labels what he could, but he was not a flavor-of-the-week kind of rapper, and big budget mainstream productions proved ill-fitting for his everyman relatability. His occasional one-off SoundCloud uploads showcased a jazzier, more experimental direction, proving that, much like his idols, he was bored with the status quo, perpetually wanting something different, something new, and, most of all, something that felt real.

Enter Donnie Trumpet.

Born Nico Segal, Trumpet paid his dues as part of the Chicago group Kids These Days, a hip-hop-blues hybrid that managed to land spots on Lollapalooza and Conan before disbanding in 2013. Segal went on to release some quiet mixtapes of his own in the group’s aftermath. He was friends with Chance and the two had collaborated prior, but Chance, drummer Greg Landfair, keyboardist Peter Cottontale, and producer Nate Fox all joined together as collective known as “The Social Experiment”, and after numerous delays and experimental teaser singles, Surf, the group’s long-awaited debut, dropped on iTunes in late May 2015, and just like Acid Rap, you could get it for free.

Chance’s involvement with the collective has elevated the hype-meter on Surf to incredible levels, but even with a guest list that includes Erykah Badu, Big Sean, J.Cole, B.o.B., Busta Rhymes, and Janelle Monaé, Chance’s upbeat lyrics and the group’s horn-drenched, breezy vibe make Surf feel like the genuine collaboration it is. The album comes off not as an excuse for indulgence but as a genuinely considered set of songs that are catchy and memorable, soaked in a perfect amount of optimism that never once makes a turn for the saccharine. This is a feel-good rap album that both The Source and the NPR set could get behind, but even more than that, Surf feels less like the progeny of Acid Rap and more like its twin brother, and it will likely be remembered with the same esteem.

Opening with a series of vocal “ooh’s” and Donnie Trumpet’s namesake instrument warming up, “Miracle” celebrates the simple act of being alive with a dreamy soul-infused groove. Chance’s own caffeinated verse closes with a simple optimistic pledge: “Let’s get an apartment / With a dog and a song that I wrote you this morning”. The guest-riddled “Slip Slide” joins “Wanna Be Cool” and “Go” as some of Surf‘s most accessible moments, but these are upbeat pop numbers on the band’s own terms, featuring group shout-alongs, Donnie’s ever-expressive trumpet punctuating each chorus, and, in the case of “Slip Slide”, arguably the best standalone verse B.oB. has laid down in years (“I make the type of music that stoners should know / If I plant one of my thoughts marijuana would grow”).

As has been proven time and time again, anyone can drop a guest verse, but a real collaboration brings the best out of the artists involved (see: Big Boi‘s solo discs). Whether it be the vibe in the air or the Social Experiment simply having a hard threshold for what got included, nearly everyone here brings their A-game, ranging from J.Cole’s dexterous verse on “Warm Enough” (“As I’m writing this I see a red balloon in the sky / And to me that’s a sign tellin’ me that these lines / Were meant to be written / Repentin’ in the form of a rhyme”) to Badu’s matriarchal coo on “Rememory”. Yet part of Surf‘s magic is that all of these appearances feel woven-in to the listening experience, adding to the rich sonic tapestry instead of distracting or (worst of all) feeling phoned-in. Well, save for the one caveat that is Jeremih’s harmonizing on the chorus to “Wanna Be Cool”, where his voice sometimes slips into a surprisingly killer Nate Ruess imitation.

Yet outside of sunshine-drenched numbers like the musical remembrance of “Sunday Candy” and the morning sunlight stirrings of “Caretaker”, what ultimately grounds Surf are its quietly emotional moments, the glimpses of doubt and dissonance that pepper its otherwise-optimistic outlook. The aforementioned “Nothing Came to Me” is here, starting out with avant-bop horn snaps before finding a beautifully emotional melody before the two-minute mark that disappears as quickly as it came, telegraphing to listeners that this album isn’t all rainbows and lollipops. As only the fourth track on Surf, it makes for a powerful establishing agent, its presence easily allowing some of Surf‘s moodier numbers to emerge in a more natural fashion instead of feeling like sharp stylistic left turns on such an elated long-player.

“Windows”, in particular, exhibits the distrust Chance feels towards people trusting him, the chorus saying “Don’t look up to me / Don’t trust a word I say / Don’t you end up like me / If you learn one thing today.” Later, in the downright poppy “Familiar”, he notes how the thrill of the new has left him, both personally and sexually:

Usually I like them to look like you

But you just so usual you just look used

I just need something out of the norm

Foreign just don’t seem foreign no more

Just give me the porn, it’s like four in the morn’

Tryin’ to raise the bar with porn in the torrent

Chance’s strength as a rapper isn’t just in his flow or his wordplay (distinct as they are), but in how he presents his vulnerabilities, letting us see them on occasion because he is a human being just like you or me. His doubts are just a facet of his personality. Pop iconography is littered with people that find a pose that works and and then proceed to stick with it for as long as possible, but the smart ones know that listeners can find such posturing repetitive, especially on a song-for-song or album-to-album basis. Part of why Chance sounds more comfortable here than on those major-label guest spots is that his verses feel more like an honest reflection of who he is, and even at his young age, his personality remains remarkably compelling.

It’s that same innate relatability that makes Surf as exceptional as it is. The record features a breathtaking display of emotion and creativity that can be characterized as “fun” and “feel-good”, but, thankfully, never once does it feel fleeting. It’s a rare record that exists due to the harmonious power of its collaborators, but the reason why it will have a lasting legacy is due to how utterly fresh it feels, making for the rare kind of album that sounds just as accessible on its first listen as it does on its hundredth.

No word yet on how many people will buy the bootleg.

RATING 9 / 10