On paper, The Social Experiment's Surf is one big wank-fest with a bunch of high-profile guests coming together for a somewhat challenging jazz-hip-hop fusion record, but in practice its intentions are pure and its output is joyous, thoughtful and finessed.
It’s an understatement to say that this whole The Social Experiment project has been a little confusing. While everybody was waiting for Chance The Rapper to capitalise on his hype with a huge solo record, he decided rather to take the back seat and hand the spotlight to trumpet player Donnie Trumpet and include himself within The Social Experiment group. Then, Chance said the album would drop in a week - that was almost a month ago. And now, it’s finally dropped on iTunes as a free release.
The tactic of releasing it for free on iTunes feels far removed from U2’s strategy. Surf has not been forced upon anybody, but it probably should be because it’s one of the year’s most effortlessly positive, feel-good records. The music is obviously the main reason for that but it’s the communal, unpretentious vibe of it that makes it so easy to sink into and enjoy.
Surf features credits of almost 100 musicians from Eryka Badu to Jeremih, from B.O.B. to Big Sean but never does it feel like their names have been used to further the project's commercial appeal. iTunes lists none of the guests on the site's tracklist and even when they do appear, it’s not immediately recognisable. Janelle Monáe’s feature consists of a few vocal coos that add to the track but don’t make her the star. If there is a star of this record it’s Donnie Trumpet, but for the most it’s a team effort.
It’s important to note this before talking about the music because the communal efforts of The Social Experiment’s friends and heroes is a huge part of the record’s disposition. Nearly every song on the record sounds like it's been recorded in a room full of like-minded people. On Slip Slide, Busta Rhymes’ flow is the most natural it's been in a long time as he reels off a jovial verse over howling trumpets. Beyoncé’s new favourite rapper, D.R.A.M. appears on Caretaker but instead of using his big break to play the frontman, he lulls into a hazy melody.
Chance The Rapper plays narrator for most of the record, delivering verses that are part-narration, part-rap, part-poetry. He helps make the juxtaposition between jazz and hip-hop seamless as he retains his Chicago flow but also adopts a jazz-fused delicateness. He goes from being the main event to a subtle contributor. He delivers a stunning, train-of-thought verse on Rememory, so great that the instruments need not contribute to the melody as Chance directs it without assistance. In stark contrast, on Windows he simply scats in the background.
He does a great job of being a prevalent voice without taking over as the main event. “I don’t wanna be cool, I just wanna be me,” he sing-raps on Wanna Be Cool - a feel-good rebellion track complete with ‘80s drums. It’s the truest lyric of the record. Surf is not a trendy record. It may feature on-trend rapper like Quavos, BJ the Chicago Kid, Kid Louie but they’re not there rapping over Hit-Boy or Mike Will Made It beats, headed straight to urban radio, they’re rapping over sparse, delicate instrumentals that are at times bare-boned.
That’s not to say the record is a lone-wolf among the spectrum of releases this year. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly was full of jazz infusions and saxophonist Kasami Washington’s The Epic has people of all musical tastes salivating. Surf, perhaps, sits in between those two records.
It would be remiss to review the record and not mention the brass-work. Donnie Trumpet, known to his mother as Nico Segal, does an expert job over the whole LP of creating an atmosphere where the trumpet is the climax. It’s the thread that ties together all the genre-skipping. On Go it’s sexy over a Nile Rodgers-esque instrumental and on Sunday Candy it orchestrates the marching band feel. The trumpet's voice is as memorable as Chance’s and is the thing that continuously brings a big fat smile to the listener.
You could pull apart the intricacies of this record for days. You could go deep into how the trumpet on Windows literally sounds like wind rustling in a curtain or how Quavo of Migos fame’s verse is the most hip-hop moment on the record and yet it still manages to pull him out of his comfort zone while feeling comfortable, but the small brush strokes don’t seem to matter when the big picture is so great.
Surf is a record made with friends who also brought their friends. Everyone on this record, from The Social Experiment to the guests, have put their best foot forward and still managed to blend into one tightly-bound collection.
The album has its standouts. Miracle is a poetic opener and Windows is sparse beauty but there’s no emotional benefit in picking and dropping singular tracks. The giddy feeling that comes of moving from a howling trumpet into the unapologetic joy of Sunday Candy at the end of the album just doesn’t happen if you haven’t already sat through 14 tracks.
Whether or not more hip-hop will follow in the direction of Surf is yet to be seen but regardless it’s an important record it shows how effective selflessness can be in music.
On Wanna Be Cool, Californian artist drops the line, “So why don't you just be the you that you know you are/You know, when nobody else is there?’ And that captures the very essence of what’s happening on Surf.