Review Summary: 'Sit with the beat'
Before I dive into “Surf,” everyone should understand just how massive an undertaking this project is. In 51 short minutes, virtually unknown trumpeter Donnie Trumpet manages to incorporate literally dozens of featured artists, ranging from big name acts like J. Cole and Janelle Monáe, to comparatively small local Chicago musicians like Joey Purp and Eryn Allen Kane, to just scratch the surface. Luckily for Donnie, he’s not on his own, being backed by the aptly named The Social Experiment, a collaborative group composed of Chance the Rapper, Peter Cottontale, Greg Landfair Jr., and Nate Fox.
To gather such a talented cast together for a single album is a feat unto itself, but to do so successfully and coherently would be even more impressive. And yet that’s exactly what Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment do here on “Surf.” Some nitpickers may complain Chance the Rapper isn’t featured enough, there aren’t enough “summery” tracks, or the album as a whole is too meandering and slow, but those people likely come into “Surf” with too many preconceptions (understandable when one considers the amount of hype leading up to this album). However, if one listens to “Surf” with open ears and a clear mind, it’s hard to imagine they could hear anything other than a soulful, jazzy, hip-hop experience that shifts, grows, and improves with each successive listen.
The Social Experiment clearly knows this, with the first line out of Chance the Rapper’s mouth on the opening track “Miracle” being “sit with the beat.” And following that advice, here’s what I’ve discovered:
First off, there are certainly a few tracks on “Surf” that demand more attention than others and will get stuck in a listener’s head almost instantly. “Wanna Be Cool,” filled to the brim with “do-do-dos” and an infectious chorus, and “Familiar,” with a laid back piano beat and King Louie’s raspy raps, are good examples, but ultimately it’s “Slip Slide” that is poised to become this album’s biggest hit and the song of the summer. Opening with a catchy beat composed of trumpet and drums, “Slip Slide” soars on some phenomenal verses from Busta Rhymes and B.o.B as well as a foot-tapping chorus carried by Maceo of the O’My’s to create a piece of music that can only be described as a musical incarnation of sunlight on a bright poolside day.
But as good as those tracks are, part of what makes “Surf” such an experience are the more relaxed songs that fill the space in between them. Sometimes it’s purely instrumental interludes like the moody and dissonant “Nothing Came to Me” and its ebullient counter nine tracks later, “Something Came to Me,” where Donnie Trumpet gets to show off his exceptional solo skills with the trumpet. Other times it’s hazy tracks like “Warm Enough” or “Questions” that ebb and flow as they saunter along in their own unique paths. Then there are songs like “Just Wait” and “Go” that start with huge bursts of trumpet-infused energy and gradually ease up as they continue.
If it sounds like a lot to take in, that’s because it is. Stylistically, “Surf” is all over the place, with no track sounding too similar to another. Yet because of Donnie’s ever-present trumpet guiding this musical journey, all of these songs ultimately sound like they belong together despite their differences.
All these layers and musical varieties make “Surf” both accessible and restricted, simple and complex, immediate and distant, but never boring and always enjoyable with something new to be discovered. What’s more, the album is free on iTunes right now, so you have no excuse not to at least give it a spin or two. Go get your “Surf” on.
The verdict: A truly massive and dynamic soul/jazz/hip-hop project that only improves each time you give it a spin.