Before the explosion his free album Acid Rap caused in early 2013, Chance the Rapper was a bubbling rapper whose name didn’t ring many bells outside his homeland of Chicago. His friends, obviously, were even more anonymous to the public eye, which is a statement that definitely doesn’t ring true today. Acid Rap was one of the most acclaimed, celebrated, and downright refreshing projects dropped in recent rap history, and Chance the Rapper to this day has yet to follow it up with any kind of solo project, paid-for single, or even any kind of record deal. Instead, Chance’s idea of consistency existed in touring his Acid Rap material as much as possible, collaborating and writing music for other artists, existing as an internet entity that exudes relevance without a label or management firms, but moreover, it existed in the idea of making music with his friends, and pushing his musical ensemble to the spotlight with him. Now, 758 days later, Chance’s horn-specialist Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment band (Peter Cottontale, Nate Fox, Greg “Stix” Landfair Jr., and Chance the Rapper) have released the long-awaited, frequently teased project, Surf.
Surf is layered and stacked upon the sounds of the past—the crooning sensual sounds of 90’s R&B, funk, gospel, prog-rock, and even spoken word poetry all lend a hand to become just pieces to this record’s grandiose sonic landscapes. One moment, the instrumentals can be moody and dramatic, like “Nothing Came to Me” which sounds not far from a broadway stage with layered trumpet sounds that fizzle and flare. “Something Came to Me” later on in the record is more feverish and layered with more instruments, with gliding piano chords and groovy percussion. Other times, the record can spin into some kind of PBS, child-friendly jazz groove, like the King Louie and Quavo assisted “Familiar”, a cut that lyrically dives into the complexities and details of women that insist on conforming to society’s standards rather than flaunt any sense of individuality. “Wanna Be Cool” is alike in that jovial, kid-friendly tone but is also similar in it’s lyrical matter—Big Sean guests here rapping about how his individuality made a difference in his rap career, while KYLE spits hilarious bars about how overrated being “cool” is. Chance is the star here, though, as his anthemic chorus about just wanting to be himself is catchy and frivolous, but also relatable and real.
The vocal additions to this project are structured very unusually and methodically, as the verses and voices chime in only when it relates to the theme of the song, or if it adds any melody or substance to the message itself. When it comes to Chance’s bars on this project, they are equally soulful and profound, as he twists and manipulates his riddle-asking flows—however, it’s worth noting that no song on this project ever sounds like it’s Chance’s. Even though it’s his band and his producer’s he’s been using since 10 Day, it sounds like every verse he spits is as a contribution in a featured form rather than the song being a product of his own creativity, or of his own personality. In this sense, Surf feels like a classroom group project with a lot of signatures on it, and the random, unlisted guest features that are subject to pop up at random are not far from a Saturday Night Live episode with cameos that appear out of thin air.
For instance, “Warm Enough” is a cut early off in the album that features Acid Rap standout female-MC Noname Gypsy. She killed it on “Lost”, and she does it again with her lamenting, poetic, mournful lyrics before random-guest J.Cole comes through like a quick gust to rip apart the track just before it expires. D.R.A.M. from “I Like to Cha Cha” fame, of all people, gets his own track to himself that actually ends up being one of the best tracks on the project. “Caretaker” is beautiful, soulful, and reaches for Boyz II Men or Jodeci levels of crooning, with lyrics like “I’ll take care of you/Even if you got a man now/Cause I’ve been fucking fans now”. Most random of all, though, is probably Busta Rhymes’ addition to the second track, “Slip Slide”, a playful song about being confident and not wanting to slip or slide, but rather “stand up on [your] own two”. It’s a song that jives and rolls along, and Busta’s retro flow ends up being in perfect harmony with the spirited track, just before Chance breaks it down into a monologue flipping the song’s content on it’s head, admitting “it’s just too easy, to sit back down”.
The Social Experiment has said before that they wanted to make music for “grandma’s and babies”, and that assessment is not too far off when it comes to Surf. At it’s core, it’s a multi-influenced musical project that is very accessible and pleasing to any ear, with lyrics that will still resonate and sit with fans of Chance’s quirky wit and lyricism. It’s not the most cohesive project, nor is it the most gripping or thrilling, but it is easy-listening, accessible music with a different twist and a different guest from track to track. As much as many of us want to admit that we would rather have a Chance solo rap project by now, there is no doubt in my mind that Surf will have most listeners leaving the project surprised with the musical capabilities of Chance and his Social Experiment band. Even though fans had to endure 758 days deprived of a project from the Social Experiment or Chance, lyrics from the track “Just Wait” in this instance ring true: “Good things come to those who wait”.