Good luck finding the flaws in Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment’s latest LP
Not to be a Debbie Downer, but it’s easy to feel like listening to music these days is a chore. Pressing play on tunes every calendar date of the year—some of which are great, many not so much—just for the sake of being in the know and keeping readers up to speed gets personally draining. Unlike consumers with the luxury of selectivity, it’s our job as music journalists to take it all in: the same 10 radio cuts in heavy rotation, empty tales of b-tches and hoes freely hopping in rappers’ whips, third grade reading level lyrics knocking around on trap 808 beats, backdrop songs to tossing crumpled up George Washingtons at quaking cheeks. Eventually, it all begins to feel soulless. However, every so often, a record comes along that really, truly moves you and shifts your whole mood. Something that you actually want to listen to over and over again. An unexpected cup of paint spilled onto your record player, swirling around spectrum ribbons as it plays. For me (and for many, according to Chance The Rapper), Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment’s surprise release, Surf, was that necessary burst of color. And for it, I’m thankful.
Surf is easily one of the most refreshing musical releases since the drought of 2014. Totaling at 16 tracks, the freebie LP takes the emotions on an uphill roller coaster ride. From the woozy intro to the doo wop-style closer, the album zeroes in on the communication of positive vibes and moods through robust instrumentation. It’s as if the creative troupe’s instruments of choice—Chance with the raps, Peter Cottontale and Nate Fox on the keys, Greg Landfair Jr. on the drums and Donnie Trumpet with his namesake tool and backing vocals—tell stories of their own. Trumpets whisper mournful, sinister secrets on the lyricless “Nothing Came To Me.” “Something Came To Me” (also instrumental) is the response to the first song, with more answers than questions communicated through gradient horns belted across a college football field. The Lion King-inspired congo drums of “Windows” tip-toe around you, beckoning you to the center of the dance circle. Bumping bass strings paired with the triumphant horns of “Go” crash over eardrums like a wave. Sunny steel pans and church organs of “Sunday Candy” ignite spiritual euphoria in pew-bound listeners. Jubilant is the operative adjective for the sonics of this LP.
From the album’s hazy promo moments to well after it was released, the crew of indie darlings made it known that this diverse culmination of sounds and styles was a group effort. The spotlight never hovers over one person too long before shifting the focus to another musical feat. Despite the star-studded roster of talent stitched into the stanzas—you’ll hear Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu, Jeremih, Janelle Monae, J.Cole, Big Sean, BJ the Chicago Kid, B.o.B, Migos member, Quavo and more—a majority of them are unnamed on the tracklist. All featured voices here are used as sonic paintbrushes rather than a boast of star power. Chance and Co. act as unifiers (think of a less self-centered DJ Khaled), bringing together legends from the big leagues and buzzing starlets who still require the occasional Google search.
On the appropriately titled “Warm Enough,” spoken word vibes are conjured up between Cole and Noname Gypsy (who appeared on “Lost” from Chano’s much more melancholy Acid Rap). “Slip Slide” marries a drumline style marching band with Busta’s jovial tongue twisters, B.o.B’s charismatic bars, BJ’s soulful runs and Monae’s on-and-off coos. Kyle’s pleasantly kiddish drawl about Instagram likes gets sandwiched between Jeremih’s high register refrains and Big Sean’s rags to riches story on “Wanna Be Cool.” While clowning dime-a-dozen IG models on “Familiar,” King Louie and Quavo trade sing-songy bars as opposed to ratchet raps and Ady Suleiman croons soulfully about visceral feelings as Ms. Badu slides into our DM’s on “Rememory.” On “Windows,” Raury’s gentle scats blow in the wind beneath Chance’s cautious warnings, building horns and pitter-patter percussion. Beyonce’s it pick D.R.A.M. melts off the end of the too-short “Caretaker” while Mike Golden, Lili K, Jesse Boykins III and Joey Purp trade upbeat funk and soul on “Go.” The syrupy sweet and infectious vocals of Eryn Allen Kane and Jamila Woods are practically here, there and everywhere on Surf. It’s a beautiful amalgam of familiar and unfamiliar sounds.
Even beyond album guests, Surf is a celebration of community, which falls in line with what Chance the Rapper preaches on and off wax. It’s all reflective of his communal approach to living life and making music. Lyrically, songs take a look at friendships, relationships, family, his city and the love, joy and gratefulness that orbit around such entities. “Homies breathing/Families eating/Mama singing, is a miracle,” Chance sings earnestly on “Miracle.” Thanks to Chance, uplifting mantras grandmothers preach to youngsters about patience (“Just Wait”), self-love (“Wanna Be Cool”) and getting your footing in life (“Slip Slide”) go down like sweets instead of Robitussin. Surf—which only has four songs with curse words on them—has a message for everyone.
Unlike VIBE’s knee-jerk review, I sat with Surf several times. I’ve played it at work. I’ve played it on the train. I’ve played it walking down the street bumping through idle tourists. I’ve played it on the car with family. I’ve played it in the car for strangers. Although the track list and order remained identical, the experience felt like a new one every time I played it. A different song jutted out at me, begging for a replay. A new ad lib was unveiled. A new favorite was almost declared (it’s hard to unseat “Sunday Candy” as the undisputed shining star of the project). There was always a feeling of newness with every play. Of discovery. Of diversity. Of joy. It’s music that makes you think, feel, and most importantly, smile, which is hard to find when sifting though stuff that only knocks when coming out of club speakers and in between spilled drinks.
Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment truly have a gem with Surf. Since the album is so inclusive of multiple styles and audiences, it’s a damn near dudless project. And it’s free, so you can’t really complain even if you wanted to nitpick and find something. Based on all the freebies dropped in the months prior to Surf (“Hiatus”, “Wonderful Everyday”, “Lady Friend”, “No Better Blues” and “I Am Very Very Lonely”), it’s clearly not about making money for Chance & Co. For them, creating music is about an honest desire to make the world a happier, more thoughtful place one song at a time. What’s not to love about that? —Stacy-Ann Ellis