In college I had an idea for the next great iPhone app: Bandom, a random band name generator. If you were uncreative or indecisive, this app would pick a title for your band, group, or stage-name based on your answers to a random set of questions (i.e., what is your least favorite number?). I abandoned this bold and daring project when I realized that over half of my band names were just variations on Toad the Wet Sprocket – Eat the Red Apple, Jump the Weird Postman, Cat the Hot Tin Roof.
I’m fairly certain that one of the band names I came up with was The Social Experiment, which, then and now, seems a bit corny. It’s too proud and clever by half. The name projects self-awareness but sounds more thrilled with itself than you are.
The name makes sense, however, for the band led by Donnie Trumpet (Nico Segal) and featuring Chance the Rapper. Two years removed from his remarkable 2013 mixtape hit Acid Rap, Chance is not the main attraction on much of Surf as the band, and a few surprise guests, grabs our attention. The highly anticipated album is itself a conscious exercise in social experimentation, a thesis on why hip-hop is, at its best, democracy in action.
If you download Surf for free on iTunes, you’ll notice a curious bit of crediting. Under the artist heading is the name Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, with no mention of Chance. Meanwhile, each song title stands alone without naming the various artists who are featured on the majority of the sixteen tracks. This sneak-attack is somewhat daring. It presupposes that the audience will want to listen to a band led by a guy named Donnie. We obviously know that Chance will play a part in the proceedings, but on which songs? And are we to believe that no one will show up to join him, as Childish Gambino and Action Bronson did on Acid Rap?
Surf relies heavily on answering these questions with surprising mis-direction, and does so with confidence and clarity. This makes the first listening experience, in many ways, the most enjoyable. The album notes don’t recognize a delightfully on-point Busta Rhymes, B.o.B, BJ the Chicago Kid, and Janelle Monaé on “Slip Slide,” which makes the track seem like even more of a surprise party than it already is. The fun continues with cameos from Big Sean and Jeremih on “Wanna Be Cool,” blanketed under the warmth of a 80s swingbeat. J. Cole, King Louie, and Quavo of Migos fame also show up. Even Erykah Badu briefly arrives on “Rememory,” where she asks Chance about his hectic day with her signature lull.
If it had no other virtues, Surf would be worthy for insisting that a great album isn’t about how many featured artists you showcase or the quality of your “sick beats.” It’s about understanding how many elements must work in tandem to create a successful track, how each track must give way to a completed work. There’s enough limelight for everyone and each artist makes the most of their time without ever disrupting The Social Experiment. The absence of credit makes each passing song feel greater than the sum of its parts as a hypnotic effect, aided by various elements of psych rock and jazz, overtakes the listener. Even subconsciously, the album lacks ego.
Yes, many of the contributors are rappers. But Donnie and the gang don’t want to be boxed in to any particular classification. They understand that genre in 2015 is passé and so the album hovers around the territory of To Pimp a Butterfly, sometimes with mixed results. “Nothing Came to Me” and “Something Came to Me” are two of the wordless tracks on Surf and their obvious parallels are less interesting than their titles would suggest. But “Windows” (featuring BJ and Raury) justifies the marriage of jazz and hip-hop with balletic subtly.
And then there is Chance, who, gracious as he may be, was not born to be a sidekick. He makes the most of his talents on Surf, starting the album off with the staggering complexity of “Miracle” (no one meanders quite like Chance) and ending on the triumphant “Sunday Candy.” The latter track was pre-released, and the music video — apparently the best high school production ever of a Wes Anderson movie — accentuates the playful nature of the entire album. The song is so joyful and Jamila Woods croons so angelically that it’s easy to overlook just how good Chance sounds as a vocalist. He may not do the salto mortale quite like Kendrick Lamar, but if 10 Day and Acid Rap introduced us to his verbal dexterity and original flow, Surf shows us his impressive range. He’s here to stay. I told you he should play the Super Bowl.
It’s hard to be critical of artists who willingly share their music with you for the low cost of nothing, especially when they remind you of how much fun you can have when you don’t know what’s coming next. In the age of Spotify and Tidal, Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment have freely shown us just how blissful our ignorance can be. Surf happily subverts its audience by giving us all the moving parts that we want but not the ones we expect. Now that’s a surprise album.