Sunday, June 7, 2015

"Surf" is a fascinating sidestep from Chance the Rapper

Chance the Rapper was never going to make Acid Rap 2.  I would have been totally happy with that, since Acid Rap is one of my favorite rap albums of the decade so far, but he's too restless and creative to ever stay in the same place for long.  As he became a breakout star a couple of years ago, it was clear that he had the potential to become the next Kanye West, constantly pushing himself and the boundaries of rap music forward to create works of art that are both brilliant and unexpected.  But it was just as easy to see him becoming the next Andre 3000, remaining a virtuoso talent but seeming uninterested in using it in ways that people want him to.

Surf, the latest release involving Chance the Rapper, finds him more in Andre 3000 mode.  It's not even a Chance album -- it's actually from Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, with Chance serving as just another member of the band.  He sings more often than he raps on Surf, and some songs don't even feature him at all.  The fact that he followed up one of the biggest mixtapes of the last five years with an album where he's reduced to a mere bit player is a fascinating choice, one that may frustrate many fans who were salivating for more from him.  It's akin to Three Stacks only gracing the world with a few feature verses per year and receding back into whatever cave he spends the rest of his time in.

When Chance does live up to his name and decides to rap, it's consistently dazzling.  In the two years since Acid Rap dropped, he's changed his style a little bit.  Gone are the yelps and careening cadences; they've been replaced by a more relaxed, conversational delivery.  Though it may be less volatile, his flow is no less hypnotic.  He's the highlight of every song on which he spits, doling out knotty, hypnotic lines and stopping just as he seems to be hitting his stride.  It's always a little unsatisfying when a verse of his ends before it feels like it should, but you're too happy to have anything in the first place to be too bent out of shape about it.

In place of bars from the man himself is a guest list for the ages.  Chance used his status as rap's hottest prospect to round up all of his new friends, and the result feels like a "We Are the World" combining of powers, with everybody bringing their A-game to the project.  Busta Rhymes sounds more vital than he's sounded in years on "Slip Slide."  Big Sean actually raps on beat on "Wanna Be Cool," and what do you know -- he's actually pretty terrific.  Later, some dweeb named Kyle contributes a verse that would usually be cringeworthy but somehow is kind of charming.  Erykah Badu arrives on "Rememory" like a warm hug.  Other artists like Jeremih, Janelle Monae, and Raury rest deeper in the mix and add texture to the songs.

And it would be a crime to not mention Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, not only because they're ones whose names are on the album, but because their sound is a big reason why this album works so well.  Surf is full of lush, live instrumentation that provides a warm pillow for the rapping and singing to lay on top of.  The short instrumental interludes end up being the weakest parts of the album, but The Social Experiment's contributions on the longer songs are top notch.  "Slip Slide" sounds like an absolute party, while songs like "Windows" and "Just Wait" are murky, dreamy, and beautiful.  By the time the album ends on the gorgeous, full-bodied "Pass the Vibes," you'll wish that every rapper would collaborate with The Social Experiment.

Rap is a genre that doesn't lend itself well to happiness.  It's hard to make joyous rap music without it sounding corny or sappy, but Surf somehow pulls it off.  This is an album about the beauty of collaboration and how much of a miracle it is to be alive.  Basically, it's the most uncool thing on the planet, but it totally doesn't care, which makes it cool in and of itself.  Life is dark and rap can sometimes be even darker, so listening to this feels like the sun coming up over the horizon, letting you know that everything will be okay.  Surf may not be what the world wanted, but it may just be what we need.

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