Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment — Surf [Album Review]

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Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment—Surf
By Zach Haught
Released May 28, 2015

“Good things come to those that wait.”

That’s the theme of “Just Wait,” and it couldn’t be more applicable to the Surf as whole. The album arrived six months later than anticipated, but upon first listen, you probably had to make your way back on Twitter to delete those threatening messages you left Donnie and Chance.

For anyone unaware, the Social Experiment (SoX) is a band comprised of Donnie Trumpet, Peter Cottontale, Nate Fox, Stix, and perhaps the name you’re most familiar with, Chance the Rapper. The band has the intention of swapping out the leader with each project and catering it to their vision. Some were under the false impression this was to be Chance’s follow-up to 2013’s Acid Rap, but Donnie is at the helm here and does not disappoint.

If you’ve seen the Social Experiment live, you had a pretty decent idea on what to expect. The band’s live show has been making waves at festivals through their reimagining of Chance’s solo rap songs into euphoric jam sessions you can’t help but move to. The transition to the studio couldn’t have been smoother, and while it might be along the lines of what you would expect, there’s a good chance you didn’t quite see it coming.

Each member has a long history with one another, so the chemistry was already established. Peter and Donnie have played a major role in establishing Chancellor’s sound dating back to his 10 Day debut, with Nate Fox joining the ride for Acid Rap. Clearly something great is expected when these talents are collaborating, but everyone managed to bring something new or improved to the table in a way we haven’t heard before. Surf acts as the perfect marriage between the warm tones of Acid Rap and the jazz/soul influences of Donnie and Stix’s old band, Kids These Days. I’m not sure we’ve heard any of these producers more on their A-game than they are here.

Donnie Trumpet more than earns his stage name throughout the project whether he’s at the forefront of songs like “Nothing Came to Me” or stepping back from the spotlight while slaying on others like “Wanna Be Cool.” Make no mistake though: Donnie is much more than trumpet player. He’s responsible for several hooks and melodies, playing keys on the album as well. He and Nate were largely responsible for mixing the album, and with the incredible amount of layers and details, mixing this lush, heavenly atmosphere had to be absolute hell.

From the opening vocals on “Miracle” to the closing notes on “Pass the Vibes,” Surf makes for a gorgeous listen. These songs take you through a wide variety of emotions within roughly 51 minutes without coming across as too exhausting. These emotions weave the listener in and out of genres, managing to cover moments of hip-hop, R&B, pop, funk, soul, jazz, house, and reggae. What might be even more surprising is that each is done quite proficiently. Through its ups and downs in mood, it almost always retains that warm, summertime feeling with plenty of live instrumentation that provides a level of depth samples can’t always achieve.

Surf appeals to many aspects of the human condition, but perhaps the sense of community is what sticks the most. It took over 50 people to craft the album. We can all think of examples of features based purely on what’s currently hot rather than artistic vision, but this wasn’t some ploy to garner interest in the project through features. Hell, the band doesn’t even inform listeners of the features in the tracklisting to keep you guessing what happens next. Each person serves a distinct purpose, no matter how big or small. It’s a group of like-minded yet incredibly different artists all coming together to achieve what Donnie has in mind.

Most of these features play the background, but there are some rappers and singers that steal the show. Many fans were ecstatic over surprise features from the likes of Busta Rhymes, B.o.B, Janelle Monae, J.Cole, Big Sean, King Louie, Quavo from Migos and Erykah Badu. Each makes a strong contribution, but it’s some of the lesser known names that make the greatest impression.

Noname Gypsy continues a solid track record of head-turning verses with “Warm Enough,” as does Saba on the darker “SmthnIwnt.” D.R.A.M. provides a baby-making anthem as he croons through “Caretaker,” while Jamila Woods proves to be the most consistent name you hadn’t heard before. We’ve been aware she knocked “Sunday Candy” out of the park for months, but she takes center stage on the short but sweet “Questions.”

I am admittedly not the biggest KYLE fan, but his verse has a surprising charm to it that makes sense in the context of “Wanna Be Cool.” That said, I would’ve been interested to hear what someone like Childish Gambino would’ve done with that spot. Another feature I am a little on the fence about is Joey Purp on “Go.” It’s a solid verse on paper, but his delivery needed an added amount of charisma in order for it to properly do its job.

Although Chance is the most immediately recognizable name in SoX, he receives the least writing credits. Some might not be happy with this, but Chance was used the perfect amount. If there was any less Chance, it just wouldn’t feel right. Not only would fans be upset, but it would throw off the vibe of the album. However, if there was any more Chance, it might have detracted too much attention from the group effort and Donnie’s vision. When Surf first started being discussed by blogs, too much emphasis was placed on Chance because that’s what was going to attract readers. If Chance had been too much of the focus here, it wouldn’t have helped the group cause. After the immediate success of the project as is though, both “Donnie Trumpet” and “the Social Experiment” are becoming names that can stand on their own as popular, creative forces.

That said, Chance makes important contributions when present. Clear standouts on his end are found on the softer, clearly Lion King-inspired “Windows” and the jukey, church choir anthem for grandmothers everywhere, “Sunday Candy.” He delivers some rapid fire heat with an almost spoken word vibe over “Miracle” and “Rememory,” while singing softly of waiting for those you love on the latter half of “Just Wait.” Chance also forms an unlikely alliance with King Louie and Quavo of Migos to craft the most polite “these hos are all the same” message you’ve ever heard on the summer jam, “Familiar.” Also while “Thotty” might not see the light of day, fans get to finally hear him and Cole link up on “Warm Enough.”

Each member of the Social Experiment played a hand in crafting their own unique brand of hip-hop. It’s one that’s not afraid to dip its toes in other genres while staying true to its roots. It’s able to naturally combine epic jam sessions with a level of poppiness that keeps each song infectious. While on different ends of the spectrum, albums like this and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly are taking hip-hop into such a refreshing territory in 2015. Importance is being placed on becoming a complete artist rather than the simplest idea of a rapper or of what hip-hop should be. The ripples are starting to be felt, and based on its feedback, it’s only a matter of time before we see the industry riding the wave. Surf’s up.

4point51

4.5 out of 5 stars