by David Spelman
In 2011, a group of eight Chicago teenagers burst onto the scene with a couple of fun, high-energy performances at Austin’s South by Southwest festival. This group, Kids These Days, blended hip-hop with rock with jazz with reggae (with etc.) to create a sound that was incredibly difficult to categorize. Led by trumpeter Nico Segal and currently-on-fire MC Vic Mensa, Kids These Days had their debut album produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, made an appearance on Conan and performed at Lollapalooza before disbanding in in the spring of 2013. Segal, who soon began releasing music under the moniker of Donnie Trumpet, caught the eye of Frank Ocean and started a run as the “Thinkin’ Bout You”-singer’s opening act on tour. It was around this time that another Chicago emerged on the national scene: Chance The Rapper.
Chance, a childhood friend of Mensa, soon hooked up with former KTD members Segal and drummer Greg Landfair Jr (as well as Nate Fox & Peter Cottontale) to form Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment. While Kids These Days certainly had their followers, the addition of Chance pushed the band into uncharted territory both musically and commercially. Compared to the more frenetic, almost-punk aesthetic of Kids These Days’ releases, Surf is a more reserved fusion of rap, soul and jazz. In a year where rap music was taken over by the hi-hat-heavy trap sound of Future, Meek Mill & Travis Scott, Surf is a breath of fresh air. It is the rare hip-hop album that is more trills than it is trill.
These days, any major release is full of songs with perfect production painstakingly worked on by professionals, but Surf is DIY at its finest. While the album credits for Surf may be just as long as those for Yeezus, most of the supporting forty-odd songwriters and producers are newcomers to the national scene. However, Surf does have its fair share of big-name contributors, as the album mixes up-and-coming artists with established veterans to create a sound that is truly undefinable. This group of gifted kids from Chicago was able to receive the blessing of the Queen of Neo-Soul Erykah Badu, who appears on her first song since 2013’s Q.U.E.E.N. with Janelle Monae (who of course also appears on Surf). The record has features from Chicago R&B legend Jeremih & red-hot “Cha Cha” singer D.R.A.M., as well as frequent Chance-collaborators Noname Gypsy and BJ the Chicago Kid.
With Mensa surprisingly nowhere to be found on Surf, it is fellow SaveMoney crew member Chance The Rapper who fills the “lead singer” role for the group. Chance preaches about remaining true to one’s self, something that Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment have little trouble with. Segal’s versatility shines throughout the album, from the fun bursts of horns on the Busta Rhymes-featuring “Slip Slide,” to the hauntingly beautiful resonance of the high notes on “Nothing Came to Me,” to the incredible use of staccato on “Just Wait.”
While the influence of those two shine through the most, many of the featured artists certainly leave their marks. J. Cole makes sure “Warm Enough” finishes strong, and Big Sean provides plenty of wit on “Wanna Be Cool” before making way for a playful verse from relative unknown KYLE. Chicago drill legend King Louie provides a brilliant Stacey Dash-referencing guest verse on album centerpiece “Familiar,” which also gets some surprisingly mellow bars from Quavo of Migos. In fact, Surf does an excellent job of mixing in fast-paced tracks with short, slow burning interludes. If you’re looking for one track to dance to, put on “Go” and enjoy some uptempo soulful R&B featuring powerful vocals from someone named Mike Golden. And if you’re looking to slow it down, put on the aptly named “Pass the Vibes,” a reggae jam on an album that was definitely heavier on vibes than grooves.
The best song on the album (and one of the better songs of the last two years) is “Sunday Candy,” which starts with a bright piano riff before a tender verse from Chance about his love for his grandmother. While snare drums and backing horns kick in at just the perfect moments, the show is stolen by Jamila Woods’ powerful voice on the song’s huge chorus.
Donnie Trumpet is not Miles Davis and The Social Experiment are not The Roots — this group of youngsters are truly one-of-a-kind. It seems like the only people Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment won’t collaborate with are those associated with record labels, as the group willingly remains unsigned. Surf isn’t flawless, as getting that many people together in a studio means imperfections will happen. But, something tells me Segal, Chance and the gang are just fine with that.