Saturday, June 13, 2015

album review: 'surf' by donnie trumpet & the social experiment

Oh, I've been getting a lot of requests for this one.

And I'm not surprised either, because if we're looking for rappers who many have asked that I cover in some way, shape or form, Chance The Rapper would be near the top of that list. With an off-kilter, free-flowing style and wordplay that seemed to skitter across rhymes and concepts with effortless ease, Chance built a ton of buzz with his breakthrough mixtape Acid Rap in 2013, and while I didn't love that tape, I did appreciate his boundless personality and off-kilter brand of wordplay. The odd thing is that Chance The Rapper tends to get in the way of his best material - either it would come from his production being a little overmixed or his actual content not always adding up to as much as I had hoped.

But then again, when I heard he was teaming up with Donnie Trumpet and several of the producers he had worked with on Acid Rap to create the collective The Social Experiment and they were going to be dropping a record called Surf, I figured it might be a interesting experiment, especially considering this is really Chance The Rapper's first official "album". Something lightweight, fun, and with a frankly stupefying list of guest stars that spanned from Big Sean and Jeremih to Janelle Monae and Erykah Badu, I knew I had to give this record my due consideration. So how did it turn out?

I have to be honest, folks, I wanted to like this album a lot more than I actually do. I've been listening through this record again and again trying to find what so many critics have raved over, but instead I've found an oddly limp, meandering, thematically scattershot, frequently grating record that rarely feels as deep or spiritual than it thinks it is. And here's the thing: if I dig deep, I can get the appeal, as the record this reminds me most of Brian Wilson's long-awaited and critically adored Smile! in balancing childlike innocence with adult melancholy and the eclectic instrumentation. But between the sloppy production and uneven mood, instrumentation that rarely has the sort of colour and tightness you'd expect, and a selection of performances that underwhelmed me in terms of content and delivery, the vibes they're looking to pass seem to falter halfway through and make me want to go back to listen to LunchMoney Lewis' debut EP Bills, which was a lot more enjoyable.

So let's get the first thing out of the way: if you're going in expecting this to be a Chance The Rapper project in everything but name, you're going to leave disappointed - for as much as his carefree yet melancholic mood colours this entire record, he doesn't really have as many verses as expected in between the instrumental interludes and overloaded guest star list. If anything, this album is most characterized by the effects-laiden trumpet work of Nico Segal, aka Donnie Trumpet. And man, for a good chunk of this album it falls flat, and I can point my finger directly at the production. And I know some of you will say that the tinny, thin sound of the trumpet is because I only listened to it on headphones - but when I put it on my stereo, it still felt blaring and shrill and underweight, the sound of the horns lacking enough in the low-end to add body to the melodies it carried. Take the jam session that opened 'Just Wait' - there was no organic depth to the trumpet, and while I can appreciate the free jazz playing, the texture of it just didn't flow, especially against the synths and backing vocals. Or on the instrumental interlude 'Something Came To Me', where it feels we got more empty air not carrying a melody than the actual tune of the song, pressed through a lo-fi filter that abruptly shifts midsong into a blubbery film that sounds outright terrible. It made me yearn for some of the hazier guitar elements and more eclectic percussion - a shame that so much of it was isolated in the background of the mix in smeared over textures. And yet bizarrely whenever a thicker bassline or drum machine came in, it always had way more presence, and considering none of the bass had any tightness, it feels like the more interesting elements were marginalized. Take a song like 'Go' - everyone has already drawn the parallel to Kanye West and Estelle's 'American Boy', but the sloppy layering where voices pile on top of a pretty decent groove and that tinny trumpet squeals all over everything - the guitar could have anchored the song really well, and it just sounds like a mess.

And what's maddening is that it's inconsistent - the wet mist on the back half of 'Slip Slide', the languid outdoor vibe of 'Warm Enough', the Beach Boys-inspired vocals that opened the bright jazzy vibe of 'Wanna Be Cool', the great guitar lick and piano that anchors most of 'Familiar', all of the bright reggae and gospel-inspired 'Sunday Candy', these are great moments. And I can even excuse some of the sloppier vocal mastering - it's trying to imitate the live drum circle feel where the actual words matter less than simply the voice creating the harmony. I just wish the quality of the mastering was better, as there are several moments where the vocal pickups aren't on the same quality level of each other within the same track, or they had taken more time to make the harmonies sound more organic, or simply aren't at the same volume - there's no reason for B.o.B.'s verse to be as quiet as it is on 'Slip Slide', especially when placed in contrast with Busta Rhymes, and you can barely hear Janelle Monae at all! Or take 'Familiar' - I don't like how the groove drops back for the verses, but what's more egregious is the quality of the recording for each set of bars seems wildly different, and the autotune over Quavo's verse makes it all the more blatant. Or 'Why', where the vocal leads are so clumsily arranged and smothered in reverb and set against a popping beat before ending on brighter acoustic instrumentation and none of it flows well. And that's not counting the points where the mastering quality seems to shift or drop in midsong without warning, like the abrupt fuzzy shift on 'Rememory' that is saved because of Erykah Badu but it still is nowhere near as good as it could have been, or the terribly produced 'Just Wait', especially with the drums and pitch-shifted vocals. Yeah, those are all over this album, and for the most part they completely don't fit the vibe, the absolute worst case being the smeared over lo-fi choppy mess that is 'SmthnthtIwnt' that's really only redeemed by Saba going hard as hell. 

That's one thing I will give this album: the guest rappers really show surprisingly well. Busta Rhymes' verse isn't his best but it's still solid, J.Cole uses his sincerity to his advantage, and it's been a long time since I've heard Big Sean drop a verse that strong and on point.The verses I liked the most, though, came from some of Chance's Chicago friends who took the opportunity to just snap. I've already mentioned Saba, but I dug King Louie's verse and KYLE's verse on 'Wanna Be Cool' was just pure awesome hilarity. The verse that intrigued me the most was Noname Gypsy - she was great on Acid Rap, I really dug her work on The Water[s] from Mick Jenkins last year, and her impressionistic descriptive lyrics and solid flow is enough to get me intrigued to check out more of her projects. As for Chance himself... I dunno, I still like his flow, but maybe it was me not really loving his more melancholic singing or his bars lacking in more interesting content, but I didn't find myself wanting more from him.

This is where we have to talk about the content, and this is where I want to go back to Brian Wilson's Smile, which shares a startling amount in common in terms of themes and tone - both records are childlike and incredibly sincere, and yet there's a melancholy to the record that adds gravitas - the smile means so much more when set against the frown. And yeah, some of it has more weight because of the history behind Smile!, but taken on its own, the immersive Americana, the genuine whimsy, the beautiful collages of sounds and eclectic instrumentation, and all of it anchored in the most powerful sense of optimism. And here's the thing: Surf desperately wants to do something similar: defiantly uncool, relentlessly positive yet touched with enough melancholy to add weight, fragments of genuine angst... but the key word here is 'fragments'. I don't mind corniness, but when you pair it with songs like 'Familiar', the takedown of basic bitches, and near the end throw on 'Rememory' where Chance laments a divorce, the thematic consistency gets even shakier. Now to be fair, I get that the inconsistency is intentional - when you have tracks like 'Windows' making the implication that everyone must find their own path to positivity, I get it - although I'd also argue the universality runs into problems when you have songs trying to take people down a peg. The reason that 'Sunday Candy' works so damn well is because it's straightforward, bright, and cheery, a genuine happy moment celebrating a child's love for their grandmother, which is damn near universal.

But again, for an album being all about the vibes, man, it didn't click for me, and I think I've got an idea why. Quite simply, if you look through the paragraphs of credits behind this record, it looks to be a case of far too many hands in the pot. The flow of this record is haphazard to say nothing of the production, the instrumentation isn't nearly as melodic or sticky or bright as you'd hope, and while there are great guest verses here, they don't come together as a whole. It's clumsy, meandering, a fair bit too long, and considering how much raw talent is here, very disappointing. For me, it's a strong 5/10 and only a recommendation if you're curious, or you can groove to those vibes. If you can, all the more power to you, have fun, but for me, I'm going to relisten to Smile and get some real good vibrations.

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