Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – Surf (Extended Review)

Surf_(Donnie_Trumpet_cover) (1)

Chance: the Acid Rapper, the soccer hacky sacker, the cocky khaki jacket jacker. Do allow me to recall his tale. Chancelor Bennett was merely a normal participant of the Chicago youth who happened to get a ten-day suspension from school. He then turned that into an overwhelming positive with 10 Day, the mixtape that earned him respect among the Chicago music camps and jump-started his musical career. After recording a couple less notable projects, Chance got a verse on Childish Gambino’s Royalty mixtape. He then opened for Bino in his 2012 US tour which won him some much-deserved recognition. Then in 2013 lands Acid Rap, a classic contemporary Hip hop mixtape from “Good Ass Intro” to “Good Ass Outro”. The mixtape is eclectic in influence and in execution. When it was released it gained huge mainstream appeal and got a lot of spins on the radio. You may be thinking, “praising Hip hop that was on the radio? In this dull and oversaturated Rap game?” Heresy, I know. What made me love this project and what made those radio spins so integral to that revolves around Acid Rap being great Hip hop. And, for great Hip hop, something that generally falls by the commercial wayside, this had incredible reach and longevity. Go to any dumb college frat party and 70% of the time Acid Rap will be in the crap DJ’s rotation. I’d rather have the success, both in terms of recognition and dollar amounts, that reach like that breeds benefitting an artist making great music rather than the sometimes shallow, artistically one-dimensional artists who traditionally get the radioplay. But, as everyone has been quickly reminding you, this isn’t a Chance the Rapper project, rather one by Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment. So, be ready for me to recycle this intro when Chance drops some solo new new.

Surf is an album I was hotly anticipating for 2015, and that anticipation was only fed by each of its singles, which all impressed me in an unexpected and distinct way. I remember over a year ago now when a still very hot Chance dropped a song called “I Am Very Very Lonely” on his Soundcloud featuring production from this rag-tag group called the Social Experiment, which was then comprised of Peter Cottontale, Nate Fox, and Donnie Trumpet. I initially loved how different this track was. The production was busy but obviously had a lot of attention paid to it. The instrumental had a welcome shift into something more than just a Hip hop beat – much more “Good Ass Intro” than “Smoke Again” to clarify further. The vocals, both in a literal sonic sense and in its execution, were unfamiliar for Chance. But, if you listen for yourself, I think you’ll agree with me when I say that it was done well. Next came “No Better Blues”, another song I loved from my very first listen. Chance proved that he was a voice no one should be missing with Acid Rap but with this track he proved his versatility as a vocalist as opposed to strictly a rapper. This song’s structure is all internal rhymes which are damn entertaining and engaging musically; I will listen to that song just for that “I hate my hands, handshakes, pancakes, child-resistant locks on the pill case” bar. There was also the song “Lady Friend”, which again showcased Chano’s range again as a singer, most notably with a killer falsetto. And, lastly, and probably the best came in the form of “Sunday Candy”, which really did have it all: soaring and sunny production, bright and shining vocals, and thoughtful and effective songwriting. But, to get into Surf itself, much to its detriment, the album was absent of all but one of these tracks. Now, not having the songs that I like is one thing, but replacing them with lukewarm pop music that doesn’t work well together is another.

Unfortunately, this review will short because of just that. Surf, despite having overwhelming potential and showing that they can capitalize on that potential together with its singles, isn’t that enjoyable as a whole. This just could have been such a knock out of the park. Chance is a commercial and critical explosion hiding in the shell of this young performer with a truly one-of-a-kind voice who has great friends with past-proven talent. There isn’t a good reason why this is so underwhelming. The album was framed by journalists and anyone who talked to Chance as a collaboration among friends who lift each other to an upper-echelon to make the music they all want to make. Why I got so excited was because the singles sounded just like that. I mean, they recorded a version of the Arthur theme song which was really fun in addition to felling heartfelt and genuinely carefree. That’s what made me so excited, the stars seemed to be alining and this album promised to be bright, colorful, off-beat, and universal. What we got, though it may be some of those complimentary adjectives, felt very off-balance and didn’t commit to any of the feelings that felt worthy of more attention.

Okay, so I recognize that I must sound like a massive asshole, especially after lashing an album that explores sound and emotion in a timeless way such as this. This album is nice, just shockingly unimpressive. Honestly, there were only two times my jaw dropped due to them doing something I was totally not expecting: 1.) the inclusion of “Familiar” — which Genius.com so eloquently summarized as “the Social Experiment’s ode to basic bitches” — and it benefitting in an odd way from both a King Louie and Quavo verse (those being two individuals who have a wealth of experience with this breed), and 2.) the final track, “Pass the Vibes”, in its blissful entirety. Surf did have its moments, and that’s part of the reason why this album is such a tremendous missed opportunity. This may be me being a pessimist who is connecting the dots backwards when a piece is already complete, but its emotional through-line could have been better fleshed out. Okay, so the main thing this album explores is feels, eventually landing on gratitude, generosity, love, and optimism with its final two songs. This ending is great, and those final two songs are two of the best on the album because of it, but I wish I had more positives to mention past that. That optimistic happy-climax at the end of this project could have been heightened further if the journey through the album that led to it was more personal, focused, and treacherous, for lack of a better term. I don’t mean to return to this again, but if we had even two more of the singles for this album, “No Better Blues” and “I’m Very Very Lonely” for example, I think I’d be able to give Surf a lot more praise. If those two songs were integrated into this album where they would fit thematically, we would have a more filling experience. In the state that it is at after its release, I can’t call it more than a good idea that I wish had its potential fully realized.

That is just my opinion, though. Go listen for yourself. The album has some really cool stuff going for it. As of this reviews release, the album is still up on iTunes for free, so you do not have an excuse not to listen.

Personal highpoints:

“Miracle” / “Windows” / “Sunday Candy”

And a much needed shout out to “Pass the Vibes” for being its own in a spectacular way.

Personal lowpoints:

“Warm Enough” / “Caretaker” / “Go”

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Charlie Johns