“The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching…These anti-rebels would be … too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh, how banal.'”
The above quote is from famed American author David Foster Wallace and I believe that the musicians, Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment with their album, Surf, released on May 29th, is one of the few instances where a music group on the musical pulse of today’s youth are succeeding in the above premonition: emerging artists who, consciously or not, rebel against the stagnating nature of irony and cynicism, and in substitution of that aspire for something entirely opposite: sentimentality.
Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment is a musical collective consisting of Chicago-born musicians Nico Segal (Donnie Trumpet), Chance The Rapper (Peter Cottontale), Nate Fox, and Greg Landfair Jr. What exactly ‘the social experiment’ is that they are alluding to still remains a bit of an elusive truth; there is not a well of information behind the conceptual underpinnings of the group. There are a few interviews in which they ambiguously claim to aspire to the “bohemian lifestyle of musicians” while also aiming to make music for “grandma’s and babies.”
Surf, which is also the first release on iTunes to be made free, and currently has over 10 million individual track downloads, is a sprawling musical journey where, as one very early review rightfully commented, “… latin rhythms coexist with gospel… Beach Boys’ harmonies rub shoulders with disco, and “Lion King”-scale theatrical production rolls into psychedelia and rap.”
Because of this, Surf in its entirety has the spectacular sensation of feeling both dense and wide-ranging. Some songs give the impression of being a mosaic sound-collage of sorts, as if The Social Experiment set the challenge for themselves of including as many different instruments and sounds as possible. The ebullient track “Familiar” is a good example of this. But to me, the album is, or at the very minimum strives to be, more than its sweeping musicality and indeed about “something deeper”, precisely on a thematic level.
From the opening track, a strange and atonal yet melodic and alluring opener, “Miracle,” which is arguably about the miracle of being alive, to the album’s closer, “Pass the Vibes,” a breezy Hawaiian-esque track that declares in its final moments one of the more pure musical sentiments in 2015 so far, “I want to play the vibraphones!”, I believe (or theorize, I don’t know the difference anymore), that Surf aims to take the listener through an emotional voyage. It offers a journey from various perspectives, with emotional and eternal treasures of wisdom intended to be appreciated on a timeless level.
In this perspective, it would also help explain the album’s somewhat enigmatic cover (see above). A black-and-white photograph of a message in a bottle that is washed ashore. Is this free album intended to be that message in the bottle, that may “wash ashore” for a curious music listener 50 years from now? What helps support this lofty ideal for an album is the lyrical and thus conceptual content of Surf, which has a plethora of contribution behind it. Although this is an album billed as The Social Experiment, it is also a deeply collaborative effort from a seemingly conflicting group of musicians.
From Hip-Hop legends Busta Rhymes and Erykah Badu, to contemporary giants such as J. Cole and Big Sean, and then finally to little known Chicago MC’s and singers such as Noname Gypsy, Jamilia Woods, and BJ The Chicago Kid that happen to be in The Social Experiment’s social circle, Surf relishes in these features and sometimes these features even outshine the band’s lyrical front-man, Chance The Rapper. That is not to say that Chance the Rapper does not hold his own on the album, and it’s his particular spoken-word inspired opening verse on ‘Miracle’ that is one of the best moments on the album, but it just so happens that the features are really, really good. And I believe they are so good because every lyricist on the album does so well at adding and/or blending into the album’s soundtrack.
For instance, on tracks such as “Slip Slide” and “Wanna Be Cool,” tunes that on a sonic level come across so blissfully happy that they sound like something you’d hear on a Nickelodeon children’s show, the lyricists endorse the notions of “standing on your own two feet” and “spending time to find yourself”. This sort of emotional directness to relatively cheesy moral stereotypes may in fact turn many listeners off, but some may really get behind the album’s aspiration to be as innocent and hopeful as it is.
However, balancing these moments of childlike joy and wonder are tracks that are deeply sorrowful, melancholic and even existentially adrift, and this duality is where the album shines. Neither side outshines one another, instead they play into one complete musical flow that adheres to the inherent quality of life itself; that it is both and at the same time a completely bittersweet affair.
The stand out, towards-the-end tracks, “Rememory” and “Questions,” embody these ideas very well. “Rememory” tells a surreal story of a worried father in the midst of a divorce, watching his children’s voices being drowned out. The lyrics “Tell me how you feel inside / Young man, lay your head down / Tell me of your day” engross this track particularly. “Questions” on the other hand is a simple mediation on a woman asking why all her fellow acquaintances in her city are succumbing to violence, both from gangs and from the police.
All in all, Surf has completely enthralled me this past month and I want to know if anyone else felt this way with it. There is still a lot to talk about with the album, but the sweeping and conflicting ranges of sounds and emotions coupled with the spectacularly cohesive rhythm really grabbed my attention and admiration from the get-go, and only deepens with closer and more frequent exposure to it. The initial, most head-scratching tracks are the trumpet instrumentals, “Nothing Came to Me” and its counterpart, “Something Came To Me.” Upon first listens, these tracks were the most skippable. Now I believe they completely contribute and expand the emotional scope of the album as a whole.
It is an album loaded with ideas on both a musical and thematic level, and its transcendence of being diagnosed a single genre placement will do well for it in the long-term. I recommend this album to any curious and open-minded music enthusiast. Though its’ influence in Hip-Hop is heavy, and one’s mileage and tolerance for the genre as a whole may vary (basically, if you’re an old person who has a hard time accepting the cultural relevancy and artistic credibility of Hip-Hop), but one might be surprised at the musicality of the project as a whole.
FAVE TRACKS: MIRACLE, SLIP SLIDE, WINDOWS, CARETAKER, FAMILIAR, SMTHNTHTIWNT, SOMETHING CAME TO ME, REMEMORY, SUNDAY CANDY, PASS THE VIBES