There’s been a lot of print dedicated to telling people that Chance the Rapper will be a featured player on Surf rather than the star. That hasn’t stopped some critics of the surprise, free release (!) from griping about how the whole product isn’t a definitive showcase for Chance’s singular Bugs Bunny-as-Edward G. Robinson style. To be sure, Chance is on the record, but his rapping is as it was advertised in the press: a featured player.
His rapping serves more as an additional instrument to the lush jazz production that defines Surf. If anything, he’s just a necessary link to the relative unknowns in the Social Experiment as well as the “We are the World” ensemble of guest stars. The true star is the horn of Donnie Trumpet which pierces, zips and buoys its way through 52 minutes of a long, strange, wonderful trip.
The whole affair doesn’t start out with its top-billed name, though. It actually begins with a cooing choir of voices on the opening track “Miracle.” The horn is slowly added along with swelling strings and the beep bloop of G-funk synthesizer. Yet, just as Donnie Trumpet makes his present felt, he slowly comes forth and recedes along with the choir, a guitar strum and a beat that barely crawls. The crescendo of this wave of sound starts with the machine gun delivery of Chance, after which it slowly builds to a crash then fades as Chance is singing about the gift of life, “It’s a miracle.” The track is a Jumbo-Tron announcement of the album’s tone of positivity, but at album’s end, you look back at the opener as a picture of the group wiping sweat off their brow.
A lot of people, themes and ideas float in and out of the whole upbeat experience, so many that it leaves you in amazement about how goddamn coherent it all is. There’s ’80s Caribbean-influenced electro pop that recalls the most jubilant parts of Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love on “Wanna Be Cool” and “Slip Slide.” Four to the floor house beats appear for a Janelle Monae-assisted dance party on “Go.” Erykah Badu shows up on “Rememory,” a track that bears enough Soulquarian signifiers to make you think it’s actually a lost track from Mama’s Gun. All of it is held together through Donnie’s trumpet interludes which, at times, are the most dour parts of the record, suggesting that not all contained within is sunshine.
Chance, along with Social Experiment, has always had a certain pep that teetered dangerously close to obnoxious. The all-caps LET’S GET HAPPY moments on Acid Rap bordered on unnervingly cheesy at times. Yet, there was always an underlying darkness to the “It’s A Small World” feel of the whole product. On Surf, you feel those moments in the aforementioned interludes and on moments like “Windows.” Here, Chance raps, “Don’t you look up to me/don’t trust a word I say/don’t end up like me/if you learn one thing today,” suggesting that he’s been struggling to deal with idol worship since his supernova blast in 2013. Donnie’s horn screeches through the beginning lines like an alarm; reinforcing the tenets of Chance’s instruction.
The doubt that Chance conveys on “Windows” parallels his heavyweight bout with industry standards: pushing away major labels, refusing to play into the false binary between him and Chief Keef, and pushing his friends into the conversation before even releasing an official full-length. He’s made every effort to use his pulpit as a means of inclusion rather than drawing boundaries for solo success. It’d be one thing if Chance said the album was not his own, and it turned out to be dominated by him. Yet, he’s not on every song, nor does he necessarily have the best verse when he does appear (shouts out to Noname Gypsy). He knows when to get out of the way and let either his group or the guest stars do the damn thing.
Nowhere is this more evident than on “Familiar,” a track that features drill godfather King L and Quavo of Migos. Pianos strut their stuff, bouncy guitar strums fill space, horns pulse throughout and a flute (!) playfully skirts around the periphery. Meanwhile, Chance manages to get two representatives of rap’s bleakest sub-genres to be at extreme ease in an environment that’s conducive to “Bitties in the BK Lounge” put-downs (King L laughs, “If this bitch from Paris then Paris is terrible/I don’t wanna go there no more/even though I been there before”). “Familiar” offers a different perspective of two distinct voices who are preconceived by some of Chance’s champions as just sneering and belligerent.
The technical, overriding theme of versatility helps explore the album’s Rainbow Row of an emotional spectrum. That versatility starts and ends with Donnie Trumpet, who opens the album with a whimper and closes with a blast of sunshine from his instrument on the bookend “Pass the Vibes.” If there is any consistency throughout the entire album, it’s the presence of his horn. It is there through the dirges of doubt, and it is there to jettison a song into ToonTown.
Overall, the full range that the horn slips in and out of is symbolic not only of Chance’s struggles and triumphs, as an anointed savior of Chicago, but of our own. It tells the story of life’s pain, heartache, humor, happiness, guilt, doubt, suffering and much more. It’s a celebration of not just one mode but a whole explosive palette of them. And, to convey all of them in equal heft deserves the invocation of something supernatural: a miracle.