Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment
Surf Album Review
Released May 28, 2015
Genre: Hip Hop, Pop, Neo-Soul, Jazz, Doo-Wop Magic
You’d expect from one of the most highly anticipated albums of the year, that you’d get something special. You’d expect from a free album, you’d get more bang for your lack of a buck. You’d expect from an album with Chance The Rapper on vocals that you’d get a more vibrant repeat of his commercial and critical hit (and one of my personal favorites) Acid Rap. You’d expect from a band just starting out, that you’d get a fresh taste of new music that is unparalleled in the current music scene. You’d think for a band that has mastered a magical rendition of the Arthur theme song to make some original magic of their own. You’d expect that with an album PACKED with a slew of talented and iconic guest stars would result in a ton of lyrical and musical surprises. And you’d expect that all these expectations would magically make a vibrant, jubilant, genre-bending, and masterful debut that will be talked about for years to come. Ladies and gentlemen, hype’s a bitch.
Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment is composed of Nico Segal (aka Donnie Trumpet), Peter “Cottontale” Wilkins, Nate Fox, Greg “Stix” Landfair Jr., and Chancelor Bennett (aka Chance The Rapper). Landfair and Segal were part of the now-defunct hip hop/soul group Kids These Days (with Vic Mensa) and knowing that it’s easy to see where Surf owes much of its material from. But to judge this album from a hip hop point of view, notably from a Chance the Rapper fan’s point-of-view, is completely unfair. This is Donnie Trumpet’s project and he has the privilege of starting on a completely blank slate, just with Chance on the ride for this one. Given this stand point, this album is still exposed to Chance’s lyrical wordplay, personal stories, and ubiquity, so while a consistent musical style from Chance’s previous efforts can be excused, his songwriting cannot. Moreover, this album isn’t without its hangups.
Surf is an album built upon the foundations of soul, hip hop, pop, gospel, and with some soft hints of rock and R&B. I’ll start with some of the positives; one of the best features on here is Busta Rhymes on “Slip Slide” and it features Donnie Trumpet relishing a fiery trumpet melody that carries the track’s power. Moreover, the supreme track “Sunday Candy” is the band firing on all cylinders as Chance delivers a poignant verse while the instrumentation vacillates between hip hop and neo-soul creating an enthralling hybrid that overflows with joy. If there’s anything worth checking out on this album, it’s this song. However, my praise ends there.
Surf is like an unfinished coloring book: you have a picture of what they were trying to go for, but in the end the result is a bit disappointing. For starters, the production is less than generous for a jazz album as Donnie Trumpet’s less than developed trumpet solos are reduced to irritating shrills or remnants of a solo that is all body but no soul. Additionally, the vocals are sometimes drowned out by the surrounding feedback of the trumpets and they are left either unnoticed or barely heard. Most of the time listening to this album I was busy turning the volume up and down to adjust for the loss of sound. Moreover, the drums overpower much of the instrumentation to the point where the other instruments are completely irrelevant. It doesn’t help either when the instrumentation and ideas thrown together on this album fail to reach expectations or levels of enjoyment shown on tracks like “Sunday Candy” and “Slip Slide”. For an album with an “indie” mindset, Surf is fully loaded with ideas, but altogether it misses its mark, so much.
The word “surf”, in its essence, commonly brings to mind colorful, bright, and sunny moments. The songs, along with the bland and drab album art, fail to associate with the title. Tracks like the hazy “Miracle” and the meandering “Wanna Be Cool” (which has a message that aims for “Be Yourself” but ultimately becomes a “You’ll Never Be Like Me” kind of feel) feel like pictures without any colors, or beach parties in black and white – you have the idea, but the execution is flawed. Chance’s lyrical topics are, arguably, not as intimate or as dark as the ones exhibited on Acid Rap, and that’s completely fine, but they do little to enhance the brightness of the songs here. While some segments of the song, like the last minute or so on “Rememory”, showcase some of the group’s strengths, the album as a whole does little to fully flesh out the potential this band has.
Unlike Kamasi Washington’s epic jazz tribute debut he released this year (I’m not going to be reviewing this, but I will say that the album is incredible. Check it out), Surf is an ensemble album that aims for the stars but can’t quite get off the ground. Production flubs, underwhelming segments, and a lack of memorability and use of star power, Surf is, in my opinion, a disappointment. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment are a talented bunch don’t get me wrong, but this album does little to showcase what they can truly do with their music. The lyrical themes of love, self-improvement, harmony, and camaraderie all hold elements of the vibe that Surf was trying to go for, but the instrumentation, production, and lack of tracks like “Sunday Candy” truly bring this album down.
Surf is wallowing in the shallow end, when it should be conquering maverick waves in the deep; experimenting with different sounds, even experimenting in the slightest, would benefit this more than safe album a lot better than anything I could possibly recommend. Surf is a frenetic neo-soul album that doesn’t quite earn the improvisational jazz label; for now, it’s best labeled as a watered down Kids These Days album.
FAV TRACKS: Slip Slide, Sunday Candy
LEAST FAV TRACKS: Miracle, Just Wait, Go, Something Came To Me