Doc Zeus is up 2-1.
For an artist who has been in the rap public consciousness for barely two years, Chance The Rapper seems to have grown bored with hip-hop. 2013’s brilliant, freewheeling Acid Rap was a cigarette break between school periods, a slice of teenage colored life by the looming specter of gun violence and by a broader sense of erasure. It positioned the young Chicagoan as one of the most gifted millennial rappers–a kid who was somber and contemplative but couldn’t stop grinning during Senior Week.
Since that mixtape dropped, Chance has been conspicuously absent. To his credit, he was busy resisting overtures from major record companies, choosing instead to bet on himself (and on his friends). But during his two-year near-sabbatical, the timbre of Chance’s output changed. He began dropping guest verses for a strange mix of pop artists: Justin Bieber, Madonna, James Blake, Skrillex. His solo music stopped being solo–the band with which he was touring, The Social Experiment, became his permanent backing track. Acid Rap and 10 Day were whimsical, perhaps to a fault, but seemed weighty compared to roller rinks and reimaginations of the Arthur theme song.
As its title might suggest, Surf is about summer, but not the kind that the Chance of Acid Rap feared would be his classmates’ last. Billed as an album by Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, it’s an ambitious, if uneven mixture of jazz, indie, neo-soul, gospel, and hip-hop. (When it surfaced on iTunes for free last week, it was labeled, simply, ‘Pop.’)
That musical ambition is Surf‘s defining characteristic. Nico Segal, a.k.a the titular Donnie Trumpet, is given free reign to craft new pathways for the Chance’s expanding sound. Those pathways are obvious and disparate: the album owes heavy debts to Miles Davis’ jazz interludes (“Nothing Came To Me”) and the acid funk of Jamiroquai. At other points, it skews left into naked Beach Boy harmonies (“Miracle”) and Pharrell-inflected neo-disco (“Wanna Be Cool.”). Surf‘s construction is designed to be as pleasing and cozy as possible, bringing familiar melodies, warm harmonies, and famous guests together to connote the pleasures of summer.
Unfortunately, Surf doesn’t quite live up to the standards set by its source material. Much like Kendrick Lamar’s similarly overwrought To Pimp a Butterfly, the songwriting on Surf tends to the featherweight and inconsequential. “Sunday Candy” and “Wanna Be Cool”–a song about not wanting to be cool, get it?–pander inexcusably. Too often, Chance is writing for the guy in your freshman dorm who slipped poetry under girls’ doors: “Who are you to tell me I can’t love you the way mothers love daughters?” precedes “Me and love got a secret handshake and mad inside jokes” and J. Cole’s maudlin “You like the flower I won’t let die/Right before your petals start to wilt, I choose to give you one last try.”
Surf isn’t bad, per se. Nico’s Bitches Brew-nodding jazz interludes snap; some arrangements are fun in spite of their being derivative. “Slip Slide” has its brash, processional trumpet line and Busta Rhymes deployed to superb effect. “Caretaker” is Voodoo filtered through high school open mics. Quavo is on the album.
But Nico, Chance and the gang parrot where they want to innovate. Pushing boundaries and taking hard left turns is commendable. Eclecticism has had cache with hip-hop fans at least since De La Soul rubbed Steely Dan’s “Peg” against Sly & The Family Stone to make “Eye Know.” But nothing on Surf is particularly new. There are no songs that are especially hard to parse, no influences hidden the folds. A rapper isn’t more creative if the alternate path he or she chooses is one that has been beaten to death.
A$AP Rocky is tapping Rod Stewart to Bring New York Back. Kendrick is making tepid jazz and G-funk you’re not supposed to dance to. Chance has seemingly decided that ‘rap’ is too restrictive, and that he has to eschew the label. I have questions. Why are no A&Rs passing these guys the vibrant, innovative rap coming from New York or Los Angeles or Chicago? How many instruments does Beck play? (Is The Love Below the most corrosive influence on talented young rappers?) Basically, when did being a rapper stop being cool?