Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment - Surf

Released May 28, 2015

By Brendan Tuytel

Creativity is not graceful in itself. One can fumble expression, or be imperfect in translation; it’s the honed precision of a talented, practiced artist that is appreciated, not just the conception of an idea. In Surf, there are some concepts that will grasp you, draw you in, and engage you with gratifying grooves and energetic presentation, yet it lacks the defined touch of more refined albums. As one can assume from the name, brass is prominently featured on the majority of the beats. These become tiresome, often not differing in tone; it becomes a novelty that can feel self-indulgent at times. The most prominent case of this is the interlude of Nothing Came to Me, a beautiful arrangement brought down by forced, failed brass pitch shifts. It’s cacophonic in comparison to the ambience of the flute and strings behind it.

But the instrumentation is at least unique relative to what others are producing. Organic instrumentation is featured in almost every beat which allows for unique and liberating compositions, perfectly complementing hip hop mainstays new and old like Busta Rhymes and Big Sean. The features are intriguing enough even omitting Social Experiment mainstay, Chicago’s luminous Chance the Rapper. His methodical, poetic approach to hip hop is refreshing contrast when the album hits a rut. However, consistency is the biggest issue with Surf, and it’s something that makes the songs less than the sum of its parts.

Uppity songs like Slip and Slide and Go feature subtle brass notes and gelling artists; no piece of either track is of detriment. Unfortunately, they stand out in part because of how much better they are relative to some of the filler that attempts to string the best standalone songs together. As a result, Surf is more of a flip book than smooth animation. Look closely, more deliberately, and you can see the spaces between the intricately put together images.

Yet, what stands out most to me on this album is how versatile Chance is. His contributions on Rememory and Miracle are just as captivating as his headlining tack, Sunday Candy. His parts are always entertaining, but beyond that, they are often the blood of the album. Such is the downfall of Surf in my eyes. At the end of the day, I really wanted a Chance album. It’s unfair to judge a project for what it could’ve been, or what I wanted; it’s an impossible rubric to adhere to. Yet it’s that potential that keeps Surf from reaching that next level. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment can piece together some lush, laid back arrangements, but they consistently feel like they demand Chance’s exuberant eloquence.

At its worst, Surf is still a fun album perfectly suited for the upcoming summer months. But at its best, there is a subtle complexity rarely seen by channeling the creative liberty of instrumentation. By being a collaborative effort, there are works that incorporate multiple elements into an overall enjoyable package. But together, it just can’t reach the level their creativity wants to hit. If anything, this is a stepping stone, one that retains its value because of how each feature keeps themselves in an appropriately limited role in an endearing play to let the instrumentation be the focal point. However, by doing so, the album has too much excess to be truly great.