A while back, Chance the Rapper, Nico Segal (aka Donnie Trumpet), and the Social Experiment (their band), covered the theme song to the PBS children’s show Arthur. It was a beautiful interpretation of the mantra you hear so much as a child — that every day can be wonderful, just as long as you believe in yourself— made for those a little more grown-up. His latest project Surf, rides the waves of those positive sentiments in a way that makes you want to sing along to words you don’t even know yet.
In the same giving spirit of Chance’s earlier projects, Surf is free. But that doesn’t mean Surf should be considered a followup to his excellent 2013 album Acid Rap; it’s its own beast, the first collaborative project from Chance, Donnie, and the Social Experiment. And, hey, that’s ultimately a very good thing, because it probably means more and different music from Chance. At some point, Chance will get back to the solo stuff, but Surf opens you up to something wonderfully new; it’s a hip-hop hat-tip to jazz. Delightful jazz! In the end, this Experiment with a capital E suits Chance and his merry band of collaborators. There’s rapping, there’s singing, there’s a member of the Migos, there are jazz interludes. All and all, it comes together as a beautiful, full, and bright piece of music.
Are you listening to it yet? Are you dancing yet? Okay, if not, and just trust me on this, pop on your headphones, go outside, find some sunshine, and put on “Wanna Be Cool,” a song featuring Jeremih, Big Sean, and an artist called KYLE. I dare you not to dance-walk along. At the very least, you’ll begin to choreograph the music video in your head. Soon enough you’ll be belting out the hook’s rad affirmation: “I don’t wanna be cool! I just wanna be ME!” Here are those positive sentiments from Arthur, I mentioned above. You’re cool just the way you are! If you’re just tuning in, this is cool PBS, and we’ll be here all day.
Shoot, Chance and friends even brought musical yogi Janelle Monáe along for the ride. She appears in the song “Slip Slide,” alongside a verse from old-guy Busta Rhymes, and the funky party jam makes it easy to envision yourself at a wedding with Busta Rhymes, where you guys do the electric slide. By the way, Busta is probably a blast at weddings, and is the type that gets on the floor as low as possible when the band gets to the “little bit softer now” part on “Shout.”
Believe it or not, you even hear Quavo of Migos fame singing on the infectious track “Familiar.” It is oh so wonderful, and really picks up the pace. If you’re still skipping down the block imagining some sort of cinematic city day unfold, you might stop to play hop scotch through a group of kids, do a hand jive with a letter carrier, dance a brief waltz with a crossing guard, wave at a bodega proprietor sitting outside, and laugh at a group of kids who just popped the cap off a fire hydrant. At some point, all of the city dwellers you’ve passed through might join together for a West Side Story-style coordinated dance in your fantastical make-believe dream.
Acid Rap was not exactly “rap,” and though this is not the follow up, it fits in with the story of Chance the Rapper as a musician in that pushing genre boundaries is part of what he does so well. Funny coming from a guy with a name that implies nothing is by design, but the overalls-loving Chicago musician is more than just a rapper. This album shows his range, and perhaps parts of his character as a musician. He’s not even on every song. Some songs are mostly if not all instrumental. This is true collaboration, with an amazing assortment of musicians in the cut: We’re talking J. Cole, Jesse Boykins III, freaking Quavo, and living goddess, Erykah Badu.
Often an artist wants a record to say something, but when left open to interpretation, the message doesn’t always get across. I can’t speak for Chance and Donnie, but Surf immediately gave me good feelings in a happy, childlike way; not so different from the way the theme songs of Arthur or Sesame Street do. The feeling is there! Those simple messages of believing in yourself and not caring if you’re cool as long as you’re you are there, even when they’re not explicitly stated. If you feel like dancing or funding a Fraggle Rock reboot after listening to this record, I can’t blame you.