Surf’s Up: Chance the Rapper, A$AP Rocky, and the Cresting Tide of Utopia RapLenny Gilmore/RedEye/TNS via Getty Images
Quick, name your favorite contemporary trumpet player. Is he or she under 40? Under 60? 80?
Due respect to Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Arturo Sandoval, and the thousands of working horn-blowers the world over, performing tirelessly to keep an increasingly uninterested youth culture invested in their instrument of choice. Their long national nightmare might be over. Sort of.
Last Thursday night, the long-promised Surf, a freewheeling tessellation from the Chicago band Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, appeared for free on iTunes. Donnie Trumpet is Nico Segal, a 21-year-old (you guessed it) trumpet player who has become a kind of de facto hip-hop horn accessory, recording with Vic Mensa and touring with Frank Ocean, among other connections. But Surf crashed down mightily not because of Segal and his jazz-funk-soul quartet but because of a fifth member, the most important connection he’s made: Chance the Rapper. The Chicago MC, who has defied the traditional hip-hop narrative — by releasing free albums, refusing to sign a major-label deal, splashing out new songs and stray information with abandon — acts as a sort of host for Surf, appearing on several songs, though not all. When he shows up, his voice explodes with a gleeful whine, like an otter in heat, and then he makes way for a funk breakdown or a verse from Big Sean or an R&B workout by Erykah Badu. Surf unexpectedly and often marvelously teleports guests into its mix — here is a grandiloquent Busta Rhymes providing an elder statesman’s introduction; over there is Migos’s Quavo charming the pants off everyone in his radius; and if you look to your right, you’ll see the up-and-coming R&B balladeer D.R.A.M. melt the hearts of onlookers with a 90-second interlude made of butter and black velvet.
It is a fascinating choice, pinging around this aimlessly, on a record that is by turns exuberant, lush, goofily cheery, and astounding in its scope. There is Zapp and Kirk Franklin and Freddie Hubbard and Kanye West funneling through the Social Experiment’s sound — 50 years of black music pouring forth, privileging nothing and no one, sui generis but highly accessible. Surf is a wild record, incredibly fun and airy and often disjointed in a way that won’t bother you if you’re listening with a beer in your hand and looking at a body of water. It has been praised as a generous and thoroughly modern choice by Chance, a group effort that once again tamps down the rapper-hero myth. He brings together all of his friends, and their friends, so they can be friends. It’s utopia rap — a better tomorrow, today. Music so pure it could revive the trumpet. What a wonderful world.
Last week brought another guest-filled rap album, At.Long.Last.A$AP, the second full-length from A$AP Rocky. If Surf is a cool day at the beach, A.L.L.A. is a funereal midnight Mass — marked by a righteous god, a doomy underworld, and the strolling organ of a blissed-out parishioner high off too much sacred wine. But Rocky is also changing, defying the standards laid out for him to be a savior type, here to save New York City’s rap bona fides by taking a global, high-fashion approach to the genre. Instead, Rocky has recruited allies with a mind toward liveness. The album has three executive producers: Rocky himself, the late sage and tastemaker A$AP Yams,1 and a surprising guru in Danger Mouse. Though the producer began his career making indie rap with artists like Jemini and MF Doom, the erstwhile Brian Burton has spent the better part of this decade working with gilded rock artists U2, the Black Keys, and James Mercer from the Shins (as the duo Broken Bells). But Danger Mouse proves a worthy heir to Yams’s left-of-center spirit — it turns out rap needs a Morricone-esque spaghetti Western maestro, and A.L.L.A.’s sweeping, melancholic vibe provides Rocky with all the meaning and weight that his debut, the discomfiting and erratic Long.Live.A$AP, lacked.
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But A.L.L.A. also has a surprising and robust rotation of guests, often more famous than those found on Surf. They appear at odd moments and without much warning — a late-song filigree of a verse from Kanye West, foreshadowing the announcement of his second child on “Jukebox Joints”; Future and M.I.A. providing out-of-nowhere light and the darkness on “Fine Whine”; Rod Stewart and Miguel howling side by side on “Everyday”; a revivified Mos Def2 on “Back Home.” This is a strange coterie for Rocky, but it works here as well. These artists are in his service, altar boys at his sermon. It takes a lot of vision to get Kanye to carry your cross, and yet Rocky has the insouciant gravitas to pull it off on A.L.L.A. And like Chance, he has also found a musical partner that provides a new dimensionality to his songs: the British guitarist and singer-songwriter Joe Fox, who appears on five songs on the album. Fox has an Albarn-ian croon and an interest in hazy blues chords, but he mostly provides Danger Mouse a sonic threading — he’s the stitch that can cinch Future and M.I.A. When the laconic head trip “Pharsyde” threatens to strangle us, Fox injects some oxygen. Every figure here is essential, and A.L.L.A. feels managed and delicately constructed, like a rap Lego castle; Surf is a bag full of Matchbox cars dumped onto the floor — the sizes are the same, but the shapes and, oh, the colors. Together they point a way forward for two young stars seeking solidity. They’ve found it in numbers.
Nearly two years ago, I wrote about how Kanye West and Jay Z had been absorbing the work of behind-the-scenes players to reenergize their creative missions — siphoning the point of view from the young and hungry in search of a new sound, a new life in an effort to live forever. Kanye and Jay have been at this for decades, and so their moves at the time seemed megalomaniacal. That all depends on your interpretation of their fame. Collaborating in hip-hop is as old as Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh’s truck jewelry, but the singular journey of the iconic MC has become an especially vital iteration of rap’s rise to commercial prominence. There are fewer successful mainstream rap “groups” than ever. Solo stars, and their narrative-driven singles, have been the primary commodity. What Chance and, to a lesser extent, Rocky have strived toward is something that came into focus last year with an R&B album: D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s Black Messiah, which was initially identified as a heroic comeback for a wandering soul god but is credited to a full band. Often cited as carrier of the torch once held by Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield, D’Angelo is as reliant on the work of studio musicians as any of his heroes. Around his 2000 album, Voodoo, it was Questlove and the Soulquarians troupe who helped construct the D’Angelo sound. Black Messiah expands the roster to include names like Pino Palladino, James Gadson, and Kendra Foster — luminaries and unknowns, working side by side on a towering statement. D’Angelo is the bulb, but they are the light.
Kendrick Lamar, another strident and sometimes solemn rap savior-type, released his ambitious To Pimp a Butterfly earlier this year, and I can’t recall a hip-hop album with so much “do it live” in-studio sweep. This is an album about community, and from the ecstatic opening trills of Terrace Martin’s saxophone on “For Free? [Interlude],” it’s clear that this, too, is a collaboration. The sax is privileged so often on Butterfly that an actual jazz musician, the gifted Kamasi Washington, has seen a rise in interest in his sprawling triple album (!), The Epic, after a tenor sax contribution to Kendrick’s “u.” Rap has not always allowed for this kind of spidering glory. When A Tribe Called Quest’s “Jazz (We’ve Got)” was released in 1991, there was a small bump in the interest of bebop’s influence on the still nascent hip-hop genre. But few went out and nabbed the Jimmy McGriff live version of “Green Dolphin Street” that ATCQ sampled. But now, you can count on a Joe Fox album coming soon.
This isn’t the only thing happening in rap these days, and it shouldn’t be mistaken for progress, per se. Kanye is still hunting for a new sound after Yeezus,3 but he is as liable to find it in a machine as he is on the fret board of a guitar or inside an artisanal caftan. Drake continues to work at the outer rim of commercial rap on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, proving that rap’s sound can be familial even when there’s only one son. Big Sean broke through with Dark Sky Paradise, a traditionally “produced” rap album, burbling with samples and synthesizers and Pro Tools settings. Young Thug, Father, and Rae Sremmurd push scope with oddity and energy, if not process. But what Chance and Rocky and Kendrick are after is a widening of the culture — artists introducing one another to new fans, in search of a new modality, a new future for the genre. This isn’t an answer, but it is an option. If they can’t do it alone, they’ll have to do it together.
Filed Under: Music, Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, chance the rapper, Surf, Donnie Trumpet, A$Ap Rocky, Joe Fox, Kendrick Lamar, Danger Mouse, Mos Def, Kanye West, Jay Z, Kamasi Washington, D'Angelo, Black messiah, To Pimp A Butterfly