I worried about Surf. It made sense to worry. Acid Rap, the last mixtape from Chance The Rapper, just burst with promise, but it was so itchy and giddy and full of ideas that it was easy to imagine its creator flying off the rails and losing all focus. Based on the frequently muddled random tracks that Chance threw up on the internet in the two years that followed, Chance seemed like a strong candidate for André 3000 Syndrome, in which an incredibly smart and exciting rapper loses all interest in making rap music entirely, floating off into messy, spazzy, frequently unlistenable artistic experimentation. And at first, Chance’s decision to follow Acid Rap not with his own album but one from a band, a band that merely lists him as a member, as not even the frontman, felt like a classic shying-back, the reaction of a kid who couldn’t handle the pressure of the official follow-up. It reminded me of all the years that Justin Vernon spent forming side projects or that Sufjan Stevens spent writing symphonic odes to highways, when the two of them seemed like they’d be better off just putting together worthy follow-ups to their breakout albums. Well, those worries were unfounded. Chance is rapping his ass off on Surf, but only when he feels like it. When he does sing, he sings with such a dizzy, overflowing warmth that it works on its own terms. And when Chance disappears for songs at a time, he does that beautifully, too. Chance’s decision to fall back into the band structure wasn’t false modesty or nerves. And it wasn’t just the democratic anti-ego impulse at work, either. It’s a musical decision, and a great one. Because Surf works as a triumph of taste and instinct and good feelings. It’s a cast-of-dozens joy-explosion, a summer album for the ages. 2015 has been an absurdly fruitful year, but after bumping Surf, I’m about ready to call it the best album of 2015.
Thanks in part to Surf’s status as a live-band record, it has a sonic consistency that virtually no other rap record can manage. There are all the ideas and genre collisions in the album; it pulls from jazz and funk and soul and gospel and footwork as much as it does from any particular rap subgenre. But everything gels together because the musicians record it so lovingly, pursuing a common idea of how music could and should sound. The first few moments of album opener “Miracle” hit like a drug: A wordless choral coo leading into slow swells from strings and horns, echoing guitar filigrees, faraway chants, G-funk synth whines. All of it supports a group of singers expressing a beautiful and simple sentiment: “If it’s a miracle to be alive and well… / If we fell, we feel we’d be OK.” We’re nearly two minutes in before we hear the first drum sound, and that sound is a subdued splash of cymbal. It’s just a stupidly beautiful introduction, and that sense of beauty never lets up. Donnie Trumpet and his bandmates throw in all these lovely little orchestral touches — a marching-band intro on “Slip Slide,” a juke breakdown on “Sunday Candy,” an understated Jaheim sample on “Caretaker.” And they pull all these moves off with an uncommon confidence, knowing that they can play around with all these toys at their disposal and keep their expansive vision fully intact.
And that freeform adaptability extends to all the voices on the album. Surf is an album full of guests, but the various guest contributions never feel obligatory, or like they’re there for name value. (The Social Experiment add to that impression by refusing to give their guests “featuring” credits on the free iTunes version. If you want to learn who’s on what song, you have to trawl the internet or dig into the individual songs’ metadata. Or you have to just trust your ears.) When the different guests arrive, they tend to make big entrances: Busta Rhymes exploding exuberantly all over “Slip Slide,” Erykah Badu slinking onto the back half of “Rememory.” Within the context of the album’s sunny, euphoric vibe, rappers who I don’t care about at all — J. Cole, B.o.B., Kyle — end up glowing with purpose. Big Sean gives maybe his most likable verse ever on “Wanna Be Cool.” Lead Migo Quavo stops rapping entirely on “Familiar,” singing ecstatically instead and making me think he should sing more often, a thought I never thought I’d have. Chance is a constant presence, but many of his verses feel offhand and conversational. He’s not trying to grab spotlights away from anyone. He’s plenty content to play party host on some songs or to cede others to his peers completely. He’s secure enough to give “SmthnthtIwnt” completely over to his old collaborator Saba, who’s absolutely on fire there. And fleeting as those Chance appearances may be, they show a real development since Acid Rap. He’s no longer switching madly between flows and pitches and squeaks. He’s found a way to exist as a supporting player, letting his voice float rather than flailing for attention. And when the time does come to take the spotlight, as on the transcendently lovely “Sunday Candy,” he does it with understated, big-hearted panache. By giving a little bit less of himself, he’s come to sound like a full-on star.
The Chance of Surf is actually a less complicated and nuanced rapper than the Chance of Acid Rap, and that’s completely OK. Acid Rap was a record made with joy and inventiveness but also fear and anxiety. There were lyrics about putting on fronts so you wouldn’t disappoint your family, or about being afraid to go outside in Chicago in the summertime because that’s when everyone is shooting everyone else. That darkness is gone on Surf. Instead, Surf is a record made with a very specific point-of-view, and that point-of-view is something like “let’s all go hug a sunbeam.” It’s an album made from a sense of boundless joy and possibility, and it never gets much darker than the moment where King Louie is grumbling about women (“If this bitch from Paris, then Paris is terrible” — and even then, he sounds like he’s smiling). “Rememory” is a fundamentally sad song, with Chance rapping from the perspective of a divorced father who’s filled with regret. But the song ends with Erykah Badu cooing comfortingly about how you’re safe, which is about as happy an ending as that song could really have. “Sunday Candy,” the single, is a love song for Chance’s grandmother, a song made from gratitude and explosive affection. Arriving just before the album’s ending, “Sunday Candy” sounds like sunshine breaking through an already-sunny sky. On Acid Rap, Chance rapped about that same grandmother from a place of shame; he had to put Visine in his eyes before she’d kiss him. That sort of nuance isn’t around on Surf. And that nuance will come back to Chance’s music, I’m sure. But right now, he and his friends have made their in-love-with-the-world album, giving it to the world as a present just at the moment where it’s starting to feel like summer outside. The gratitude that Chance raps about feeling for his grandmother on “Sunday Candy”? That’s the gratitude that I feel toward him, and the rest of his band, right now.
Surf is out now for free on iTunes. Stop fucking around and go download it.