The Social Experiment’s Nico Segal & Nate Fox Talk Intellexual, Their Great New Album Out Today

Admittedly, the name Intellexual is a bit of a forehead-slapper, but hear me out here: The record is good. Like, really good. You’d expect as much from Nico Segal and Nate Fox, guys who played a key role in crafting Chance The Rapper’s euphoric sound and who count Frank Ocean (“U-N-I-T-Y”), Kanye West (“Ultralight Beam”), and other superstars among their collaborators. On the other hand, you might not expect it to sound quite like this.

The duo’s self-titled debut as Intellexual, out today, bears traces of the aesthetic they’ve built as members of the Social Experiment, the Chicago outfit whose jubilant concoctions made them the greatest hip-hop live band since the Roots. But it’s decidedly different from the sound heard on Surf, the 2016 album credited to Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment. (Segal has since ditched the Donnie Trumpet name for obvious reasons.) Intellexual is just as joyously communal, but as Fox explains via phone from his and Segal’s adopted hometown of LA, “It’s just not the same formula.”

That much is clear from the first notes of opening track “Popstar,” when a crisp and dreamy piano loop serves as the launchpad for a swirling symphony of sound, like time-lapse footage of a city coming alive in the morning. That feeling continues throughout the record’s 12 tracks, which blur genre lines in ways that feel natural and intuitive. “It sounds like us making music in 2019,” Segal says. “And yes, we’re influenced by everything from Prince and Joni Mitchell to Biggie Smalls and 2Pac. Hopefully that’s what’s coming through.”

Inspired by their collaboration on Surf track “Pass The Vibes,” Segal and Fox conceived Intellexual as a modern spin on a classic singer-songwriter record — think James Taylor, Carole King, and Carly Simon — with songs written first on guitar or piano and then blown out into hyperreal arrangements that sound like the space between waking and sleep.

Fox considers it an evolution beyond the restrictive notion of a solo artist with an acoustic guitar in a coffee shop: “I think I look at singer-songwriter more as now the formula of, ‘let me write a song and then I can produce it in a bajillion different ways.'” He continues, “I could literally take any sound and any song and flip it into whatever. And so it was kind of like, ‘How far can we go? How far can we go with this acoustic guitar ’til it sounds like something completely different or it’s arranged in a completely different manner?'”

The approach yields many moments of transcendent beauty. Classical strings gently crest over the melancholy guitar-bass tapestry of “Money”; foggy Tame Impala synths introduce the dreamy, footwork-infused “Call You”; on “Over Thinking,” pitched-up vocals provide trembling sing-song narration before a gorgeous horn section spills into the mix; the middle section of “Friction” is propelled by a jazzy hip-house breakdown. The record is a bit like a jewel that reflects light differently depending on the angle you approach it from. It’s folk, hip-hop, dance, soul, jazz, chamber-pop, and any number of other styles all at once.

According to Fox, operating at the intersection of genre came naturally but was also a pointed creative decision. “It’s very much a social comment on just where we are in general,” he says. “I see a lot of change in people’s openness to be kind of ambiguous in who they are in their sexuality and a lot of different things. I feel like we’re getting more towards the focus of people being people. And I think, for me, this album is a reflection of that, where it’s just music being music.”

Segal and Fox ably step to the mic throughout Intellexual, but they’re also joined by an impressive cast of characters including Vic Mensa, Esperanza Spalding, Raury, Knox Fortune, Jean Deaux, Sophia Black, Grace Webber, Francis Starlite, and others. Between the shifting landscape and the voices popping in and out of the mix, they’ve revived one of the most appealing aspects of Surf: the feeling that you’re a Wizard Of Oz-like voyage through an alternate universe populated by fascinating characters. It’s just a slightly different universe this time, gentler and more mirage-like.

“We’ve both been making beats for a long time at various capacities, and some of these beats turn into songs, and some of those songs are our favorite songs ever,” Segal says. “But I just think the process of making tons of beats can become a laborious and slightly mundane process. And I think it was just exciting for us musically to challenge ourselves in this new process, in this new way of making music that we both already loved but we just hadn’t really, really owned yet and really seen what we can do — like, what our true Jedi powers were.”

Now that the album is out, Fox and Segal are already planning more — Segal says he hopes the music’s ambiguity factor will continue to increase — and figuring out how to translate Intellexual into a live experience. “Fortunately,” Fox says, “we’re in an age where technology is moving very quickly and music as a whole hasn’t fully embraced the relationship that could be there between those two worlds. And so what we’ve done is started to explore some of the possibilities and capabilities of today’s technology and how to present music with it. So we do have some really cool things in the works.”

Intellexual is out now on Fantasy Records. Listen and purchase it here.