Chancelor Bennett’s emergence as a liberated visionary really is a miracle. The savvy, young artist has the listener waiting to hear his signature flow from the very first blow of Nico Segal’s trumpet on Surf. The opening croons and brass crescendo of “Miracle” ring blissfully as Chance walks into the proverbial Garden of Eden. Materialistic temptation is denied and the track reverberates with jubilancy, felt by the Social Experiment’s value of life’s legitimacies. The jarring cold of the Chicago native’s winter is melting, water is pouring, and freedom is in the air. Sun peeks through foliage as Chance peeks through the rattling instrumentals and falsetto piano keys to deliver the type of verse everyone knows him for. His lyricism is not that of a sermon, contrary to Acid Rap; this is the choir singing, leading the church-goers in a collective chorus. This song is the first indication of a major genre-bend on Surf.
“Slip Slide” has a video game-like ring, as if Chance is bounding through Mario World, bouncing on mushrooms instead of rapping about them. He’s his own man, confident and backed by Busta Rhymes and his cackling, guttural verse. Along with B.O.B., the trio are grateful and exuberant for the doors they’ve opened. This song represents the album effectively through a playful aura, highlighted by children cheering behind Chance’s reflective murmurs.
This melding assortment of genres is a mix of jazz-rap and funk, with a purer sense of hip-hop. “Warm Enough” is atmospheric and Noname Gypsy delivers something reminiscent of a Lauryn Hill spoken word rap. Just when the track ebbs, J. Cole bewilders with an average guest appearance that although stands out awkwardly, emanates his usual subject matter. Each feature seems to have it’s own purpose, despite not being listed. The artists aren’t separate, but one. There’s no division of contribution, generating a cohesive effort. Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment put dozens of members on every song, providing for each individual sound.
Bennett has a little fun with the track titles, following “Nothing Came to Me” with “Something Came to Me,” both rich instrumental tracks. He cavalierly labels exactly what happened. Piercing, yet beautiful series of horns blare, symbolic of the gears rotating in his head, this time unable to churn out a poem of dictionary definitions. What originally starts as a foreboding and eye-opening introduction to “Nothing Came to Me” gradually smoothes into relaxation. Acid Rap’s street-laden, heavy and gritty topics are now transitioned to the level, glossy, and calm days, punctuated by consciousness.
The album isn’t entirely a long walk on the beach; there are periods of the fast-paced style most Chance the Rapper fans are familiar with. “Wanna Be Cool” and “Just Wait” are prime examples, as both songs employ funky jams led by Donnie Trumpet’s stunning style of trumpet button cadences. The cascade of self-accepting, embraceful proclamations in the face of preconceived standard pours out on “Wanna Be Cool.” The Social Experiment, especially Bennett and Ventura-based rapper Kyle, is the proverbial middle finger to this generation’s social obsession with materialism and vanity.
Surf bends even more with “Windows” and “Caretaker.” Chance preaches to discover inspiration and direction through self-introspection. He’s a guide to the inspiration, not the inspiration that guides. Chants by Raury and BJ the Chicago Kid pepper Bennett’s self-proclaimed favorite song on the LP. There’s a The Lion King-esque rising melody as the song elevates instrumentally and Chance pleadingly warns, “Don’t trust a word I say.” He’s previously been noted as referencing the childhood favorite as a major influence in his musical endeavours. On “Caretaker,” D.R.A.M. sings a wistful ballad promising his care and protection to a lost lover. He admits his recent rise to fame has allowed him to cave into temptation, but his soulful assurance is all the more convincing over the groovy snaps, 808 beats, and tingling taps of a keyboard.
There’s a hint of Pharrell-ish influence on “Familiar,” a contagious song with lush production. Chance pokes fun at the general consensus of the “perfect woman.” Even fellow Chicagoan King Louie and Atlanta-based Quavo make head-turning appearances and delve into their perceptions and experiences. The harder rap seemingly begins to make a return at this point on Surf, when Saba delivers a collapsing verse on “SmthnthtIwnt,” detailing the sorrow and anguish of familial loss. Like Chance, his grandmother is a beacon of reason and future. An ethereal mood graces Saba’s pleas for good in a world clouded with demons.
A more sonic and quiet effect takes over on “Questions” and “Go.” With an “American Boy” ring to it, the theme of love stays relevant on “Go”; the words “Surf’s up” echo as the song echoes out. It’s a breezy theme, seasoned with all kinds of flavor. “Questions” features one of the first true references to sociopolitical commentary on the LP. Relevant more than ever, luring claims by Jamila Woods question the injustice of the place referred to as Chiraq. This song doesn’t burn with the heat of summer, but sizzles with awareness.
The divorce-themed “Rememory” is full of bright, quirky lyricism, a call back to the style of “Favorite Song” on Acid Rap. Chance is a devout and passionate worker, rapping “Take a break when I break my leg.” Erykah Badu, a mentor of Bennett, surprises with a metaphorical mending of broken relationship, using her own experience to represent Chance’s grandmother and her wise, shepherding advice. It’s one of the most passionate songs, ending with a descending staircase of synths and healing horn snippets.
Likely the best song on the LP in terms of production, message, and pure emotion, “Sunday Candy” rings with tropical effervescence. A buoyant vibe prances as Chance dives into his syncopated rhyme scheme. One can’t help but smile as the ode to his beloved grandmother shows his thankful nature. Redolently religious undertones are the focal point of Chance’s raps, paralleling religious references to the his grandmother’s values. As she’s an irreplaceable figure in his life, the gravity of her values have an equal weight to him; even if his knees aren’t pressed to the kneelers. Background beats similar to Acid Rap’s “Everything’s Good” descend gingerly, easing into the album’s closer, “Passing the Vibes.”
This last song is a fitting end to a paradise of unparalleled vivacity. It’s the culmination of the album’s laidback spirit. Eric Butler’s intones are the wind rustling palm leaves over a unperturbed, beige-sanded beach. Chance walks – and at times frolics – this beach with a contagious grin, representative of his insouciant demeanor and progressive nature. Bennett’s figure grows smaller and smaller as he walks away to the tune of breezy guitar strums.
One can’t help but think that Chance won’t be on this live-in-the-present vacation for long. He said it himself: “Everybody’s dying in the summer. Wanna say ya goodbyes? Tell ‘em while it’s spring.”