If you’ve never taken the plunge into the wonderful world of 1970s rock album credits, you’re likely unaware of the full extent of the incestuous linkages between some of the period’s best-known artists. Take Harry Nilsson, for instance, with records like Son of Schmilsson and Pussy Cats on which former Beatle Ringo Starr plays drums (pseudonymously, as Richie Snare, in the case of the former). Produced by John Lennon, that latter record from 1974 also features contributions from The Who’s Keith Moon, whose own solo outing the following year — Two Sides of the Moon — includes performances from Nilsson and Starr along with David Bowie, Joe Walsh of the Eagles, Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones, and several more. Follow these multiplying threads and the confluences continue in seemingly infinite directions.
Projects such as these are considered by devoted fans a rather special kind of collaboration, one that existed almost naively before the music business had fully capitalized on the marketing potential of supergroups and “special” guests. Hip-hop, of course, has its version of this, in the form of vocal features and recognizable track producers. But somehow those records aren’t approached in the same way. Call it rockism if you must, but in order to know who played what on guest-packed records like David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name or Eric Clapton’s No Reason to Cry, you had to consult liner notes (presuming they were complete), or listen along and guess. By contrast, on most rap records there’s little-to-no mystery to who does what where when. (Mixtapes, of course, are less reliably detailed.) ID3 tags and track names are dutifully completed on major label and indie rap albums alike, each contributing rapper immediately named as a selling point, packaged for marketers, bloggers, and distributors to spit out to their audiences.
This, perhaps, is among of the illicit thrills of Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment’s Surf. A collaborative effort from members of Chance The Rapper’s SaveMoney crew, this eagerly anticipated full-length appeared as a surprise iTunes freebie last Friday, notably devoid of detailed credits. For several weeks, we’d been teased of this project’s patronage with instantly recognizable names like Erykah Badu, B.o.B., and Busta Rhymes. Though some websites rushed to throw together listicle-resembling liner notes (as they also had with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly), most listeners assuredly heard Surf for the first time without such aids. So when Big Sean butts in on the groovy horns and fluttering LinnDrum rhythms of “Wanna Be Cool,” or Migos member Quavo plays very much against type on “Familiar,” it’s a genuine surprise — a bit of the old slap-and-tickle in this perverse, know-everything era of information on demand.
So then, whose record is Surf anyway? Donnie Trumpet, a moniker held by SaveMoney’s Nico Segal, ostensibly leads a second line of brassy players through the streets to make a joyful racket. Issues of technical ownership come off cheap amid the gleeful marching band-style hip-hop of “Slip Slide” or the transfixing jazz disintegration of “Something Came To Me.” Instead, Surf is an expression of abundant creative freedoms, a plurality of talents and visions brought together in an often ramshackle but only scarcely incoherent collection.
Perhaps nobody pulls off this sort of thing better than Prince. From the 1980s onward, the notorious Purple One formed a plethora of projects, groups, and troupes with varying but nonetheless implicit levels of personal involvement. Madhouse, 3rdeyegirl, The Time, Vanity 6, and numerous other endeavors allowed him to flex his virtuoso musculature in both songwriting as well as performative capacities. Though some of this was born out of opportunity, no small amount came out of necessity. Amid business disputes with Warner Bros. in the early 1990s, he embedded himself in his backing band The New Power Generation, releasing a handful of technically non-Prince records with them for the remainder of the decade. Indeed, during that period of protest — when he adopted an ornate, androgynous symbol for a name and became the butt of lazy jokes — The Artist Formerly Known As Prince started NPG Records as an independent outlet for releasing ungodly quantities of music, including new collaborations with his forebears Chaka Khan and Graham Central Station.
While some might find it audacious or sacrilegious to dare compare Chance to Prince, Surf suggests a similarly broad bandwidth for the junior Midwesterner that a genre as temperamental and didactic as hip-hop can’t fulfill. According to the #WellActually Twitter set, it’s apparently quite important that this not be seen as an official Chance The Rapper album or in any way a follow-up to his critically adored breakthrough, 2013’s Acid Rap. Surely few people saw The Time’s What Time Is It? as the direct sequel to Prince’s 1981 classic Controversy. But there’s something altogether foolish about attempting to understand an artist’s work by willfully shutting one’s eyes to the things he does over something as petty as a band’s name or a genre category.
By participating actively in a project that may not technically be his own, Chance can explore the leafy corners and curious creeks of his own musical acreage without the burdensome and possibly stifling pressures of a more official release under his own name. To put it another way, Donnie Trumpet may as well be the Morris Day of this affair. But whoever is truly responsible for Surf should have to own up to the unfortunate reality that it’s not a particularly great album. At times, its unpretentious sloppiness appeals and even charms. Most of the time, The Social Experiment can’t find a hook worth sticking with, a problem not present on the older records it draws influence from. If not for Chance’s involvement, which no doubt drew in the big name guests, we’d probably have heard next to nothing about it at all.
Still, even some of the most talented musicians have made underwhelming or even downright bad records. The 1970s rock gods may have produced songs that continue to define their decade, but even masters like Clapton and Lennon dropped some absolute stinkers that only obsessive fans or contrarians could defend. Many of those 1990s Prince-related NPG projects remain out of print for a damn good reason. Collaborations, by design, hit or miss their marks, sometimes by inches. If rockers can make beautiful mistakes that lead to new aural delights, rappers shouldn’t be denied the same privilege.