If Surf isn’t as good as Acid Rap (which was one of the two basically perfect releases of 2013) – and why not compare them? They have a lot of the same key players (including the keys players) and features (including BJ the Chicago Kid and Noname Gypsy); they both gratuitous amounts of Chance the Rapper in the middle of it all; they both have the same general sound and, as mentioned, message – that’s because this album dips a little (but noticeably) in quality after “Wanna Be Cool” that isn’t reclaimed until “Sunday Candy”: I mean, nothing happens on “Caretaker,” and I don’t know or care who Quavo is, but he really does fuck up “Familiar”’s hootenanny (“Her body look like a Coke bottle / But I’mma let her do the swallow / Heard she chasing after my dollar / Hit the bucket from the back make her holler”? On this album? Get the fuck out of here!) (Other feature, King Louie, does okay, because at least he understands the song’s vibe.) Elsewhere, 90% of “Go” is its choruses, and you’ll wish “SmthnthtIwnt” was developed more, because Saba’s verse just sounds great (particularly how he accents the right words in the last quarter to help bring the song to climax). And as great as the longing-ness of Jamilia Woods’ showcase on “Questions” or the funny way Eric Butler sings “I want to play the vibraphones!” on “Pass the Vibes,” neither of them reach the euphoric high of “Interlude (That’s Love).” Shit, I’d take that one song over all of the shorter ones here.
That being said, on “Miracle,” “Warm Enough,” “Wanna Be Cool,” “Rememory,” and “Sunday Candy” – all uncoincidentally highlights – this album strikes a mood that’s incredibly rare in hip-hop: warm despite an undertone of sadness. Not to be too over-the-top here, but these songs hit like a kiss from the sun, if the sun could like, tone down the heat a bit enough such that such a thing wouldn’t kill you. This is the stuff in the same vein as early Kanye West (think “Family Business” and “Hey Mama”); as prime conscious acts like Reflection Eternal, Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def and the Roots, just without the pretentiousness; as Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rapjust two years early. This is the stuff that the world could use more of. “Wanna Be Cool”’s message updates Mos Def’s “People get better when they start to understand that, they are valuable / And they not valuable because they got a whole lot of money / Or cause somebody, think they sexy / But they valuable because they have been created by God” (from “Fear Not of Man”) by the infinitely more powerful message: people are valuable, not because of Someone Else made them so or because Someone Else said so by Liking a button on Facebook or Instagram, but because they are. Because you are. What a novel concept, huh? And notice that the album pairs superstars with relative no-names and/or up-and-comers on the same track to further that message: B.o.B. and BJ the Chicago Kid; Busta Rhymes and Janelle Monae; J. Cole and Noname Gypsy; Big Sean and Kyle. To Donnie Trumpet and Chance the Rapper, everyone is equal. This album’s message is just as powerful as that of To Pimp a Butterfly.
The specifics on those specific songs: check out Chance the Rapper playing around with sounds and schemas on “Miracle” (“Which we share cause a pair costs a lot / Not a pair in the world that the world wouldn’t miss much as this / And if it isn’t the same then it’s apples and lemonade”; “Sit with the beat / The chair isn’t fair with you sitting right there … Can’t stand for a Minute man with an iPod … The stair isn’t there when your feet needed therapy.”)
Check out Chance the Rapper demanding hard questions like “Who are you to tell me I can’t love you the way mothers love daughters?” and “Who are you to tell me that I don’t want you the way flesh wants freedom / The way greed love need? The way kings need kingdoms?” on “Warm Enough” (listening to Chance’s verse on that song while wandering Toronto streets after a heartbreak-inspired hangover meant the world to me.)
Check out Chance the Rapper running through more syllables than Eminem on a good day on “Rememory” (and did Eminem ever express emotions like this that weren’t named anger?), “And she break my heart / And take an arm and leg and a car and the kids / And the court’s taking course on me,” before switching flows and lacing the verse with impressive internal rhymes: “And of course I’m remorseful / But more so for the kids forced to use morse code.”
Check out Chance the Rapper doing this bit on “Sunday Candy,” “Mine’s is hand made, pan fried, sun dried / Southside, and beat the devil by a landslide” and successfully selling us the punchline, “I got a future so I’m singing for my grandma / You singing too, but your grandma ain’t my grandma” (which is something Kanye circa-The College Dropout/Late Registration would do).
It baffles me that there are people baffled by Chance the Rapper’s reception: with Kendrick, he’s the greatest hip-hop artist of this decade: name someone more versatile and expressive. (If you were one of the people who were bothered with his yipping on Acid Rap, don’t worry, he barely does that here.)
And it’s not just Chance. This not being a Chance the project (though he dominates every part of the album he appears on), you get a lot more variety than you did on Acid Rap in individual songs: Chance splits the difference between Noname Gypsy’s breathier, spoken word verse and J. Cole’s practically breathless verse on “Warm Enough,” while plucked strings come out of nowhere to carry Cole to his destination. Elsewhere, “Wanna Be Cool” starts off with a doo-wop intro that’s done away so Big Sean can deliver a surprisingly good verse (“Maybe because my older bro was on the honor roll / And the other one was always up in front of the honor / So I’m in the middle like the line in the divide signs”), while Kyle (who?) drops one of the funniest verses you’ll ever hear, from the way he matches Drake’s absurdity (“Baby got her jeans from Goodwill / But I bet that ass look gooooooooood still”), to the way he just blurts out “If a cool guy’s cool in the middle of the forest, man, nobody fucking cares.” And of course, there’s this bit, “Okay let’s remember that shopping at Payless / It just means that you pay less, it don’t make you bae-less / If you don’t get re-tweets, it don’t mean you say less, okay?”
Elsewhere, check out the long-drawn-out journey to the climax of “Windows” at the 2:36 mark, where wordless vocals come in that make it seem like you’re watching the sun come up in the intro scene of a documentary about Africa and the manipulated trumpet tones during the climax of “Something Came to Me” (1:36-onwards). And “Slip Slide”’s hook is purely infectious (like how I imagine an actual slip-slide would be; don’t know, it’s on my bucket list), even if neither of the verses reach the highs of any of the aforementioned ones. For people who don’t want to play “Where’s Janelle”, she first appears in the background around the 2:26 mark, and that’s another thing: there’s ton of harmonic counterpoint going on here, like the keyboard line coming in to Chance’s “Still ain’t did shit with the beat” on “Miracle”; Donnie Trumpet’s contribution in the ending of “Wanna Be Cool”; Chance the Rapper joining in the second instances of the choruses of “Sunday Candy.”
When my mom once asked me why I like hip-hop music, I told her that it was because rappers could rap about anything over anything, the genre inherently could reach places that no other genre could. At the time, I deferred to Nas rapping over classical music on “A Queen’s Story.” But the truth is, I haven’t heard that much hip-hop that even acknowledges those possibilities exist, much less attempt to reach them. Kanye does, Kendrick does. This album does too.