It’s been quite the few months for Chancelor Bennett. First he released Surf, the out of nowhere follow-up to his sensational Acid Rap mixtape, then he demolished the closing set of Pitchfork Music Festival and topped it off by announcing his Family Matters tour, which kicks off in October.
And somewhere in there, he managed to find the time to announce that he is bringing a life form into this world.
For the record, I still believe the pregnancy announcement may’ve just been a tongue-in-cheek promo for his latest set of road dates. He pulled a similar prank on the public when he announced he was “going to college…” and then kicked off a campus tour in Fall 2014.
But maybe that’s just my cynicism showing through, or concern over the fact that Chance is barely a year older than me and is on the precipice of fatherhood. For this article’s sake, let’s assume Chance is about to be a dad, and take a look at what that means in the context of his latest project.
Full disclosure: I’ve been blown away by Chance’s output over the past few years, but I’m not enamored with Surf, in part because it isn’t actually a Chance the Rapper album.
It’s a Social Experiment album, and, as one member of the band, Chance winds up with about as much airtime as Stix or Petter Cottontale. It’s a bold choice for a rapper on the rise to subjugate himself for a group project, but it certainly speaks to a kind of fatherly maturity.
It would have been easy for Chance to step back into the booth and make an Acid Rap 2 album filled with instrumentals that allow him to showcase his considerable talent behind the mic, but he opted to go a more communal route.
In an interview with The Fader, Chance says, “Surf is Nico’s project,“ and while it’s certainly true that Nico Segal’s trumpet drips from practically every bar of the album, the simple fact of the matter is that most casual fans got the project to hear Chance the Rapper and the Social Experiment, not Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment. It’s hard to examine Surf without looking at Chance’s role, or lack thereof, on the record.
Beyond just the issue of top billing, which is ultimately trivial, the sound and lyricism behind Surf can be contextualized around his recent announcement, and I’m not just referring to obvious nuggets like titling tracks “Caretaker” and “Miracle.” News recently surfaced via The Guardian that Kanye West was originally supposed to narrate the album, and we’ve all seen the effect of fatherhood on West.
Sonically, Surf is a much kinder and gentler album than Chance’s previous work. It doesn’t have any of the hard edges of Acid Rap or 10 Day. As The Fader’s Andrew Nosnitsky writes, “the record roughly splits the difference between spirituals and lullabies.”
While Chance still delves into some difficult subject matter, nothing approaches the haunting pain of “Paranoia” or the braggadocio of “U Got Me Fucked Up.” Overall, it’s a joyous and celebratory album punctuated by gorgeous live instrumentation and a cavalcade of vocalists.
Another element less present on Surf is nostalgia, something that has always been on full display in his previous music.
Some of Chano’s most arresting verses have come from looking back at the past, whether he’s reflecting on skipping prom to spit bars on “Prom Night,” or missing the simplicity of youth on “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” Chance has always trafficked in bittersweet memories, but Surf by in large is an album looking towards the future.
The only track that truly goes all out on nostalgia is the gospel-soaked “Sunday Candy,” which also happens to be the only track from the album to have been released early. It is also the last song on the album to feature Chance rapping, and actually sticks out in a way as one of the most structured songs on the record. In short, it isn’t emblematic of the whole record’s focus.
There’s also a kind of family feel to the album that extends beyond just the Social Experiment itself. Surf is overflowing with guests both local and high profile, but when the album was released on iTunes none of the features were listed. The listener had the opportunity to discover each new feature, from Quavo’s magnificent auto-tune drawl on “Familiar” to Erykah Badu’s soulful crooning on “Rememory.” (You also could’ve just gone on Wikipedia and ruined the whole surprise for yourself, this is the Internet Age after all.)
Chance posited that, “Every record has like 50 people on it,” in his Fader interview, and there is an undeniable community feel to the album that makes it so unique. If you’ve followed Chance at all, you know how much community means to him, from his constant support of other Chicago MCs, to his free Teens in the Park Fest event on Northerly Island in June. Family is obviously a big part of community, and that role has always suited Chance well.
Lastly, and perhaps most glaringly, is the shift in lyricism and subject matter rom Chance’s previous work. He’s never come close to scraping the violent or misogynistic heights of some of his colleagues, but he has indulged in classic hip-hop tropes now and again.
“Smoke Again” is a quintessential weed anthem, and “Fuck You Tahm Bout” checks off just about every box on the ignorant rap checklist, albeit while showcasing Chance’s terrific timing and sense of humor.
Lyrically, Surf is tamer, and comes from a more assured, mellowed-out place that could certainly be described as paternal. On “Warm Enough, “ Chance asks, “Who are you to tell me I can’t love you the way mothers love daughters?/The way Mary was closest to Joseph and babies is close to they father?”
Elsewhere, “Familiar” sends up the interchangeable, shallow girls who have been hounding him since he hit the big time. “She the latest model, but these hoes retro/One in a million, but these bitches special?” he asks sarcastically.
“Wanna Be Cool” accomplishes a similar goal, albeit this time focusing on internal authenticity and the importance of being true to yourself. Chance leaves most of the spotlight to Kyle and Big Sean, but puts plenty of passion and earnestness on the hook to get his point across.
Look, I’m not here to label Surf as “dad rap,” in fact just writing that term made me cringe, but there’s a maturity and family feel to the album that only become more evident in light of this recent news. Chance is a generational talent, and one whose music demonstrates a perspective rarely shown in rap today.
Now let’s just all hope he makes a good ass parent.