After Chance the Rapper's 2013 mixtape Acid Rap made him one of hip-hop's hottest properties, many expected him to sign a lucrative record deal and enlist a dream team of A-list producers for his proper solo debut. Instead, he had an epiphany. "I can do whatever I want," says the Chicago artist, 22, with a big laugh. "I don't have to do a fucking thing!"
Last year, Chance dodged expectations and joined the Social Experiment, a loose group of jazz and soul musicians led by his pal Nico Segal, a.k.a. Donnie Trumpet. They spent the next 12 months recording in Chicago, Seattle, Dallas, Atlanta, New York and L.A., and their debut album, Surf, arrived as a free download on iTunes in late May. Chance says he relished the opportunity to work on a project that didn't have his name upfront. "It's hard to have a title in your fucking name!" he says. "When you're Chance the Rapper, it's hard to do other shit. Same thing for Donnie Trumpet. We both picked stupid names."
Chance contributed vocal arrangements to nearly every song on Surf. "I did a little bit of the vocal arranging on Acid Rap, but I was able to go crazy on this one," he says. "I wanted to do some more gospel, harmonic shit, because that's what I've been really into lately." He also helped wrangle guest vocals from a diverse group of artists ranging from J. Cole to Busta Rhymes to Migos' Quavo. "It was fucking amazing," he says. "That's what I've always wanted to do — work with my favorite writers and make something from scratch with them that we can feel like didn't exist before we came in the room."
He's particularly proud of his collaboration with Erykah Badu on the late-album highlight "Rememory." "One of the coolest things she's ever done for me was making me write her part," he says. "Me and her both know, and I'm sure the rest of the world knows, that she could blow everyone away with her own writing. She's the shit, right? But in that one and only instance, she made me not only write the piece, but also lay the reference for her. When I tried to slack off and asked her to finish the rest of it, or tried to go out and smoke a cigarette, she told me to sit my ass down and finish the piece. It was an amazing growing experience."
His own vocal contributions on Surf range from full verses on some songs to just hooks on others. "It's a lot more freedom for me," he says. "There are cases where you can say a lot more in a hook than you can by making things more complex in a verse." He points to "Wanna Be Cool," where he repeatedly sings, "I don't wanna be cool, I just wanna be me." "Being in the space that I am as a writer, and just as a black dude in America, there's this push to be cool, or be what you're expected to be," he explains. "There's a need for a song that puts that in perspective. I think that's an important thing for young children to hear growing up."
These days, he says he's liking the implications of the name Chance the Rapper, which he coined as a high-school senior. "People don't want rap to be anything other than it is," he says. "But genres expand. My contributions, no matter how they sound, will always be rap, because they'll always be black." So will he make a solo album as Chance the Rapper anytime soon? He pauses before replying: "That's a good question. Let's say I don't know."