Thursday, April 5, 2018

album review: 'everything's fine' by jean grae & quelle chris

It is very rare when I find a record I can approach for review in so many different ways, but here we are. I could talk about how we've had a pretty damn strong first quarter of 2018 when it comes to underground hip-hop. I could talk about the strong undercurrents of political relevance that are reinvigorated and increasingly refined in this scene thanks much of the nonsense associated with the current U.S. government and a social conscience that seems to at least be getting some critical respect these days. 

Or I could talk about the artists themselves, both underground veterans but for very different reasons, Jean Grae for her critically acclaimed work with 9th Wonder throughout the 2000s spawning a fair few great records, Quelle Chris for his slightly more inconsistent but no less compelling set of work as a rapper and producer, much of which led to his record I reviewed and praised heavily last year Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often. I could talk about their distinctive sensibilities being a fascinating match for each other, or how, when you think about it, I'm not sure I could think of a husband and wife hip-hop duo ever delivering a project together in the history of the genre. Yes, there's Cardi B and Offset's collaborative songs, but they don't remotely feel the same, they're not yet married, I doubt they'll make a project together, and none of that seems like it's going to last. With Jean Grae and Quelle Chris it seems tangible and real, and I was absolutely fascinated how they'd work together on this project, called Everything's Fine - which just by that lets you know it's not going to shy away from the socio-political undercurrents right now and just getting by in these turbulent times. So yeah, I definitely see the appeal and I had a lot of high expectations: what did we find on Everything's Fine?

So this is a tricky record to talk about - hell, I could preface every project in Quelle Chris' orbit as falling in this territory, but this one is different, mostly because so much of its thematic core is about engaging with that uncomfortable complexity and drilling deeper, especially bottled beneath the terse statement that 'everything's fine'. And yet even with that it's the sort of statement that for many people it's a necessary deflection, a smokescreen just to keep everything from falling apart - even if that smoke stings your eyes more than you'd prefer. In short, Jean Grae and Quelle Chris have delivered the sort of project that might seem a little easier to take in than, say, Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often, but that's just the surface - the discomfort of this record, and what makes it genuinely great, maybe even better - is right beneath that.

But let's start with Jean Grae and Quelle Chris as MCs, because in terms of flows and style they're very different rappers: Jean Grae is more technical and sharp, leaning into faster, more aggressive flows and tightly interlaced wordplay while Quelle Chris is more unkempt and offkilter, the sort of rhymes that mostly do connect but in peculiar ways. And while they both maintain their distinctive styles, you can tell they rub off on each other: Jean Grae's always had a playfully sardonic side but Quelle Chris encourages more her to be more slippery and challenging, whereas her bars seem to inspire some welcome tightness and focus to return, which from records like Ghost At The Finish Line and Shotgun & Sleek Rifle is definitely a side of him I like. And while the record can start to drag a bit in its final quarter with multiple songs nearing or passing the five minute mark, there's definitely more momentum overall, helped by guests that can handle the more consistent tone - there isn't the sudden shift of gears that characterized the second half of Being You Is Great, and that helps the subtler, creeping sense of weary unease. Big Tone brings a sharp brand of braggadocious confidence - that demands alcohol to really come to the forefront against the unstable oily warbles of the beat - 'The Smoking Man' brings up Denmark Vassey to point every finger at streams of conspiracy theories to avoid any possible complicity, Your Old Droog easily plays into the guttural bragging of 'Scoop Of Dirt' emphasizing how further outside the norm they can all play, Mosel's contemplative but optimistic side plays really well after the confessional bars on 'Waiting For The Moment', and Hannibal Buress... well, okay, the verse wasn't really good on 'OhSh', but it did fit the quasi-stoned instability that characterized the rest of the song, and it was pretty funny in a goofy way.

And it's that quasi-comedic sensibility I'd like to focus on at least as a part of the content, because while Quelle Chris has always had a certain wry brand of humour, I was reminded a lot of Open Mike Eagle's Dark Comedy in his recruitment of comedians to further explore that laughing in the face of greater darkness - and yet it's very telling that Quelle Chris has both John Hodgman and Nick Offerman deliver their interludes as the (mostly) soothing voices telling us everything is going to be okay. But here's the thing: while it's established very early on that pretty much everyone knows this is bullshit, Quelle Chris and Jean Grae are interested in digging deeper and confronting why we put up those layers of deflection. Some of it is quite literally a survival mechanism against over-stimulation, especially in a world full of people who have little-to-no interest in engaging with nuance or listening, which is established very early on 'My Contribution To This Scam' amidst a cloud of ignorant and shallow takes on rap that deep down they both know by engaging in the culture they share culpability. It's one reason I actually don't take any offense to Jean Grae calling out YouTube reviewers on that song, because in dealing with and misinterpreting the culture at large and the deeper complexities of hip-hop, it's not like she's all that wrong! And those deeper deconstructions and forced nuance erupt all across this record, from Quelle Chris sarcastically rattling through commonly held expectations by anyone where there's probably more layers - reinforced by Jean Grae's confident embrace of complexity even as she calls out those who have less cultural burden to conform to a type for their refusal to examine themselves - as she says on the next song, 'without privilege you ponder the basics'. 

And that's where you hit the great tragedy that both MCs know at a bone-deep level: for as much as they scream for self-awareness and digging deeper and fighting against the systems that would seek easy categorization for minorities or outsider voices - systems that on songs like 'Zero' Jean Grae takes solo because she knows just by her presence she can showcase their fragility - they're still part of the culture at large. There's the weight of systemic racism and sexism highlighted on 'Breakfast Of Champions', where even after decades there is still so much more to do and it can exact a physical toll - especially among those who can't help but be aware of it at all times - and then you have 'The Smoking Man', which showcases how it is so much easier to create conspiracy theories for excuses or find some vestige of comfort in parts of the system they can use rather than admit a deeper culpability. And hey, a interlude before that on 'Doing Better Than Ever' we have Dapwell musing that even though it's bad right now, for someone somewhere else it's the best it's ever been living in that system, so why not take a deep breathe and reassure yourself that everything's fine, right? And for most other artists in their place, even the ones willing to dig deeper, this would be where they'd admit some form of defeat - they're both older MCs, they've captured the full range of nuance, they realize how implacable human behavior can be and given their own roles it's not like anything can change... except neither of them do this. Jean Grae primes the pump on 'Zero', but it's the final two songs where that downbeat, tired realism has only served to hone a yearning earnestness for something to be better with the cleansing dawn of mature truth and the realization that any change they want they will have to make themselves, all against the soulful vocals of Anna Wise, muted keys, gleaming touches of strings and flutes, and on 'River', one of the most triumphant blasts of guitar I've heard on a hip-hop album in a long damn time, a fantastic lead-in to Quelle Chris' musings on human imperfections and the subtle assurance to himself that 'Everything's okay, and so they say...'

And I haven't even gotten to much of the production on this record yet, or the wealth of interlaced quotable bars from both MCs that couldn't help but bring a smile to my face. I'll save the latter - seriously, Jean Grae and Quelle Chris bring such distinct flows and sets of references that you'll want to take them in directly - but what's also very telling is that Quelle Chris and Jean Grae also both contributed production to this project - Quelle Chris a little more, but with Jean Grae's work on 'River' and 'Peacock' she has her fair share of highlights. And while I definitely found it pretty damn sharp how Jean Grae flipped her flow into a peculiar rollick I really liked on 'Gold Purple Orange' against the lumpy murk of the bass with the lingering touches of saxophone, what differentiates this record from, say, the last Quelle Chris album is its relatively accessible feel. Nowhere close to being as dense or hazy as his previous work, while this record still has a relatively loose relationship with hooks it still feels remarkably smooth at spots, from the fuzzy buzz of the sparse beat and synth bass 'My Contribution To This Scam', the ominous warping tolls of 'The Smoking Man' against the rattling boom-bap touches, to all of the interludes which have the smooth, soothing tones of a mid-afternoon game show or infomercial. Of course, the more ugly, oppressive side still does roil up - I've already talked about 'Scoop Of Dirt', but then we get the oppressive flattened vocal filters on 'Breakfast Of Champions' against the organ and bass, or the nasal grind of 'Zero' - all of which serves as a distinctive contrast to the dank, slightly muffled percussion around 'OhSh', which gets even more wiry and grimy with the low-end of 'House Call' with its wonky synth warbles, hints of chiptune, and swamped out, jazzy hook. And yet even despite these moments of abrasion, the vocals are audible, the mixing is more well-balanced than it has ever been, all of it contributing to that feeling of subtle, chill accessibility, but ever so slightly throwing you on-edge until the psychological weight becomes too much to bear, which makes the fraction of release the final tunes bring all the more potent.

In short... this was one of those collaborations that the more I thought about it, the more I couldn't find things to complain about or nitpick. The thematic intricacy is top notch, the production delivers a woozy but frequently detailed and melodically compelling tone, the bars are top-notch, and Jean Grae and Quelle Chris show a level of creative chemistry and balance that's rarely paralleled, underground or otherwise. And when you consider it doesn't have the pacing issues that bothered me about Quelle Chris' last record... I'm not quite sure this beats Jeanius, but this is still something really special, and I'd argue it'll quietly become not just one of the best hip-hop records of the year, but one of the best albums period. For me, it's a light 9/10 and absolutely recommended, especially if you're looking for an always insightful frequently funny, often heartbreaking, and remarkably poignant record with bars to spare - not an easy record, but when 'everything's fine', for those who know better, it rarely ever is. So yeah, definitely check this out!

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