Wednesday, March 15, 2017

album review: 'being you is great, i wish i could be you more often' by quelle chris

So I've said in the past that there are a few hip-hop indie labels where it's always a good idea to keep an eye on new releases. Top Dawg Entertainment is one, Strange Famous is another, and while it's a lot smaller and pretty much just for the collective I still dig Doomtree Records. Hell, I'll take Rhymesayers and Stones Throw in a pinch too - but the label I want to talk about here is Mello Music Group. If you know the name it's probably most for Oddisee or Open Mike Eagle, but all sorts of progressive, forward-thinking rap artists have worked with them in the past, and I've been generally pretty impressed.

Now one of the names there that drew some curiosity from me was Quelle Chris, a Detroit rapper and producer who is known to work with Roc Marciano for some harsher yet still thought-provoking and witty hip-hop. Now I'm normally a bit cautious when I dig into rappers affiliated with Roc Marciano, especially if they mimic his delivery - that sort of slow, deliberate delivery can have mixed results for me - but Quelle Chris thankfully was able to switch things up with more intricate and interesting samples - hell, his instrumental project Lullabies For the Broken Brain definitely deserves more attention, I really love some of the sample blends there - and a great sense of relaxed cool humor, most of which seemed to be used to obscure greater existential panics. And while I wasn't exactly wild about his more melancholic tones on Innocent Country, after his newest record began picking up some considerable critical acclaim, I figured I'd dig in, especially given that hip-hop feels like it's been off to a really slow start in 2017. So what did we get with Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often?

Well, I'm not sure whether there's an easy way to explain what I found here. On the one hand, I'm reminded a fair bit of the sad comedic elements of Open Mike Eagle's past few albums, but where he would embrace glitch or a sample set that gave the audience an access point, albeit a thorny one, Quelle Chris here seems to turn inward, into a dusty maze of hazy mirrors that coil into weird little places. It's not a boring listen by any stretch - the cavalcade of samples, great guest verses, and real wit makes this album compelling, but also one that initially doesn't seem all that interested in coalescing its old-school hip-hop bragging into a theme that resonates for anyone beyond Quelle Chris himself... which might actually be part of the point, but we'll get to that. But did I like it? Honestly, this might be a project I appreciate more than I outright love - there's a part of me that likes his more outwardly focused projects like Ghost At The Finish Line and Shotgun & Sleek Rifle - but I think if you're in the right headspace you'll dig this album a lot, especially if you prefer the dry, rougher side of the 'alternative hip-hop' scene.

And the first big key to this is Quelle Chris himself, and I honestly found him a bit of a hard MC to really dissect, especially on this project. He's always had a certain laid-back, understated charisma that reminds in a bizarre way of Snoop Dogg - maybe it's his cadence or delivery or slightly nasal vocal tone or the omnipresent feel of warping elements in the mix that would imply weed smoke - but whereas Snoop was always inclined to invite you to the party, Quelle Chris' party seemed to be more within his own mind, where his own wry observations and bragging play less off an audience and more off his own self-awareness. And yet here more than ever he seems immersed in that world, and coupled with his low drawl it can make it seem like he's outshone by louder, more aggressive, more straightforward MCs. Now granted, we're often getting better verses for it - Elzhi's verse on 'Don't Get Changed' effectively saves that song given how much I couldn't stand the vocal filters and moaning synth that clogged the production, and Jean Grae delivers an impressive set of bars on 'The Prestige' - but while the verses from Roc Marciano, 87 and Big Tone had flavor on 'Fascinating Grass', I ultimately feel the content felt more disorganized than it should, somewhat fitting the moody dark psychedelia of the song but never quite connecting altogether, especially the last verse. Beyond that, most of the guest appearances run support rather than overtake Quelle Chris, from the more decisive and structured support from Denmark Vessey and Cavalier to the more synthetic delivery from experimental singer Bilal Salaam on 'It's Great To Be'... which is the point, because this is very much Quelle Chris' story.

But what is the story here? Well, especially across the first half of this record it can be difficult to tell - the slower tempos and delivery, the hazy, old-school production blending in basslines as thick as molasses, dusty cymbals, warping organ and guitar fragments, the bars with effective but self-deprecating punchlines, it gives the record a languid, reflective, but overall slightly listless feel as Quelle Chris meanders through life. Reflections on wasted youth - figurative and literal - a feeling that he's never quite on trend to compete in the rat race of the music industry, and yet an acknowledgement that he has to keep putting out records and content because this isn't a standard job, he can't exactly retire given his lane... even if he can't quite figure out what that lane is. But what's established very early on on 'Buddies' is the idea that he's comfortable with himself, which on the surface seems to be an assertion of contentment and self love, but dig deeper and it almost becomes dualistic, the parts of him that are more aggressive, more decisive, more likely to take what he wants instead of falling behind. And while on the first half of the record that slower, more relaxed and contemplative side might take over, you can easily take the album's oft-repeated title as being spoken from both personalities - hence, the record with two faces. 

But about midway through, after the big glossy synths on 'The Prestige' and Jean Grae's fiery verse, we get  'The Dreamer In The Den Of Wolves' and the story shifts. We see things swing hard to the other side against a big sleazy wall of raucous horns as it seems like Quelle Chris is on the cusp of breaking big, with one voice punching up his chances - even as it seems willing to compromise his artistic integrity - while the other is the warning, perhaps the dominant voice that held for the first half of the record that ultimately prevented bigger success... at least how it is commonly defined in the mainstream. And what's fascinating is that the album pushes into opulent extremes where things do seem better - the rapping is more accessible and frequently hilarious... but when approached by an old fan asking who Quelle Chris truly is, it's a question that cuts deeper than expected, as he's compromised not just his integrity but a part of his own psyche. And it leads to the cognitive dissonance that wracks both 'Birthdaze' and 'Learn To Love Hate' as he tries to wrench his life back in line with a succession of painful truths - that with the passage of time hip-hop's endless pursuit of wealth feels all the more fragile and there's no good reason to charge straight to the end and win that particular race, so instead he needs to recenter and accept the darker emotions and insecurities that he had suppressed in order to find 'success'. And as the final tracks all indicate, it's not so much about embracing one side or another, but finding the narrow balance between the two, and like the pendulum accepting the swing back and forth to maintain equilibrium. Or, to quote Bruce Banner from The Avengers movie, 'that's the trick, Captain - I'm always angry'.

So in reality, the more thought I gave this record and the more I was willing to dive into its twisting, meandering conversations, the more I came to appreciate the thought, wit, and genuine wisdom that falls beneath it, speaking more against holding an inauthentic position to oneself and maintaining the balance than any single target. I do think there are a few issues - I'm not wild about the chipmunk vocals that crop up on 'Learn To Love Hate' or 'Pendulum Swing', the choruses can drag a little and not with the punch they could, and I'd definitely say there's a stretch of songs early on that if you don't get sucked into the atmosphere or production can drag or feel a tad directionless. But in the end I came to like this a solid bit, enough for a good 8/10 and definitely a recommendation. Yes, I got to this later than I should - Patreon scheduling makes pushing a daunting record like this up the schedule all the more difficult - but at the same time, I'm glad I got to this, and I can see myself revisiting both sides of this record quite often.

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