Jean Grae & Quelle Chris
[Mello Music Group; 2018]
In an ever-changing reality, we’re always looking for an easy, simulated answer. We seek escape and endorphin pathways over much else. Because why even try anymore? Nothing is as it ever was. Life is filled with pain. Society is in the toilet. But we always have optimism, right? The handy tool to just keep on keeping on. Rarely do we question optimism, afraid of threatening the very cornerstone of that good old fashioned, American brand of determination.
Optimism doesn’t find much comfort in the labyrinthine greatness of Everything’s Fine, the latest thought-provoking release from hip-hop’s most underrated power couple, Jean Grae and Quelle Chris. Here, they deconstruct, criticize, and laugh in the face of optimism, shedding light on the coping mechanism of saying “everything’s fine” in the face of our farcical times. Through the lens of our intertwined relationship with technology, existentialist dread, and healthy skepticism, Grae and Chris demonstrate that suffering has corporeality; the burden of comparison falls upon black bodies a lot quicker than it does others. Everything might be fine, but fine-ness itself lies on an inscrutable spectrum.
This is not tiresome “jazz rap.” Beats stitch together to form an immersive sensorial experience, and the repeated utterance of “everything’s fine!” becomes increasingly unsettling, evolving from a blasé brush-off to a harbinger of the bleak, lifeless limbo birthed by incessant complacency. Whether it’s the siren-like strings that give “The Smoking Man” its haunting immediacy or the loungey, faux-nostalgic interludes placed in between tracks (“Don’t Worry it’s Fine,” “Everything’s Still Fine”), Chris and Grae’s production is as humorous and unsettling as it is eloquent. Strong features round out each track’s narrative strength: Your Old Droog and Denmark Vessey bring healthy doses of aggressive wordplay to the table, while Anna Wise’s restrained melodicism quietly hangs out in the backdrop, setting the stage for stories to unfold.
Perhaps Chris and Grae’s greatest strength is the ability to bring their subject matter into perspective. Right off the bat, the skeletal “My Contribution To This Scam” declares a non-allegiance to rapper stereotypes, that every image of a modern hip-hop aficionado is rife with cognitive dissonances. No idealized manifestation is perfect, so quit waiting for a woke savior to come sweep you away. The fleeting reference to “Cash Me Outside” on another track, “Scoop of Dirt,” is a reminder of how ridiculously hard it’s become to extricate trendiness from hip-hop. While others wax eloquent about the unprecedented decline of rap’s sanctity, Chris and Grae are among the few looking at the bigger picture, having fun, and making fun.
There’s a palpable vitality to this pairing; while Chris plays an extremely laconic game of word association, Grae is immediate, assertive. This is teamwork on colorful display. Despite the seemingly misanthropic attitude carried from bar to bar, it’s the duo’s delightfully self-aware attitude and relentless trade-offs that shine through, making you part of every inside joke, giving you an up-close and personal reality check. Over a modally mysterious rhythm, “Gold Purple Orange” bares its teeth in full brilliance. While Chris sets the stage by methodically listing off clichés we’re accustomed to, Grae self-reflects, perhaps reminiscing about a younger version of herself, closing things out with productivity: “Hey, yes, these ideas exist. But it doesn’t matter! Because one doesn’t have to be anything for anyone but themselves.” This is a pairing unlike other rapping duos out there, simply because of how well they work together to construct cohesive, captivating musical passages. A radically life-affirming breed of pedagogy is therefore created.
But a free life lesson is far from the essence of Everything’s Fine. “Breakfast of Champions” is a poetic testament to being black in 21st-century America — “Why we singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ in the 2000s?” may be the most poignant question ever asked about modern-day race relations. The underlying self-reflections and sorrow of Everything’s Fine goes above and beyond the surface-level hilarity that many are quick to grab on to. “River,” for example, a much-needed throwback to Grae’s 2003-era flows, shines with the sage wisdom of growing old. “Harder to speak within bars,” she admits over a languid beat, highlighting the cruel irony of making rap music. For an album so complex — one that’s simultaneously funny and fearless — it has an uncanny way of simplifying things.