, as an album title and as a constantly reiterated mantra, is supposed to be ironic. Irony, here, is a rhetorical strategy that allows one to nominally invoke a concept while conveying its opposite--from the unabated continuity of anti-black police violence to the proliferation of oblivious hip-hop heads skimming off the top of “the culture,” everything is very much not
fine on Everything’s Fine
. But there’s a wrinkle in the irony, as the “one” doing the invoking and conveying throughout this album is in fact two people, a pair who prove themselves intelligent and versatile enough to transform an ostensibly negative energy into something positive, palpable, real
. The soon-to-be-married rappers Quelle Chris and Jean Grae charge the underlying concept of their album with the overwhelming power of saying “No” to the world, but that same world is affirmed in the little details. Yes and no, abstract and concrete, ironic and sincere: the joy of Everything’s Fine
is witnessing Grae and Chris carom harmoniously between these contrary attitudes. This is a concept album through and through, with a host of interrelated skits to boot, but it graciously lacks the draggy homogeneity of its brethren. Integrating a spectrum of differing perspectives into their technically adroit verses, these two rappers end up with something like a masterwork, straddled between polyphony and unity with no sense of labor in how the disorienting specifics are filled in.
After the corrosive game-show opening skit, in which a trio of despondent contestants are coaxed into repeating the album’s title, we immediately receive a sense of Grae and Chris’ lyrical skill and durability. To wit, the two verses on “My Contribution to This Scam” are some of my favorites not just from this year but ever, so full of robust humor and off-kilter rhythms that I wish I could quote them in full and leave it at that. I might point instead to Grae’s righteous pile-on “knock-off Chinatown alleyway circle jerk box-office ratings YouTube reviewer shut up
” or Chris’ oddball flow whilst “slurred slick talkin' off the liquids / Throwin' up like I'm crip walkin’”, but the real joy of “My Contribution” is how these expressive bits of thought flow so easily from one to the next and how that flow generates a sense of wholeness in the context of the album.
Wholeness, too, emanates from the production, handled in all cases by Chris and Grae, which mostly eschews melody and hooks for deep grooves and thick drum patterns that subtly emphasize the rappers’ dexterity. Sometimes this sonic austerity is a bit much even for me, as on the Hannibal Buress-featuring “OhSh,” where Chris takes a cue from Ghostface Killah’s “One” and Slum Village’s “I Don’t Know,” and embeds spoken word samples (“Sheeeeit!”) into the chorus—the tumbling drum sample and needling guitars add up to the opposite of an earworm, a song that dissipates into thin air even while you’re listening to it. (I could also do without the lengthy Dapwell skit, while we’re on the subject.) Yet Everything’s Fine
is also chock full of tracks that beautifully synthesize lyrical affect and sound; two of the very best, “Peacock” and the majestic closer “River,” are produced by Jean Grae. Behind the boards and in front of the mic, Grae is a force of nature: "They came first for me and I spoke up / With every line I spoke they just tightened the yoke up,” goes the pessimistic first lines of “Peacock,” and it’s hard to say whether the swipe of Martin Niemöller’s famous poem or the distorted organ undergirding that sentiment is more compelling.
Chris ain’t slouching either; his flexibility in shuttling between profoundly simple maxims (“Sometimes it's beautiful, sometimes it's not,” Amen) and intricate reflections on the turbulence of life (“Even in its most hectic the city is precious / The powerful pressure felt when learning a hard lesson / Confessions of first times in your lifeline / Came with the sunshine after nights far from your right mind”) allows the excellent suite of the final two songs, 5:29 and 6:56 respectively, to go by in a breeze. Chris showed flashes of this brilliance on last year’s Being You is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often
, but his lackadaisical approach there is instantly superseded by his tighter, more focused flow of ideas on Everything’s Fine
. The effect is consistent and astounding: every single verse on this album by both Grae and Chris attests to their status as first-rate lyrical artists.
I again insist that it takes a whole lot of finesse and ingenuity to spin a negative, fundamentally ironic conception of the world into a resonant piece of art/criticism/storytelling, and these two make it seem effortless. It’s all too easy to draw on the real-life relationship maintained by Grae and Chris to make an aesthetic evaluation of their work together, a temptation one should resist as a critic: art always presents us with a perspective on the world that we should be careful to separate from the real-life circumstances which we might agree gave rise to that perspective. Yet the overwhelming sense Everything’s Fine
leaves you with is that at some point a deep engagement with your artistic craft starts to look a lot like love—love between artists, between artist and audience, and finally a radical love for the world itself, even and especially because we know things will never be fine.