Living in the United States during the information age can be a punishing existence. Along with the constant struggle just to keep your head above water, just living your life, you’re constantly bombarded with evidence that things are getting even more difficult. That good deeds don’t matter. That the bad guys are winning. It’s tempting to just want to sit in the dark, curled up in the fetal position, and just wait for it all to be over.
Everything’s Fine, recorded by New York’s Jean Grae and Detroit’s Quelle Chris, is a meditation on the means that people can use to cope with these troubling times. They examine why self-delusion seems like a viable option, and why just smiling and repeating “everything is fine” can be a preferable alternative to feeling the weight of it all.
Both Tsidi “Jean Grae” Ibrahim and Gavin “Quelle Chris” Tennille are veteran recording artists. Jean Grae spent years grinding in the New York City underground, both as a member of Natural Resource and as a solo artist. Since the early ’00s, she now has more than a few dozen solo projects to her name. Meanwhile, Quelle Chris has been a prolific rapper and producer throughout the ’10s. As a recording artist, he’s put together a thorough yet underrated discography, including Shotgun and Sleek Rifle (2010) and Ghost At the Finish Line (2013). As a producer, he’s worked with hometown heroes like Danny Brown and Marv Won, as well as NYC hard rocks like Sean Price and Pharoahe Monch.
Everything’s Fine is the best full-length album that either of them has ever been involved with. The pair, now engaged to be married to each other, possesses an undeniable chemistry on record. Through their raps, they convey equal parts despair, reflection, and humor when considering the dumpster fire that human existence has degenerated into. But even while staring into the abyss, they fight against apathy and complacency.
The duo has just as much chemistry behind the boards, as Quelle and/or Jean produce every song on the game. The pair creates a distinctive sound palette for Everything’s Fine. Much of the production is chaotic and occasionally harsh, but the album also holds moments of great musical beauty.
The album begins with the murky and stripped-down “My Contributions To This Scam,” a dedication to the seemingly inescapable artificiality that permeates rap music these days. Both Jean and Quelle rail against bandwagoners, wannabe tastemakers, and scenesters who listen to hip-hop as a form of cultural currency rather than out of genuine love for the music. Jean begins the track by going for the throat, rapping, “You're Dot in the Wiz, you bring nothing, you ruin shit / Douchey Axe body spray influences.” Meanwhile, Quelle can’t hide his contempt with lines like, “Ya clan’s trying to get in the lens, they all fans now / Been hip-hop since Kris Kross was turning pants ’round.”
“Gold Purple Orange” is the album’s first single and one of its highlights, as Quelle and Jean rap atop dusty and muted drums and basslines, musing how they live outside of common cultural conceptions of what’s expected of them. Big Tone appears with Quelle on the deeply dark and muddy funk of “House Call,” which would sound at home on an early Redman album, as both detail how self-medication through marijuana and liquor has become a necessity.
Quelle is joined by frequent collaborator Denmark Vessey on “The Smoking Man,” their fairly tongue-and-cheek ode to conspiracy theories and secret societies, which they litter with references to Men In Black and They Live. In contrast, “Breakfast of Champions” is a grim and desperate track that chronicles how exhausting eternal vigilance can be. Over gothic organs and using muffled feedback on their vocals, the pair detail how striving for social justice and equality in a country that often seems doggedly resistant to progress can be a grind.
Quelle expresses frustration at fighting anonymous trolls with lines like, “You just another angry n***a shouting, what you pressing? Why you pouting? / Why we singing 'We Shall Overcome' in the 2000s? / Devil's trying to turn this car around, but we’ve been asking ‘are we there yet?’ for the last 400 miles.” Meanwhile, Jean explains her struggle just making it through the day, rapping, “It beats your body down and straight burns your body out / So you’re wasting time just catering to pain, party down / Getting through the day-to-day to maintain is hard as hell / It ain't fuckin' fair, it's not just ‘get over it’ over or get over it sober.”
With all the rampant despair, Jean and Quelle often infuse Everything’s Fine with gallows humor, and occasionally enlist some professionals to flex their own comedic chops. Comedians John Hodgeman, Michael Che, and Nick Offerman appear on skits throughout the album, reinforcing its prevalent themes. The always hilarious Hannibal Buress contributes to the lyrical side of things on “OhSh.” Over a burbling and muddled bassline and drum-track, he delivers suitably off-kilter and very Hannibal Buress-esque verse, bragging about carrying “book-bags full of Merlot” and assuring the listener that he’s “awkward with chopsticks.”
Everything’s Fine does have its share of lyrical displays. On the “Scoop of Dirt,” Jean, Quelle, and “Hip-Hop Ahmet Ertegun” Your Old Droog all demonstrate their skills over a frenzied, pulsing track that would sound at home on albums by Company Flow or Cannibal Ox. “Zero,” a Jean Grae solo track, boasts similar types of lyrical pugilism and claustrophobic sound aesthetics.
The sonic feel of Everything’s Fine shifts as the album draws to a close. On “Waiting For the Moon,” Jean and Quelle, along with guest Mosel, describe the lives of inner city residents struggling to find hope, rhyming over a traditional slowed down soul loop. The album ends on a somewhat optimistic note with “River,” where both Jean and Quelle illustrate how the tribulations that they continue to endure have made them stronger and have readied them to continue with the struggle. The song’s production is equally inspiring, featuring lush yet delicate keys, ethereal yet haunting vocals, and then soaring strings. It’s a fittingly poignant end to a thematically grueling journey.
Everything’s Fine is the strongest hip-hop album to be released in 2018 thus far, and has set a high bar for other artists to reach for the rest of the year. It’s as good as any album I can think of that creates a rich musical realm that allows the artists to flex the breadth and depth of their skills, as well as articulate their own unique worldview. I hope the duo continue to record music together, because they’re already achieving—if not exceeding—their potential.
Notable Tracks: “Breakfast of Champions” | “OhSh” | “Scoop of Dirt” | “River”