On “Everything’s Fine,” Jean Grae and Quelle Chris Take Society to Task
By Marcus J. Moore · March 29, 2018
Photos by Mindy Tucker

In early July 2016, rappers Jean Grae and Quelle Chris explained how frustrating it is to release satirical art in modern-day America. They’d just put out Goodnight Courtney, a comedic short about the isolated life of a depressed cartoon character. But the piece came at the end of a devastating news week, just days after black men Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot and killed by law enforcement in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Falcon Heights, Minnesota, respectively, and five police officers were killed in retaliation at a protest in Dallas, Texas. “Every morning,” Grae told Bandcamp, “I can’t just say anything and I can’t just release anything without going online first and checking [to see] if anyone’s dead. It’s not OK.”

“It’s fucked up,” Chris quipped in response, “[…] we can’t even release things to try to be funny, ‘cause then it’s like, ‘Why you tryin’ to be funny right now?’ It’s bad all the damn time.”

On Everything’s Fine, the exquisite new album from Grae and Chris, the performers funnel their angst into a controlled stream of rage, exasperation, mockery, and hope, scrutinizing current events with just the right mix of gravitas and humor. But while it would’ve been easy to merely point the finger at racial and political divisions, the duo take it a step further, holding up a mirror to themselves and their audience. In one way or another, we’ve all helped create the absurdity we’re living through now. We’ve succumbed to guilty pleasures, scrolling for LOLs on the phone or watching some lame-ass reality TV show after a long day of work. We’ve ignored the homeless man asking for money on the subway and pressed mute on our mothers’ incoming calls. In a world where Stormy Daniels could usher D**ald T**mp to his political demise, ridiculous is the new normal.

To drive that point home, “My Contribution to this Scam” mocks just about everyone: Instagram models, stuck-in-the-’90s backpack rappers, incense burning Afrocentrics, hipsters, and YouTube-based critics. Then, on “Gold Purple Orange,” Chris challenges made-up theories and groupthink. “Every mixtape drop gotta be free…,” he says sarcastically. “Everything in the news gotta be real, right?” These questions and others—along with Grae’s self-affirming glimpse into a childhood listening to Depeche Mode, wearing thrift store garb and watching Little Rascals reruns—lead to the song’s overall premise: “I ain’t got to be nothing for you but me…spaceships, they ain’t never out of reach.” Translation: don’t be basic. There’s room for unique artistry that doesn’t fit the mold.

Everything’s Fine is the latest in a series of collaborations between Grae and Chris, who are engaged to be married. Across various projects, including Grae’s iSweatergawd and her That’s Not How You Do That album series, the artists have long created music that lives just beyond the mainstream. In 2017, Chris released what might be his best album to date, Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often, which added to an already robust discography of EPs and instrumental projects. Everything’s Fine is a fully realized effort that—through its sound, conceptual theme and guest appearances—connects with wide swaths of listeners.

jean grae, quelle chris

Featuring comedians Hannibal Buress, John Hodgman, Michael Che, Ashok Kondabolu, and Nick Offerman, rappers Denmark Vessey, Your Old Droog, and MosEL, and singer Anna Wise, Everything’s Fine delves into the phrase that gives the album its title, picking apart its true meaning. Combining jazz-centric arrangements (“Gold Purple Orange”), West Coast G-funk (“House Call”), and lo-fi space funk (“My Contribution to this Scam”), among other genres, the music on Everything’s Fine properly captures the existential struggle of modern times. The beats were all handled by Grae and Chris, who do a masterful job of bringing disparate sounds into focus. The album looks beyond the expression as a cliched response, choosing instead to unpack the latent malaise beneath it. “Seriously, everything’s fine,” Hodgman says at one point, seemingly convincing himself that things haven’t gone to shit.

Near the end of the album, on “Everything’s Still Fine,” Offerman becomes a soothing agent, using his distinctive voice to assure you—sardonically—that your apathy is acceptable. “You don’t have to do anything about issues that don’t affect you,” says the Parks and Recreation star. “[…] Go ahead, be complacent…they won’t come for you.” When combined with Chris’s meditative instrumental of foggy drums and warped keys, the song becomes one of the album’s best tracks, speaking closest to the creators’ collective personality while emphasizing the LP’s premise, that while things might be well for you, the world keeps spinning out of control, and that you should care.

jean grae, quelle chris

The album isn’t solely about ridicule, though. On the reflective “Breakfast of Champions,” Chris scans the news to reconcile his own feelings on police shootings and racial oppression. “Saw somebody else got shot up, this time by some cops in Texas or Virginia, can’t remember,” he rhymes. “Why we singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ in the 2000s? / Devil’s tryna turn this car around, but we’ve been asking ‘Are we there yet?’ for the last 400 miles.” Then, on “The Smoking Man,” a dark track with stomping drums and eerie strings, Chris admires the downside of fame (the song name-checks Kanye West and Bill Cosby, just so you know). Here, Chris eschews the notion of being an underground rapper; in his view, going mainstream and melting down publicly is better than his current status. “I ain’t tryna be a halibut in a small pond,” Chris asserts, “I prefer to evolve and get my walk on.”

The album grows more hopeful as it plays, and on the record’s final track—on the wistful “River”—the musicians circle back to the album’s mission statement, letting you know for the first time that maybe everything is OK—at least as much as it can be. Things are still messy, but life can only get better if you remain true and fight to protect that which you love. Turns out it’s not so bad all the damn time.

-Marcus J. Moore
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