Jean Grae and Quelle Chris: Hip-Hop That Lifts the Social Veil

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On a bright winter’s Sunday afternoon, Jean Grae and Quelle Chris sat in an eerily music-free coffee shop on Tompkins Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant having a disagreement — a friendly disagreement, it should be noted, since the two MCs, both prodigiously skilled at coloring outside the lines of hip-hop, are engaged to be married.

At issue was whether a robot Chris had brought up on his phone was creepy. The automaton in question had the blank face and squat height of a child assassin. Chris, who spent time in Detroit before decamping to Brooklyn and moving in with Grae, thought the bot “adorable.” Grae called it “shit-looking.” The banter bounced to domestic tasks like doing the washing up and then back to a different kind of robot, the Roomba, which Chris characterized as “stupid”: “It’s like if you were living with someone who every day asks you where the bathroom is and it’s been a month and they still don’t know where the bathroom is.”

The artists were in good spirits. But as they got to talking about their new collaborative album, Everything’s Fine, the tone turned serious. The sardonic title sets up the project’s central concept: the way an everyday salutation functions as a social veil, obfuscating the truth around us. The album exposes the raw realities of issues like police brutality, racial and gender stereotypes, and privilege. Guest turns from Michael Che, John Hodgman, Nick Offerman, and Hannibal Buress punctuate the narrative, as each comedian riffs on the title (Chris recalled how Buress’s contribution became “progressively drunker” due to a bottle of Jameson that had entered the recording session).

Everything’s Fine opens with a skit where three characters (one a robot) face off in a quiz that involves “only one answer to everything.” (You win no prizes for guessing the correct phrase.) Then “My Contribution to This Scam” rolls into life over a bed of static and thudding drums, Grae and Chris’s animated voices mocking what the rap industry has become and those who populate it. Grae drops rhymes in the manner of a sarcastic therapist who snaps back at her patients; Chris’s timbre is a froggy, baritone squelch that’s apt for expressing oblique witticisms.

The spark of the collaboration was “Breakfast of Champions,” which Chris started writing after waking up to the news of another fatal shooting (“This time by some cops in Texas or Virginia/Can’t remember,” he rhymes, capturing the grim inevitability of a moment all too certain to repeat itself). He was walking from Bed-Stuy to Bushwick when he was struck by the idea to turn a boast from Biz Markie’s 1988 party jam “Nobody Beats the Biz” into a grisly hook — “Bound to wreck your body and straight burn your body out” — that he and Grae repeat throughout their verses. “Over the last couple of years there were so many instances of police brutality,” said Grae. “So many days when it was just crying, and a lot of times we were in a room with a lot of white people and it was like, ‘I can’t talk to you right now.’ ” Hearing Chris’s first sketch of “Breakfast of Champions” prompted her to sign up to writing a full album with him. “I was like, ‘Good, I can get all my feelings out on this.’ ”

Everything’s Fine closes with “River,” which features Grae and Chris penning open letters to their siblings over sweeping, melancholic strings. By this point the album has shifted from holding a mirror up to the hip-hop industry to personal reflection, but things don’t end with any easy resolution. Chris said he and Grae are “big fans of open-ended movies and shows.” Everything’s Fine closes with an ellipsis, as Chris enunciates, “Everything’s OK and so they say, and so they say…” Grae and Chris have peeled off the Band-Aid, but given no instruction for how to treat the wound underneath. That’s for the listener to figure out.

“A lot of America has finally realized the place that a lot of us have been in for most of our lives,” said Grae, as she and Chris got ready to continue a domestic Sunday that involved a supermarket run and collecting clothes. “It’s interesting to see the door opened to many white Americans that shit is going to be terrible and you’ve just gotta get on with it.

“It’s OK to say something is wrong here — now what are you going to do about it?”

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