Quelle Chris has carved a niche for himself at the edges of alternative hip-hop. His music is as distinctive as it is capacious, and he’s probably one of the only rappers whose discography contains a verse from Roc Marciano and a hook from the Tune-Yards. As he approaches 40, Quelle Chris has deepened his ability to write perceptive lyrics and developed his skills as a beatmaker. Recent work on the score for Judas and the Black Messiah has shown the effort he’s made to stretch his wings, and he’s evolved from a very skilled MC to a producer polymath. While he’s rarely shied away from humor, on his new album DEATHFAME, he balances broad comedy with pointed satire, providing direct political address with a looseness that keeps it all from sounding like mere cant.
Collaboration brings Chris down to earth (long-time producing partner Chris Keys appears on several piano-driven tracks and Knxwledge provides a boom-bap beat) but isolation suits him. By creatively overdubbing his vocals, he reflects the uncertain world around him. Though there’s long been a dubby texture to Chris’ production, DEATHFAME turns the reverb and echo up to the point of pure abstraction. His words still carry weight and specific meaning, but this album is his 808s & Heartbreak, a piece defined as much by its ambience and vocal timbre as its lyrics.
While Chris has never been afraid to crack jokes, his flow here is considerably more deadpan, carrying a sense of solemnity. He sounds sincere when he sings that he’s grateful to be alive on “Alive Ain’t Always Living,” but his voice slows down to a stroll by the track’s conclusion, as if life’s exhaustion has caught up to him. His flow similarly captures the duality of life reflected in the beat, a calming soul keyboard melody cloaked in static and unsettling distortion. The album’s title, repeated by Quelle Chris himself and disembodied voices, hints at a painful recognition of the unstated purpose of the rap industry, where tragedy is so often intertwined with commercial success: “Let these corporations sink their fangs in my legacy’s neck before I dip,” he declares on the title track.
With a distortion-heavy and almost vaporwave-like approach to sound, the production on DEATHFAME recalls Actress as much as it does Madlib. You can hear the bones of a backpacker-friendly jazz rap palette, but they’ve been scrambled and reassembled here. The drums on “King In Black” bang like sheets of metal in a thunderstorm, clanging and slowed, less chopped and screwed and more dragged through the mud. A fat double-bass line and free-form piano join in, forming a robotic jazz combo, and Chris pitch-shifts and manipulates his own voice into a hundred different directions. Nevertheless, DEATHFAME never loses touch with rap—as twisted and filtered as his voice might become, Chris still spits bars over what generally sounds like beats. These futuristic environs match the inventiveness of collaborators like Navy Blue and Pink Siifu—it’s like Chris is cosigning the experimental tendencies of a new generation.
The techno of Chris’ native Detroit has often been connected to the city’s history of machinery and industry, and while DEATHFAME doesn’t sound much like Underground Resistance, it’s hard not to place the album’s distinctly metallic sound in that context. Voices are weathered and eroded, and the percussion sounds oxidized; the production embraces the rust and decay of industrial neglect, lending a concrete weight to the abstract heaviness of the lyrics. While it may sound like a transmission from a distant universe, there’s no reality DEATHFAME could come from but our own.
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