Album Review: Quelle Chris – Deathfame

[Mello Music Group; 2022]

Until 2018, Quelle Chris was rap’s best kept secret. No one really knew what the Detroit rapper was up to, even though his hand was detectable on early releases by Danny Brown, including his breakthrough XXX. With dozens of collaborative projects under his belt, his pairing with wife Jean Grae on Everything’s Fine stands out as his finest hour and the moment he broke through. The duo took aim at everything from Axe Body Spray to Donald Trump and racism. It was precisely what Quelle Chris needed to get recognized and every subsequent project has been compared to it.

Post-Everything’s Fine, Grae’s been quiet while Chris has dropped two noteworthy releases in 2019’s violence-analyzing Guns and his second collaborative effort with Chris Keys Innocent Country 2 which featured a slew of guests from the conscious rap realm like Earl Sweatshirt, Pink Siifu, and billy woods – in addition to the left field contributions from Tune-Yards’ Merril Garbus.

Two years on from that, we’re finally graced with a proper follow-up to Guns with the forebodingly titled DEATHFAME, which sees him mostly self-producing with a few touches from Chris Keys and Knxwledge. The first proper song on the album is the R&B inflected lead single “Alive Ain’t Always Living”, an earworm in which Chris relays the real life struggles of the under privileged. “You can keep the feast and wine, I just want my peace of mind,” he sighs, before smoothly lobbing bar after bar brimming with a compelling balance of social commentary and hopefulness.

But “Alive Ain’t Always Living” is a bit of a red-herring of a lead up, as the rest of Deathfame veers into MF DOOM emulation with the Madlib’ing nature of “King in Black” and “Feed the Heads”. The skittishness of both tracks feels reminiscent of early 2000s hip-hop, when DOOM was torpedoing eardrums with classic after classic. Chris doesn’t let up either, he’s relentless in his delivery and form, taking potshots but also commenting on his relative age in the game; “My favorite emcees got propertiеs and bad knees /At dispensaries reflecting how we used to bag weed.”

The title track pivots between a dreamlike state with fairy dust sprinkles and samples that beg for further enlightenment – all of this before hard bass rattles the cages then dissipates. This is just one example of Chris’ masterful production; he’s one of the best and most under-sung in the business; he knows how to perfectly complement his mood and tone with the perfect rhythm and timbre. Across the album he balances the moodiness of a song like “The Agency of the Future” with the balladry of “The Sky is Blue Because the Sunset is Red”. The latter features returning collaborator Pink Siifu in addition to a MoRuf verse with the harshest question, “Why they always till you gone to really show they care?”

Deathfame may not retreat to the style of its opener, but it surely never bores. After a banger 2021, Navy Blue drops in for the memorable centerpiece “So Tired You Can’t Stop Dreaming”, and delivers a typically biting verse that pairs comfortably with the keys in the background. It just further proves how perfect these voices coalesce when under the control of an intuitive mind like Chris’.

Not since Everything’s Fine has Quelle Chris sounded so surefire and determined. He wears beats with flair now, and lyrically he’s in top form, moving like a chameleon behind the mic and in front. Deathfame is easily the best solo outing for Chris so far.