Seattle-based white rapper drops catchy album — and it's not Macklemore

Of the three albums released by rapper Grieves, “Together/Apart,” released in 2011, was indisputably the most notable. After he lost his sister just a year before its release, Grieves brought a dynamic sound his viewers had never heard. “Together/Apart” features lyrics usually reserved for ballads, and Grieves raps them alongside jazz and blues sounds.

That year brought Grieves two steps closer to the sunlight.

And that’s where he left us — until the highly anticipated debut of “Winter and the Wolves” late last month.

Did it disappoint? No. Did it exceed expectations? Definitely not.

Grieves, born Benjamin Laub, was raised in Chicago jazz and blues clubs. As a teen, his family relocated to Colorado, where he became immersed in pop-punk culture and later the rap scene. And at just 19, he moved to Seattle where he would build his own recording studio and career.

It took four years before Grieves was able to acquire a real audience — a turning point which finally came after he signed with Rhymesayers Entertainment, a label best known for artists Atmosphere and Freeway. This following grew through the release of “Together/Apart,” as Grieves built up his fanbase and toured the Midwest.

What made Grieves so unique on “Together/Apart” was his message. His sound was certainly different, but melodies can only carry an artist so far. The reality of coping with loss and bottled-up feelings is a topic seldom tackled in rap — and when it is, as with Biggie and Eminem, it is noteworthy.

Unfortunately, “Winter and the Wolves” moves Grieves away from these subjects and closer to the self-pitying, lovesick themes we have all heard so many times. “The last time I wrote a song like this / I was drunk off the last words out of your lips,” he croons on “Kidding Me,” a song written about a relationship which ended in unfaithfulness. And, in the biggest shame of all, “Kidding Me” is actually one of the catchiest songs of the album. While in the past, Grieves has been able to deliver something both eloquent and memorable, he seems to be having a hard time striking a balance between the two.

“Serpents” is another incredibly catchy track which lacks anything inspiring, including lyrics such as, “Cause I watched you turn around / Go and try to feed your family to the serpent.” Another man in love with a heartless woman. That’s something we’ve never heard about before.

On the other hand, I cannot be so quick to write off this Rhymesayer. “Winter and the Wolves” does contain undeniably haunting lyrics which still go off the beaten path, as Grieves has previously been known to do. Take “Like Child,” for example. This track talks about the artist’s childhood relationships with his parents and how they still affect him daily. Most notably (or perhaps least notably, as Grieves carefully and ironically slides this line in over a piano crescendo), he sings, “You ain’t gonna hear me start it over loud thunder.”

Lines like this are what make Grieves an incredible artist. Unfortunately, “Like Child” and other tracks with particularly strong lyrics are easy to miss in the record’s first few listens. The majority of the album is down-tempo, while songs which do have a little more punch (“Kidding Me”), meanwhile, are lacking in the message Grieves is known to deliver, leaving the listener wanting something to sink their teeth into and not just something to chew on.

Overall, “Wolves” seemed to be missing a certain balance which would make it an otherwise well-done LP. The catchy hooks are there, the piano work is marvelous, as usual, and every song is poetically lush — though some more superficially than others. If Grieves can learn to leave the self-pity and breakups to other rappers, he will soon find himself in the spotlight he deserves.

Published April 8, 2014 in Arts and Entertainment, tableau

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