Believe it or not, there’s a white-boy rapper from Seattle who’s four albums deep in the habit of killing it, and his name isn’t Macklemore. Rhymesayers’ prodigal Pacific Northwesterner Grieves‘ latest offering Winter & The Wolves blossoms widely beyond his poetically lush 2011 Rhymesayers debut Together/Apart, and defies the current industry rush to recreate Mack’s smash-success pop-rap sylings. By exploring a production framework outside the creative design of longtime partner Budo and adapting a more direct influence of flow from soul godfather Brother Ali, Mr. Benjamin Laub both expands his potential and stunts his own evolution.
Thankfully, Ben has pulled himself out of the mire of melancholic rhymes that center entirely on hardships and heartbreaks, though his lyrical design is still the equivalent of diary entries – direct personal flow unimpeded by heavily layered production. Cinematic opener “Rain Damage” builds drama around bass thumps and thin synths while inspiring a smirk and a rush of hope: “the gaptooth rapper is back,” he rhymes, “with a bag full of I don’t give a fuck for that ass.” The confidence drips, but so does the Ali flow-strut influence, at times distractedly so. The self-proclaimed love-song rapper’s alt-soul lyrical acrobatics hopscotch the web of life, love and loss through a romantic’s lens and the pause-drops Ali has made a signature of. Endlessly introspective, the self-reflection and personal analysis don’t make for flow-along party jams, but Together/Apart did away with those expectations years ago.
In a long-awaited guest spot, Slug of Atmosphere grabs a strong third-verse spotlight on “Astronauts,” dropping some big-brother confidence before a brain-tick chorus. Recalling the Together/Apart anchor “Bloody Poetry,” a magnetic piano line spines “Whoa is Me,” with bouncing Seuss cadence narrating hard knock first-world problems over the casual beat. The white-boy humor-drop breaks are novelty annoyances, but don’t trip up the catchy momentum of the track.
He’s not exactly the Taylor Swift of the rap game, but wearing his heartbreak on his sleeve is both the wings and anchor for Grieves. Breakup jam “Over You” is a testosterone take on Fiona Apple’s good-heart-scorned flavor, but rather than employ Fiona’s unique metaphorical switchblades, a pedestrian R&B chorus calls the abandoning female a collection of names. In redemptive balance, under ominous synths and sparse chords the quietly burning single “Serpents” drips with condemnation, a Macklemorian slow-step with an album-peaking soulful funk. Likewise, album third-act highlight “Shreds” leans into a slick synth-shimmy beat with the kind of infectious chorus that digs inside the mind on an all-day loop.
Dramatic, emotive choruses throughout the album call back to old soul and R&B, a fine backdrop for the survival-minded catharsis therapy Laub continues to work through on Winter & the Wolves. The central formula of introspective blogginess and relationship grievances are well-tread paths cut by the likes of Louis Logic and Godfather Slug in years past, but Grieves continues to carve a lyrical identity that doesn’t aspire to a greater philosophical pulpit. He’s content in painting his own picture in empathetic colors, persevering through the storms with a subtle strut and a smirk.