Max Bell Shynes on.
Detroit-bred Quelle Chris has been making music for a long time. He has Bandcamp tracks – rap, rock, and otherwise – from nearly a decade ago. He worked with Roc Marciano and Danny Brown (see Shotgun & Sleek Rifle) before you knew they were going to be two of your favorite rappers.
His album Ghost at the Finish Line dropped via Mello Music late last month. Coming on the heels of the slept-on mixape Niggas Is Men, the title of his latest effort appears to be the reluctant admission of something we all know but ignore ever day. This is Chris coming to terms with the fact that attempting to create lasting art in the face of his mortality, his impermanence, might be futile. Thus, much of the record is a meditation on all that’s made his life worth living, an attempt to answer one question: Has rap really been worth it?
The spoken word delivered by Jimetta Rose on opener “You’ll Be Your Star” is a paean for the connection between artist and audience, one that opens the door to a “brighter way of being.” Yet, for Chris, the doorway also leads to “Loop Dreams.” Here the loop – a piece of music repeated over and over again – is a metaphor for the painful playback of minor success, one step forward and two steps back.
A cutting lyricist, Chris poignantly laments the arc of his career: “Feeling like I worked from the bottom to the bottom here / And I done seen the bottom of too many bottles here.” Though he’s promised himself more year after year, there are no fast whips, models or mansions, only small checks and larger problems. Ending with a vocal sample from, Hoop Dreams (greatest basketball documentary of all time), “Loop Dreams” is the sound of putting all your eggs in one basket and trying to hold it over your head while life’s knocking the wind out of you.
The theme of unrealized success continues on “King is Dead”: “Up the quota / I’m starting to question my motives.” With the mental quandaries mounting, Chris then contemplates other career paths on “Undying,” abandoning all alternatives as quickly as they crop up. Being a doctor, an engineer, or a news broadcaster was never in the cards. Rap is life and life is rap. This is the motivating mantra and this is the blues.
All the above said and meant, the record isn’t a downer so much as it is unflinchingly honest. There are lighter moments as fun as they are cathartic. “What Up” is near perfect song about the desired fruits of the best laid plans. Here Chris takes pictures, kisses babies, smokes exotic cannabis, and consorts with Shamans in Budapest. This is “real king shit,” and I’ll take any excuse to shout, “Como estan bitches?,” like Ben Stiller in Anchorman.
Other fun involves Chris indulging his appetite for the fairer sex. “Super Fuck” is a grimy, stranger, and more hilarious version of what Kanye did on “The New Workout Plan.” At the pinnacle of his comedic prowess, only Chris could talk about wanting to write a Yelp review of a woman’s lady parts. And “Look at Shorty,” a deconstructionist riff on a line from Busta Rhymes “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See,” is as catchy as it is smooth. If you enjoy either, do yourself a favor and check Chris’ record with Vessey, Slutbag Edition.
The best collaborative track is “Coke Rap War Game,” which bumps and skitters to the sound of KITT piloted by Michal Knight on several lines. This is backpack crime rap. Chris, Vessey, and Black Milk all manage pack the menace of dark Detroit alleys at midnight into three minutes. No amount of watching The Wire can help you to rap like thosewho’ve seen the seedy side of the D first hand.
Production throughout Ghost at the Finish Line is heads above so many rap albums this year. It contains samples and loops from a trained digger, someone who knows the back of the milk crate like he does the back of his hand. Chris handles about half the production and the rest divided between other formidable Dilla disciples (i.e. Denmark Vessey, Oh No, Knxwledge).
The Vessey produced “Undying” moves like a marching band mapped and boom-bapped on the MPC for 2013. And the pitched vocal samples on the Oh No produced “What Up” are both hard-bitten and emotive when laid over the song’s somber guitar riffs.
Choosing Chris’ best production is difficult, but “PRX” is up there (“Super Fuck” being a close second). Taking a page from Alchemist’s book – Alchemist also raps very well on this song – he deftly flips guitar stabs over a brick breaking bass line.
The final two album cuts serve as fitting concluding statements, answers to the inherent question that lingers throughout the record. “Life Beyond” is chock full of shout outs and thank yous to all that have helped Chris on the road to now. And Chris reassures everyone on the thank you list that he’s not going to quit. He says “I’m all in” with so much conviction it’s damn near impossible to believe otherwise.
“Ghost at the Finish Line” is Chris’ anti-dance song. It’s “Teach Me How to Dougie” filtered through a space-funk prism and delivered with a wink. “Teach Me How to Dougie” becomes “Don’t nobody love me.” Playing rap game Rodney Dangerfield suits Chris, and he delivers his most powerful message ironically deadpan: “When I get money, everything will be okay.” He knows this isn’t true, and thus the joke. The money will help his pockets, but it won’t satisfy him. For Chris, true death is an artistic one. Making a dance song to get paid is akin to suicide. The most satisfying finish line will come with money made from raps that will live forever. For now, many of the raps are there. In a perfect world, the dividends will be on the way.