Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.
If the dystopian future is now, thank god for flower-crown selfie filters. Be it resilience or ignorance, human beings seem innately programmed to fend off the worst of times by pretending everything is fine. Fortunately, Jean Grae and Quelle Chris have come to read us for filth.
On their new collaborative album, Everything's Fine (out March 30), they reveal complacency to be the real opiate of the masses. But their Mello Music Group release isn't some self-serious attempt to save the world from itself. This is Grae and Chris — two emcees with deep discographies, well-versed in the art of satire and self-parody — trying to save themselves from a civilization on the decline. Calling them rappers almost isn't fair: They might be the most lit comedic duo since Cheech & Chong. And when tasked with offering an escape from reality or confronting it head-on, they inevitably chose both. Not that reality gave them much of a choice.
"It was our first year of Trump," Chris tells NPR Music, regarding the inspiration behind the LP. "The news all day is bad news, you know. Life in general comes with its own trials and tribulations, and the process of making an album sometimes can be daunting in itself — the effect on your physical as you're staying up 24 hours every week and so on. [Yet] the common response when you're [asked], 'Hey, how are you doing?' is, 'Oh, everything's good.' "
The narrative plays out over an album full of off-kilter flows, dissonant vibes, sarcastic skits and an outlook that offers as much absurdity as it does sobering honesty and self-reflection. Even their co-stars on the recording are equally split between musicians (Denmark Vesey, Your Old Droog, Big Tone, Anna Wise, Mosel, Jonathan Hoard) and comedians (Hannibal Buress, John Hodgman, Michael Che, Nick Offerman, former Das Racist hypeman Ashok "Dap" Kondabolu).
"My Contribution to This Scam" mocks every corny hip-hop prototype, from the conscious backpacker MCs to the Instagram models-turned-rappers, while "Gold, Purple, Orange" turns up the dial on inherent misperceptions: "Er'body alt-right gotta be white / Er'body disagree gotta be wrong / Er'body black d*** gotta be long," Chris raps on the song, whose hilarious video follows up the visual theme set by the album art, casting the duo as a couple of narcissists at an '80s glamour shoot. Deeper into the album, the tone morphs into melancholy as they undress to reveal an emotional catharsis. "Took me until my 30s just to put my finger on it / Once you accept the knowledge, solace doesn't follow, honest," Grae raps on the slow-burning, seemingly autobiographical closer, "River."
Of course, Everything Is Fine isn't the only beautiful music these two have been making. After a five-year creative union that has manifested in everything from a live interactive play series (The Sequels) to an animated audiobook (Good Night, Courtney), Grae and Chris announced their engagement via Twitter last year. While political angst gripped the nation, they found themselves celebrating a personal milestone. But they didn't feel torn in the least.
"We're black and we're used to it," Grae says, laughing. "We spend so much time in our daily lives having to deal with being in our own bodies and the state of the world as it always is that you can't have that time to be, like, 'Oh, I feel guilty about feeling good about this accomplishment.' Or, 'I have to think about these other things before I feel OK to invest some time in self-care or work on this project.' We're so used to doing [both]. If anything, it's interesting to see a lot of other people in the same place."
Chris likens his and Grae's own collective effort, which sees them splitting production duties on Everything Is Fine, to a "buddy system," he says: "Kinda like the samurai flicks where you travel and you see someone jumping across some logs on the river, and you're like, 'Hey, that's kinda dope. You wanna join me on this mission? I'm about to go kill some people.' "
It's the kind of metaphor perfectly suited for this tag team of ironic observers. "I think you're the only person that I've ever felt that way about," Grae chimes in, speaking directly to her fiancé in the middle of our phone interview. "I was on my lone wolf mission, and was like, 'Oh s***, your brain can help kill some people, too. I think you're the only one." Maybe they're bound to conquer the world together after all.