For a while now, Quelle Chris has been a somewhat slept on presence in underground hip-hop. He hasn’t gotten a great deal of shine for them, but his full length releases Shotgun and Sleek Rifle and N***as Is Men, along with his production credits, (most notably tracks like “Greatest Rapper Ever” and “Monopoly” for fellow Detroit native Danny Brown), have seen him crafting a sound often resolutely grounded in blunted early-00s backpack rap but full of psychedelic flourishes and left turns that keep it remarkably fresh.
It’s a sound he continues to dig deep into on his newest album, Ghost at the Finish Line. It’s mostly self-produced, but a few like-minded beatsmiths stop by to flesh things out with their own slight detours from the lane Quelle has set out for himself. Knxwledge laces the effortlessly ethereal slow jam “Look at Shorty”, while Chris Keys provides Quelle’s downbeat bars on “Loop Dreams” with appropriately mournful melodic traditionalism. Even better, Oh No, (perhaps one of Quelle’s most identifiable stylistic counterparts), stops by to do his thing on two tracks, the swirling psychedelic stumble of “What Up” and anarchic, bass-heavy posse cut “With Open Arms”, neither of which would have sounded out of place on records like OhNoMite.
The most interesting moments come when it’s Quelle himself behind the boards, though. The light, airy “Wait a Minute”, featuring Crown Nation compadre Denmark Vessey, takes his psychedelic tendencies to its limits; its barely a hip-hop track, with guitars and drums that could have been lifted that genres sixties first wave, but Quelle and Denmark flow over it effortlessly. It’s a similar situation on the perfectly cluttered “Undying”, though things are significantly weirder and more chopped up. Melodies wheeze and bubble, human chanting is sliced up and drums rattle tribally rather than bang. It doesn’t sound made to spit over, but Quelle doesn’t have a problem.
What works so well is that the production is frequently strange but in a way that is cerebral rather than aggressive; it comes across as a natural result of Quelle’s character rather than the defining feature of the album. The squeaky, dark and minimal “Coke”, featuring Denmark and Black Milk, is playfully menacing and downbeat but remains an earworm, while “PRX” is pure raucous fun despite cribbing the dark overdriven sonic mania that is the calling of fellow blunted underground forebears Gangrene, (appropriate seeing as Alchemist stops by to lace it with his trademark drug-fueled bars, alongside Guilty Simpson).
While all of this combines to make the record gently exploratory but still very welcoming, what really makes it inclusive is Quelle himself. He can spit, but there’s no real emphasis on skill here; what he gets by on is laid-back word play and, most importantly, an overarching earnestness that makes him extremely relatable.
At times, he’s the downtrodden workhorse that any of us can see eye to eye with. “Feel like I’ve gone from the bottom to the bottom here, and I done seen the bottom of too many bottles here” he raps on “Loop Dreams”, before telling us that he’s simply “trying to accrue the wealth that I promised myself”. There’s no flossing here, just cheap beers and hard times that have been made through.
But he doesn’t let it keep him down; far more often than he plays the uncertain striver, he is showcasing a sly wit and a knack for affable stoned shit-talk. He slaps haters down but never particularly aggressively, more with a chuckle, a cool confidence and a withering, over-it aura. The rest of the time he’s rolling kush up and drinking Heinekens, but seems to be doing so the way that most of us do, in some friends dingy living room, not a flashy V.I.P. spot. Even when he spends a track detailing his own sexual prowess on “Super Fuck”, he does so in the style of a witty confidant, and its actually fun to listen to him tell it, a mile away from the overblown sex raps you find on other more major rap releases nowadays.
Because of the kind of album that it is, Ghost at the Finish Line doesn’t have any real “wow” moments, spots that will knock you off your feet. But it’s no less full of quality than records that do; it’s just got a markedly more relaxed approach. As gentle and knotty as it might be, given time, it slowly reveals itself as a low-stakes gem, one of the most solid underground projects of recent months. Amongst all the (still great fun) overblown, aggressive or consciously wordy releases that sometimes drown out the blogs, its welcome to have such a great record that is perfect for just kicking back and vibing to.
4 out of 5
You can buy the album on Amazon.