3 out of 5
Produced by: B. Lewis, Grieves
While I have my gripes about Atmosphere’s Slug, one thing I’ve appreciated across his career – and what I’d say he built his persona on – was this awareness of Who He Is. The way he channels that into his raps is where I get more critical, and part of his history certainly involves him getting a big head over a relatively early rise to fame, but throughout, there’s always been this gritty honesty to Slug: a balance between the poet and hustler; being a known name and someone not deserving of that status – and so when there’s over- or under-reach in his lyrics, it feels like it’s coming from the same place. It’s real.
When I was listening to Grieves’ Winter & the Wolves, the way the artist slips between the profane and more illustrious prose (or maybe attempted illustrious) reminds of Sluggo, and though the slick production isn’t necessarily my style, the rapper and his crew undeniably land on some really pleasant beats, with the glossed-up style that supports pop-crossover priming things for greater exposure – the tracks go down easy.
But: Atmosphere gripes aside, I tend to feel something about their releases, plus or minus; and with Grieves… I wasn’t feeling much of anything, and I was having trouble figuring out why. The gloss itself isn’t an instant turn-off, as P.O.S. and Prof have each stepped into that realm in their own ways and I’ve enjoyed those outings, but Winter & the Wolves, as pleasant and head-bobby as it is, also is in-one-ear-out-the-other, without generating a single anything within me. Why?
A review from HipHopDx helped to clarify it for me: because the music is empty.
Slug is the poet in denial; Grieves is the kid who says he’s in denial, but, come on, he actually thinks he’s a genius. And that difference tends to rob his words of any potential meaning, forcefully trying to mix “clever” with crass, and only half-filling his tales with imagery… imagery which feels more mad-libbed than lived. And not that lyrics have to be world-shaking, but this mentality informs the overall vibe of the disc, so despite Grieves’ really skillful flow control – he’s not the fastest or slowest rapper, but his cadence is great, and he can switch between sing-songy rapping and singing effectively – you never get much of a sense of what any song is about, beyond the most surface level emotions or whatever he’s plainly explaining to you.
Musically, the radio-ready production (or whatever the modern equivalent of that is) also begins to wear after about the halfway point, as the album turns from being more definable as hip-hop to the latter half being of the pop-rap Macklemore variety. The hooks and mixture of styles at the album’s outset is infectious, with, again, Grieves’ flow and the flashy production helping to distract from the lightweight nature of the outing; when this gives over to more straight-forward affairs later on, it begins to lose further personality. That said, the production work (and overall sound) is still impressive, but it makes that aforementioned central emptiness more apparent.
…Which might not matter to you, and no judgement. It’s a candy-coated listen. I think Grieves’ hope that it still allows him to hang with the backpack crew works against that candy-coating, when maybe he should’ve just pursued something more all-out grounded or all-out glossy, but still – there’s a sugar rush to such albums as Winter & the Wolves, and that can be worth a spin or two.