Grieves with Budo – 88 Keys and Counting

3 out of 5

Label: Rhymesayers

Produced by: Budo, Grieves

Starting out with some Brother Ali soul on the Intro track, then kicking into some Slug-esque reflections on Catapults, the first label release from Grieves – notably co-credited to producer Budo – very obviously has a sounds-like home on Rhymesayers, and you can sense the young rapper trying to cleverly navigate some line between finding his own style and purposefully flowing in the wake of his inspirations. This balance – or attempted balance – is what’s somewhat plagued Grieves throughout his career; at this early stage, he and Budo both seem to realize that that style isn’t quite strong enough to go hard with rhymes or beats, yet, so 88 Keys consists of an incredibly chill vibe throughout. This is skill, though, on both players’ behalves: Grieves is at his best atop Budo’s smooth, modern-but-classic productions, which are notable without being showy, and the man himself hits a middleground between aggression and slack that’s pleasant to the ear.

But, yeah, pleasant is about as far as it gets. While Grieves tends to lean into more somber sounding observations on life and relationships, there’s an oddity to his lyrics that’s kicked around this whole while: they’re not very memorable. There’s intelligence there – not that intelligence is necessarily tied to good lyrics – in that he avoids repetition, and doesn’t rely on crassness or vulgarity for a rhyme, but his words are rarely clever; these come across as the raps of someone who loves the scene and knows the moves, but doesn’t necessarily have much to say. The only time the raps really come alive, then, is when he’s rather fessing up to that: Identity Cards – much buoyed by a verse by Luckyiam – is Grieves talking about how he is who he is, which maybe ain’t much. It’s fun, funky, and actually has some lines that stick out.

Towards the end of the album, a lot of pretense is ditched when our duo veer towards straight up pop, indicative of the glossy direction the rapper would take with other producers later on. While this doesn’t fix the somewhat empty lyrics, it underlines how these are good performances – the tracks are catchy as heck, although maybe you want to get fussy about whether or not they belong on an indie hip-hop album.

But that’s kind of been the argument Grieves has been fighting against this whole time: does he belong here? Later albums I’d maybe go back and forth on that, but despite its relative emptiness, 88 Keys does belong amongst the Rhymesayers crew, as it positions the rapper and his producer as having a ton of potential, which occasionally gets to shine on the disc.