One of the cardinal rules of advertising is to boil a brand down to a single word. Volvo = Safe. Toyota = Dependable. Jeep = rugged. Brands that try to swap that word out willy-nilly in an attempt to be everything to everyone are destined to lack a clear brand focus and remain undefined (or worse, be defined by someone else).
When that brand is a person, the association is equally important. Which brings us to Seattle rapper Grieves. After a decade in hip-hop, he’s built up a pretty strong rap CV: several LPs, a mid-50s showing on the Billboard 200, countless tours, and collaborations with Cunninlynguists, Mr. Lif, Eligh, and label mates Atmosphere, among others. But for a rapper with so much experience, the POV on his new record Running Wild feels downright muddled. Is he a laidback party rapper? Is he an autobiographical storyteller? Is he a punchline rapper? Or is he trying to be every kind of rapper at once?
When we first find Grieves on Running Wild, he’s on a plane, tossing back drinks and traveling the world with a relaxed, barbecue-ready flow a la Pigeon John. On “Faded” (among other tracks), Grieves tries on Brother Ali’s vocal quaver and deeply self-exploratory approach. That suits him relatively well, but then the hook of “Chillin’ (Ice Cold)” sounds like something dusted off the cutting room floor of one of Rostrum Record’s medium-decent signees. On it, Grieves raps “back to the bay like K. Flay”, which is funny because the very next track, “What It Dew”, could have been written and performed far more convincingly by K Flay herself. It’s more a reminder to go listen to Life as a Dog again than a mandate to finish up Running Wild.
It’s hard to tell which, if any of these points of view, is the “real” Grieves, especially when comparing them to his earlier output. Just listen to “Irreversible” from his self-titled debut. That song is beautiful, with a strong POV, deft storytelling, real emotion, and a sincere, plainspoken delivery most akin to fellow Seattlite Macklemore.
Or take 88 Keys and Counting with its bevy of piano-led beats, which itself made that album feel cohesive. The opening track sounded like the closing music of SNL from the ‘80s, and much of the record has a pleasant, lo-fi, very Rhymesayers vibe with lyrics that, while occasionally overreaching, were ambitious and sincere. Running Wild, meanwhile, runs in multiple directions, often leaning too heavily on bravado and an unconvincing party-guy persona.
That’s not to say Running Wild has no highlights. In fact, things pick up tremendously after the first few tracks, and for a few songs, mostly in the middle, Grieves sounds like a rapper worth paying attention to. On “Gutz”, he delves into the complexities of poisonous love-hate relationships with incisive directness, flipping lines left and right: “I think about you and say ‘fuck you’ / Then you come over and I fuck you” or “I should be hating your guts—hating your guts—instead of up in your guts.” I never thought I’d say this, but credit where credit’s due: Grieves somehow found a way to make a phrase as gross as “up in your guts” sound fairly natural.
“Roses” smartly deploys two of the album’s four guests to create a vision of hope despite broken homes and violence that carries heft, feeling at once personal and universal. And “Levees” is a surprisingly great offering, with only a few carefully curated lines that say more than multiple verses ever could.
A recent feature on The Bay Bridged was titled “Grieves shows off all sides of himself on new Running Wild record”, but that’s exactly the problem. The album has no focal point, no clear point of view, and so it feels like an old brand that hasn’t found its one-word descriptor yet. Not bad, but a missed opportunity to create the kind of singular, timeless vision that Grieve is capable of but—all these years later—hasn’t been able to execute.
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