If there’s one thing to say about Quelle Chris, the man doesn’t sit around long. After releasing his first three records within the same amount of years at the start of the 2010s, Chris has gone from strength to strength, including the nigh-on perfect run of 2017’s Being You is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often, 2018’s Everything’s Fine (with the unfuckwitable Jean Grae) and 2019’s Guns.
Following this up, the Detroit MC is teaming up once again with producer Chris Keys for a sequel to 2015’s Innocent Country. At almost double the length of its predecessor, and considering Q’s extremely strong releases in the time since, there’s a lot to be intrigued by with Innocent Country 2.
Teeeeeeeeeechnically, Innocent Country 2 follows some kind of “TV drama” concept, as established by the James Acaster-featuring intro skit. However, as enamoured as I am by the continued collaboration between the Acaster and Chris, there is very little, lyrically or thematically, that follows this. Perhaps it was merely a nod to the album being a sequel of sorts, but it does seem to promise a concept that doesn’t appear.
This does lead onto the general lack of narrative, as QC seems to be stuck in his lyrical comfort zone, as enjoyable as that is. Despite his definite ability to deliver a strong, well-thought out idea (refer to Guns, of course), the rapper does seem to return to his familiarly vague, philosophical well repeatedly throughout Innocent Country 2.
That said, the way that Chris delivers his verses here will have you ignorantly blissful of this aforementioned lyrical shortcomings. Distinguishable from his slightly-nasal pitch and rolling flow, Q rides every beat on this thing with an ease and sense of fun that is infectious for the listener. On every track, he really becomes a part of the instrumental, showcasing an incredible ear for versatility and feel for the groove. Moreover, as highlighted on a song like Sacred Safe, the hooks on this thing are sticky and incredibly well-crafted, following from Guns vast improvement on that front.
One of Chris’ strongest turns is on first single, Living Happy. The lilting, lightly psychedelic piano loops are rushing and serene, while the jazzy drums are crisp and present, unlike on some of the other tracks. After a run-through of the decent hook, which in itself has some lush, dreamy backing vocals, QC soothes the listener with a fluid, cooling flow and sunny lyrics, particularly the “livin’ broke and feelin’ good” line. We’ve also got Joseph Chilliams and frequent collaborator Cavalier dropping two excellent, witty verses on this thing, with some great quotables like “Runnin’ up the block like those camera men on the Maury show/Showin’ love to everyone I come across like glory holes” and “To be young, rich and black, I’m a melaninaire“.
However, my favourite feature is Starr Busby’s stunning turn on Make It Better. Over one of the sweetest instrumentals on the album, Busby absolutely steals the show with a soulful vocal hook that perfectly complements the vintage feel of the production. If that wasn’t enough, she also sneaks in a searing verse that boasts some great quotables (“Like Oprah showing up in my dreams/Saying “What up Cousin”/”When we gon’ kick it, when’s the next party?”“) as well as leisurely, lovable flow.
Sonically, the entire album is defined by its instrumentals, for better and for worse. Theoretically, Chris Keys has a rock-solid formula for the sound of the record; sugary piano loops, subtle, jazzy drums and dexterous basslines, all wrapped up in a fuzzy lo-fi production veneer. Taken a track at a time, or in the case of the best songs here, this works absolute wonders, allowing the MCs to spit over a beat that is consistently chill and summery.
Saying that, though, there is absolutely an over-reliance on looping on Keys’ part, which leads to many of the weaker instrumentals getting stale and repetitive very quickly. Moreover, as previously alluded to, there are numerous tracks where the drums are mixed as to where the hi-hat dominates the space for the beat, allowing next-to-no accentuation or groove from the near-absent kick. Though one could argue that this adds to the overall subdued atmosphere of the record, it undeniably takes away from some of the album’s energy, especially considering its length.
The record’s grandest (if you can use that word in Innocent Country 2‘s context) moment comes at the 7+ minute Mirage. Immediately, the instrumental is a moment of genius on Keys’ part; the staggering drums supporting the warm, nostalgic keys, with this gorgeously bittersweet chord progression. And when you add the spiritual harmonisations in the back? It’s pure magic. Despite QC and number of other MCs dropping more than solid bars, Earl Sweatshirt steals the show with his strongest verse in years. How he manages to tightrope his natural energy with this hushed severity, as well as his proven lyrical ability, all adds up to a stunning facet to this stunning track. Closing it out is Big Sen with a surprisingly potent spoken outro, with bass slowly fizzling out behind him. It’s undoubtedly one of the strongest moments to show up on any Quelle Chris project to date.
Overall, while it’s probably Quelle Chris’ weakest album since the first Innocent Country, Innocent Country 2 still a vast improvement on its thematic predecessor. Despite the severe lack of instrumental variation and questionable mixing choices at points, this doesn’t take away the massive merits the album has as a mood listen — perfect for chilling in a sunny garden to. This, coupled with a handful of impeccable standout moments, means that this is far from the end of QC’s golden streak.
best tracks: Mirage, Living Happy, Make It Better