With his instantly recognizable nasal cadence and flair for eccentricity, Detroit rapper and producer Quelle Chris has dropped a fully realized concept album every year since 2015, seemingly motivated to outdo himself with each successive record. And as a sequel to the project that began that streak, Innocent Country 2 sees Chris reunite with Oakland beatmaker Chris Keys. Although Chris has pushed into several new sounds since his 2015 venture, namely on the jazzy and commentary-driven Guns from last year and the 2018’s sardonic Everything’s Fine with his spouse Jean Grae, the sequel status of Innocent Country 2 seems to imply a connection between the projects beyond simply their shared contributors.
That said, with the release of the new record’s lead single, “Sudden Death” — a contemplative neo-soul ballad that feels more bedroom pop than hip-hop — it became clear that the two projects would be alike in name and personnel only. “It can’t all be sudden death,” Chris sings in falsetto over Keys’ irresistibly catchy instrumental, “You’ll find it’s worth it ’cause life ain’t perfect.” The single clearly stands as a statement of artistic direction for the album, in stark contrast to its predecessor. While the first Innocent Country was a challenging and paranoid exploration of personal anxiety, leaning hard into the artists’ oddball and occasionally atonal tendencies, Innocent Country 2 examines broader themes. The record is a soulful and mesmerizing musical endeavor, an ode to perseverance in the midst of political unrest.
After the anticipated, off-the-wall track “Intro / Recap,” the album’s production on the front half adopts a hypnotic quality. Highlights include “Sacred Safe,” in which Chris and guest vocalist Merrill Garbus deliver an enthralling chorus over a haunting and layered instrumental. Featured rapper Homeboy Sandman steals the show with his iconic, unwavering cadence and complex rhyme scheme, rapping, “It’s way too much to swallow and a part of me like ‘follow me’ to/ wallow in a mire/ I’m like, yes, iyah.” And on the more traditional hip-hop banger, “Bottle Black Power Buy The Business,” Chris delivers scathing criticism of the commodification of brand activism.
The midpoint marks a noticeable change of pace, however, with Chris and company delving into themes of community and self-worth. The nostalgic doo-wop sensibilities of the track “Black Twitter” set the stage for a humorous yet vulnerable dedication to Black history and art. The aforementioned “Sudden Death” also lands in the latter half, and within the album’s arrangement, Chris’ soulful refrains read as a melancholy search for a silver lining.
The indisputable highlight of Innocent Country 2, however, has to be the beautiful and emotional three-track run leading up to the record’s final moments. The somber “Make It Better” is a laid-back and soulful R&B and hip-hop fusion, with Keys’ sprawling synth arpeggios forming the pockets for an emblematic nasal, polyrhythmic verse from Chris. The rapper’s incredible wit and knack for double-entendre shines, and featured vocalist Starr Busby’s passionate hook more than makes up for her somewhat lackluster verse.
A short interlude then leads into “Graphic Bleed Outs,” a track in which the stunning crescendo of an orchestra, a nostalgic bridge and flute solo from guest Melanie St. Charles contrasts with Chris’ aching and desperate verse. The track’s emotional palette conjures up images of romantic betrayal as a sort of allegory for shared national trauma, ending in a pained and bittersweet piano motif. “Mirage” continues this emotional narrative with a sense of numbness. It’s a posse cut that attempts to find some sort of solidarity over a poignantly simple synth progression. Underground legend Earl Sweatshirt delivers what is perhaps the greatest verse on the record, developing the track’s themes of disillusionment into starkly beautiful imagery as he raps, “Boundaries get redefined/ I read the vines, it’s a madness/ we hacking lives.” The track closes with a climactic spoken-word call to action from Big Sen, an attempt to make sense of art’s purpose in times of political anxiety. “Err’ybody’s fed up. And people don’t know what to do, so we make our art and art is beautiful,” he implores. “But art is also the truth. … So what are you doing about it?”
The album does, of course, have its flaws: Chris has occasionally struggled to find the perfect mixing for his unique vocal timbre, and the record sometimes falls into this familiar trap: otherwise-great lines and verses occasionally get muddled in the album’s midrange. And though none of the tracks feel out of place on the record by any means, some of its many features leave something to be desired. Still, Innocent Country 2 is an album with a clear and immaculately realized artistic purpose, so it’s hard to hold these shortcomings against it. All things considered, Innocent Country 2 is a must-listen for conscious hip-hop, neo-soul and bedroom pop fans alike.