All the way back in 2008, I had a short conversation with Grip Grand about his philosophy on rap. To (probably crudely) paraphrase, the Bay area rapper/producer warned that he didn’t trust “super artsy emcees who convince you they’re creative but won’t drop a hot sixteen”. On paper that seems to suggest an album full of formless battle raps, and while “96 Tears” checks the necessary boxes in that department, Brokelore pleasantly surprises by defying those expectations. Instead, Grip’s beliefs manifest themselves in refreshingly formalist approaches to soulful, playful songs about real life struggles.

The album’s conceit is simple: Grip Grand is broke. Not reliving an arduous, crime-filled youth, not a rags-to-riches millionaire–just broke. But just like the album’s cover, the record spends lots of time in cartoonish territory. “Handle That” is a half-parody, half straight faced take on post-2000 gangsta rap that rattles off self deprecation like the meanest of threats (“it’s dangerous to think you can hang with us/we sit on 50 inch rims ’cause we take the bus“). Yet–as per Grip’s beliefs–the song’s buoyed by an urgent commitment to rapping well. Instead of writing off lazy punchlines as fitting with the song’s aesthetic, we get “while you pretend to be sick like Ferris Bueller/Grip Grand drop gems like careless jeweler“.

As unexpectedly solid as something like “Handle That” is, Brokelore is one of the best albums of the past decade on the strength of its ability to find the joy in joyless places. “A Penny”, a collaboration with show-stealing Rec League labelmate Richie Cunning, is confident and heartfelt (complete with a faux-Puffy “take that, take that” after “we take ’em out like the third-row seats in a minivan“), and “Tomorrow” marries road-wearied laments (“oh, word? I can’t keep it that real, I get tired/and I feel like my license to ill is expired“) with hungry optimism (“no, I haven’t blown up, but the fire’s burning“). And while Grip moves adeptly between poking fun at his financial woes and staring them straight in the face, his worldview is fleshed out to haunting effect when he steps outside of himself on “Out Of Service”. In a conversation with Grip Grand at a bus stop, the song’s speaker–an old, underemployed father–recounts dropping off his “son at the classroom/and the kids are laughing at him ’cause they saw [the family] brushing our teeth in the gas station bathroom“. The man’s looking for a lenient landlord who will take him on on good faith and, with two jobs, “having problems staying awake“. A full five months before the financial collapse of 2008, the protagonist pinpoints his downfall on his mortgage’s interest rates.

Between that nuanced storytelling and the lyrical gymnastics of the album’s lighter moments (“Win The War”, “Hip Hop Classic”, the aforementioned “96 Tears”), Grip establishes himself as a superb writer and rapper, his gruff delivery more malleable and emotive than anyone would expect. So when he says things like “don’t fuck with Grip Grand, man his album sucks” (on the excellent “But Anyway”), it reads at first as sarcasm aimed at the ignorant who don’t own his records. In reality, it hints at what might be the emotional heart of the album: “Love/Drama”. Where most albums about poor upbringings are propped up by an unshakable confidence on the rapper’s part in their own abilities, “Love/Drama” breaks the fourth wall and mulls over in great detail Grip’s reaction to the negative reaction lots of his early music received on the internet (“I got dissed on the net, I guess now I’m a real rapper“). To be clear: this isn’t a vague nod to ‘haters’–we hear lists of specific grievances (“…my haphazard delivery, no hot beats to speak of“; “…snoring like sleeping pills/Grip swallowed six in the morning to delete my skills“; “my tired loops and my four-track“; “‘alter ego? yo, that’s HIM, he think he Madlib!‘”; it goes on and on). Toward the end of the track, Grip turns resolute and defiant, closing by scoffing “can’t wait to hear your album, it must be perfect“, but by that point we see clearly what makes him tick–Grip isn’t a broke guy who can rap well, he’s a broke guy who has to rap well.

Fortunately, a couple of hip hop pioneers show up to offer stunning cosigns. Percee P and Grip trade bars on the endlessly fun “Paper Cup”, a song presumably pulled straight from 1986. Even better, AG of Digging In The Crates fame drops a verse and contributes to hook duties on the remix to “Poppin’ Pockets” (as in “broke land is poppin’ pockets, don’t even got no wallets“), which proves to be Brokelore‘s true standout. The song is the album’s thesis distilled down to four minutes: we have no money, but we rap really, really well.

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