Underground hip hop, like contemporary folk, tends to be deeper-thinking, more socially conscious, more concerned with artistry than mainstream music, but also too often humorless, belabored and just not catchy. Those negatives don't apply when it comes to 88 Keys and Counting.
The first collaboration by lyrical boy-wonder Grieves and maestro/producer Budo uses a variety of instruments and a catalogue of synth sounds to create surprising, trippy, sample-free beats. The slight-but-layered "Cloud Man," and the horn- and tambourine-heavy outro, "Exiting the Hive," are especially memorable. On "Nature vs Nurture," the gasping intake of his breath between lines is an element of style, like an audible exclamation point. Many lines feature clever turns of phrase and sly non-rhymes like this from "Lockdown": "Throwing hope to the stars with a last wish/You've got a smile like a lashed whip." The urgency of Grieves' delivery and the quality of the lyrical content make "Learning How to Fall" another standout track, and "Greedy Bitch," which features a sung chorus, blunt lyrics and heavy synth, is equally fabulous.
The album proves that Grieves is a hip hop-as-craft kind of guy who knows how to put the fun into smart composition. It's something I'll be rocking well into the foreseeable future.
Grieves and Budo open for Atmosphere at the Wilma Theatre Thursday, Sept. 16, and Friday, Sept. 17, at 8:30 PM with Blueprint and DJ Rare Groove. $28/$26 advance.