Grieves is still on a several-year upswing; his Rhymesayers’ debut in 2011 caused enough of a splash to make Winter & The Wolves awaited by more fans than he’s ever had. Since Together Apart, Grieves and producer Budo have separated, and the rapper has picked up with San Jose, California native B. Lewis. The effect of the transition is noticeable but both producers, and obviously Grieves himself, have a knack for lush poppiness. When Together Apart was released, comparisons between fellow Seattle rapper Macklemore and Grieves might have been a product of seeing them as peers in the same Northwestern scene; now, Grieves will almost definitely have to face the shadow of Pop Rap success that songs like “Thrift Shop” cast over new listeners of his own music. Nonetheless, Grieves himself more than dabbles in a different brand of catchiness and obvious accessibility that predates The Heist.
With B. Lewis and Grieves handling the production on the album, all of the songs are full of instrumentation and free of any obvious samples. The programmed drums are the one outlier in what would otherwise sound like a small and polished Rap-Rock band. Even when he’s just shy of outright singing, which he does plenty of on Winter & The Wolves, Grieves adds a raspy-tinged melody to most of his raps. There’s not much attack in his delivery, but he has a cool way of letting his words patter out naturally.
Lyrically, Grieves leans far into the dramatically poetic, often leaving little to peel back or dig into and sometimes awkward word turns. “I never thought that I’d be tangled in the ropes / ‘Till the woman of my dreams took a shit inside my soul,” he raps to start his first verse on “How’s It Gonna Go.” He’s incessantly introspective and more than a little self-tormenting. Still, and maybe partly because of the attached melody, he doesn’t sound dangerously dark as much as like someone constantly coping. At their best B. Lewis and Grieves are able to weave together pared down Soul productions on back-to-back tracks like “Long One” and “Kidding Me.” Too often though, like in the case of that second song, the hook is painfully obvious and/or full of not-so-productive cliches (on “Over You” B. Lewis belts out, “You’re a sickness, you’re a fever”).
“Astronauts,” which features the rapper’s first collaboration with Rhymesayers mainstay Slug, is about easing into adulthood but gets too bogged down by trite generalities to take-away any new revelations about its rapper. “We used to play connect the dots with the stars / Now we try to make a connection in bars / It’s getting hard,” he raps. For Grieves it sounds hard, but an overall lack of detail in his lyrics leaves a listener with all of the emotional baggage and none of the story. At several points he flips his downtrodden lyrics into better strings though. “Fuck it, let the lines be crossed / Let’s climb up on the roof and toss knives at God / I don’t need a mindless job / I’m fine without it.”
Much of what will drive demanding Hip Hop listeners away from Winter & The Wolves is what makes it so approachable otherwise: it’s drenched in feeling with few details to alienate. On top of that, Grieves doesn’t engage in intricate storytelling and none of his raps are technically showy or complex. Several tracks are primed if not meant for radio, and most of the album makes for an overly-easy listen. It’s the type of release that you can skim through and still retain. Grieves has found another good partner in B. Lewis, and the album is full of glossy musicality throughout. The problem is that lyrically as much as musically, Winter & The Wolves doesn’t push any buttons. It’s a tepid set of songs that will undoubtedly satisfy his growing fanbase and, if lucky, make a run with the right program directors. For the rest of us, and not by design, Winter & The Wolves leaves you more than a bit cold.