Photo by Jason Tang

Wiz Khalifa or Melissa Etheridge? If you had to guess which of these performers brought hip-hop artist Grieves one of his more favorable onstage moments, and which brought his least, you’d probably get it wrong.

“We played before Melissa Etheridge,” Grieves says. “It took a second, but it worked. There were a lot of rainbow umbrellas and a lot of butch lesbians, but they actually seemed like they were receiving us rather well because I look like Justin Bieber. That was not a bash on lesbians. It’s just that I look like a lesbian.”

Sitting on a couch with a soda in hand and his longtime producer and friend Budo to his left, Grieves, born Benjamin Laub, seems at ease with his situation. It’s the day after the release of Together/Apart, his third LP and first full-length on Rhymesayers, and he is clearly operating under the theory that fatigue doesn’t exist if you don’t slow down enough to acknowledge it. The record debuted at No. 3 on the iTunes hip-hop/rap chart, and Grieves is leaving for Warped Tour in 12 hours, but for the moment, the small Seattle rapper is content to sit back and absorb.

Grieves’ hip-hop is melodic, instrumental and painfully honest. Together/Apart is definitely a rap record, but it is completely sample-free and features many hooks that are sung by Grieves himself. Unlike a lot of musicians who are content to find what they’re good at and stick with it, he is constantly forcing himself out of his comfort zone. “I’ve probably done all that I can do with rapping over pretty beats with rap hooks because that is just that one thing. You just keep doing it, and it just sounds the same, and it might be great every time you do it, but it’s the same shit,” he explains.

Grieves – On The Rocks by rhymesayers

If you’ve ever seen Grieves and Budo live, then you know just how much they hate doing the same thing over and over again. Fortunately, their partnership allows them a lot of freedom to play around with their songs and continually stumble across accidental improvements. Because their shows feature Budo playing a variety of live instruments over the tracks, they have the opportunity to keep it interesting, and they definitely take advantage of that.

Influenced by ’60s and ’70s soul music, he and Budo built the record around the singing and usually started by working on the hooks, rather than on the verses. Even though Together/Apart was written sporadically over a couple of years, there is a clear theme running through the 16 tracks: honesty. Grieves’ lyrics are revealing and personal, unafraid to delve into the darker, more vulnerable side of life. “They say that you should write about things that you know. People can smell bullshit from a mile away. Now, if you dress that bullshit up and make it fun, that is also acceptable and people like that, but I’m not very good at that,” he says.

But just because he’s tackling heavier issues doesn’t mean that it’s the kind of record that you’ll want to put on when you’re crying on your couch with a pint of ice cream. “It has that positive outlook. Even the saddest songs aren’t like, ‘I am fucked forever!’ It’s just that we’ve been living this life where we’re never really home, and establishing or maintaining relationships is really difficult.” Many of the tracks come off as autobiographical—and they are—but he’s careful to make sure that they can be easily applied to situations that other people might be going through as well.

Grieves shows no hesitation in putting his insecurities into his lyrics, but the inclusion of more emotional lines isn’t rooted in contemporary emo music. “The songwriting that I like, that old ’60s and ’70s Motown stuff, that’s real personal, revealing shit. That’s a lot of grown-ass men being like, ‘I miss you, I’m crying.’ But people aren’t saying those dudes are emo—because they’re not. It’s just being a man and expressing your feelings.”

When it comes to the future, Grieves can’t say much about what will come, which is fitting for someone whose music is so reflective of his own experiences. “Life is a crazy little rollercoaster. If it was just the same little loop-de-loop, then, like making the same song over and over, it would be pretty repetitive, and we should all just jump off a bridge.”