To catch up listeners who missed his two independent albums, Grieves opens his Rhymesayers debut with “Light Speed,” a four-minute origin story: Troubled punk kid discovers hip-hop, cleans himself up, and makes a small name for himself touring, only to return home to a bad breakup that sends him spiraling back into addiction. Tales of broken families, corrupted childhoods, and self-destructive vices are Rhymesayers’ stock in trade, so it’s easy to see why the Minneapolis label took in the nomadic Seattle rapper. But Grieves is a much mellower presence than labelmates like Slug and Brother Ali. Where those rappers sometimes compensate for their sensitive subject matter with sour humor or snarled, chest-thumping indignation, Grieves raps softly, with a conversational nonchalance that downplays the complexity of his rhyme schemes, and he sings his own choruses in a resigned voice that makes his songs feel that much more naked.
Effective as it is, that voice wears thin over the run of Together/Apart’s 16 mostly guest-free tracks, as Grieves’ interchangeable choruses and pensive verses about lost youth and addiction’s pull begin to bleed together. Working without samples, producer Budo doesn’t do much to break up the record’s sameness; he falls back on a monochromatic template of pianos, organs, and cabaret-jazz accents. The songs that most stand out are the ones that break form. “No Matter What,” the album’s cheekiest number, frees Grieves to shit-talk a bit with Ugandan MC Krukid, while “Wild Thing” climaxes with a sudden electro-funk breakdown, one of the few late-album surprises on a record that plays most of its cards early.