Jean Grae by Sun Singleton

By SUN SINGLETON • Oct 7th, 2008 • Category: features


They convince you that you’re over-the-hill and too old to rap at age 30, or that gay people have no place in hip-hop music.  Now who are they?  The fuck if I know.

They fear the wizened perspective of grown rappers and the out-the-closet insights of gay emcees, and they definitely don’t wanna hear from smart women. Why? Again, the fuck if I know. Or care.  Look, here’s a secret for your ears only – the winds of change are upon us.  You know, change, the only constant in the universe? And those who fear change erect a wall of resistance to it, with growling culture-police dogs and water hoses.

Future rap star Jean Grae is the unseen change in this ailing music, Most High willing. She probably knows better than anybody that wall of resistance put up by the corporate rap machine to women who rhyme well. She’s not a horny pop tart and she ain’t rhymin’ about lip gloss. Not that there’s anything wrong with either archetype of girl rapper (big-up to Lil Mama and Mac Lip glass).  It’s just that a new lane in rap music is long overdue and we all know it. The future is now, it’s a day after the election and there’s a new American president with a Kenyan name, and a new lane for women who rap with “Jean Grae” on the sign post.

Jean Grae’s rise is the X factor in the rap game, again Jah willing.  She’s paid her dues over the years, starting out as the lone female in the late ‘90’s rap collective Natural Resource, producing her underground gem “This Week” and ripping stages around the world with her virgin tight flow. Rap luminary Talib Kweli has long championed the Brooklyn-bred emcee to the masses, and signing her to his Blacksmyth/Warner label imprint was hip hop’s equivalent of a super delegate endorsement.  New threads pop up in chat rooms daily all over the net about Jean, and the bombshell news of her fake retirement came as a shock to the legions of fans who await her ascension to renown in the rap game.

Jean Grae is from the same planet that spawned heroic rappers like Treach, LL Cool J and Roxanne Shante, three changeling emcees who broke established style molds in their day. Changeling emcees, a term coined by my boy, the culture critic Greg Tate, are the standout rappers who weather years of invisibility and wood-shedding to then step up and lift the lyrical bar in hip hop with bravado, a touch of eccentricity and a whole lot of craft.

As those ridiculously imbalanced, all-male panel discussions on BET this year about rap music’s gender inequity seem to indicate, we need a clarion new female voice in hip hop music right fucking now.

When Jean Grae spit lines like “I took the mittens off/ I’m sluggin’ open-fist/Shadow box, slap boxin’/This world ain’t shit” on the vicious, anthemic “This World” her bare knuckle rhymes bring to mind other tuff b-girl MCs like Rah Digga and that classic Brooklyn fem-cee with a mac truck delivery, MC Lyte.

The sound of her new album “Jeanius,” released on July 8th, is a welcome return to the head-nod flavor of the early nineties rap, and Jean rocks a cocky flow that’s much evolved over the years. The elements of a true-school mic controller are all there: breath control, solid projection, a deep rhythm pocket.  The beatmaker 9th Wonder sets the album’s sonic mood with a cocktail of dusty basement soul samples spiked strong with the N.C.-based producer’s signature new-millennium boom-bap.

Jean’s songs deliver clever wordplay with an irreverent sense of humor that sets her apart utterly from other rappers. “Jeanius” sparkles with its kooky in-jokes (“The Time Is Now,” her duet with the rapper Phonte is a hammy, hilarious riff off the glitter-spangled duo Ashford and Simpson), sly sexuality (Love Thirst) and moments of breathtaking pathos.  A highlight on the album is “My Story,” Jean’s account of an abortion and its aftermath in her teenage years.  The song speaks to the psychic and emotional wreckage of abortion that is often overlooked by pro-choice advocates, manipulated by religious fundamentalists and completely ignored in the stories that often surface in hip hop. Abortion is a volatile, stigmatizing subject indeed, and not since ever has there been a rap song like this.  Recently, the rapper revealed that her artist-run label’s bosses went ahead and shot a video for “My Story” without Jean’s permission or participation (Et tu, Blacksmyth?), a development that is really disturbing and pitifully ironic. The more times change, the more they stay on some bullshit.  Nevertheless, it’s a new day dawned now that Jean Grae is on the scene. And the influence of corporate rap thugs and okay-haters who loudly ignore talented emcees with a pussy is fading fast under the horizon.

posted by SUN SINGLETON | All posts by SUN SINGLETON

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