After “Attack of the Attacking Things” it’s “The Bootleg of the Bootleg.” Name-wise, her releases may follow a pattern, but in many other respects things are different for Jean Grae. She’s on a new label, she has to follow up a critically acclaimed album, and purchasers of her new EP finally get to see how she looks. Why is that important? Don’t tell me it isn’t, in today’s rap industry where visual presentation can account for sales just as much as the actual music. Especially female rappers are often pressured to offer some eye candy here and there. On her first solo album, Grae purposely went in the opposite direction, letting herself be represented by a drawing of a Hindi goddess. Now she’s draped in simple homegirl apparel, sitting on a stoop staring into the void. What’s going through her mind in moments like these is likely what she puts down during the 65 minutes of playing time on this CD.
The tracklist may indicate that this is indeed an EP, but attached to song number six is the possibly longest hidden track in history, a succession of material ranging from mixtape-style beat-jackings to songs she recorded with her old crew, Natural Resource. Their underground manifestos included in this mix, “Negro League Baseball” and “Bum Deal” were, with others, starting points for the underground movement that caught on in the mid- to late ’90s which produced some of the major players in today’s burgeoning indie rap scene. Jean Grae should soon become, or maybe already is one of them. She certainly has the verbal dexterity to knock many of their peers out of the ring.
But let her tell it, and things suddenly don’t seem so great anymore. Especially when she spills her guts over other people’s beats, she sometimes visibly spits from rock bottom, describing life as “ruder than roads with broken glass and potholes and shit,” saying she’s “runnin’ barefoot on the same street you drive your Rolls in” while ironically the Puffy/Biggie/Jay-Z collaboration “Young G’s” sets the pace. Not one to content herself with staying underground, Jean Grae is determined to get in the ring with anybody:
“All I want is a voice, all the people need is choice
If there’s no competition, then what is the fuckin’ point?
You can’t win by default ‘less you’re scared of a challenge
It’s not really a fair game if you won’t allow balance”
Striving for a balance herself, Grae seems torn between her admiration for two of New York’s finest, The Notorious BIG and Jay-Z, and her refusal to play their particular game. She channels them both on her rendition of Hova’s “Excuse Me Miss”. As she checks out the club, she isn’t ashamed to strut her stuff, but neither is she afraid to get “drunk like Steve Buscemi in _The Wedding Singer_.” And in a romantic encounter, material aspects just don’t seem that important to her: “Hold your floss level down, man / I’m more concerned with bein’ your girl than what you earnin’ / Jean’s different, pass up on a Escalade grill / hop up in a Caddy ’68 Coupe DeVille.”
Should Jay-Z get a hold of “The Bootleg of the Bootleg”, he certainly won’t be as mad about Jean using the instrumental of “Breathe Easy” for one of the bonus tracks as he will be intrigued by this woman’s lyrical ability. And just maybe he will start to wonder why Roc-A-Fella ends up signing atrocities like Amil and Victoria Beckham. Truth be told, however, the self-described “marketing nightmare” would not really fit on Roc-A-Fella. For that, Jay-Z should have skipped his “Money, Cash, Hoes” phase and truly made a name for himself with the type of insightful stuff he now keeps bigging himself up with at the end of his career. Because when she feels the need to, Jean Grae is the very antithesis of Jay-Z’s public image:
“Video bitches are makin’ a killin’
little girls thinkin’ they grown women in bra tops
But will it matter soon when the bomb drops? It all stops
You thinkin’ ghetto warfare, you should be thinkin’ bigger
Money, bitches and houses, they still callin’ you a nigger”
And so her take on Junior MAFIA’s “Player’s Anthem”, “Hater’s Anthem”, is pure hatred, as the self-appointed “Jabberwocky of rap” lashes out at anybody who dares to go near her, purposely engaging in “contradictory word-placin’ / like bringin’ Satan to a baptism in a flooded basement.” Here, her attacks on opponents (“I slip razors in your charm bracelet – slit your skin, bitch”), pop culture icons (“light up a room like J. Lo’s birthday candles”) as well as the general population (the repeated middle finger gesture in the hook) are reminiscent of Eminem (“I’m more necessary than violence on the Amistad / (Oh my God) she’s wrong like eatin’ bacon on Ramadan”), but her ice-cold voice and razor-sharp delivery put her in a category of her own. Don’t expect any high-priced orchestral manoeuvres on the musical front, but expect a track that flashes just as cold and deadly as its vocals.
“Take Me” on the other hand, relies completely on the symphonic splendor of Lyn Collins’ “Take Me Just As I Am”. But rather than being inspired to write a love song, Grae uses the Female Preacher’s pleading “take me” to place her destiny in God’s hands, as somebody who’s about to commit suicide nonetheless. Using her suicidal thoughts as a platform to come to reason with God, Jean Grae pens one of the most somber tales in recent hip-hop history, her final thoughts being:
“You can see the pain twist my face from a distance
The body’s windows glistenin’ red-hot from all of the Indo
Thinkin’ of my next akin-folk, my mama, openin’ doors
Crimson billows spread out on the pillows and floor
I gotta block it out, I’m set on knockin’ out
Lock and aim and I’m droppin’ my frame
Quick when I pop at the brain
And if God’s omnipotent, will he slip in and change
And move the pistol
So it shoots out of range and the lead whistles?
Maybe he’s just playin’, let it ricochet and cripple me
Strictly for questionin’…
My finger’s itchin’ to touch on the answers
Hard-headed like exotic dancers’ nipples
Picturin’ them bullets rippin’ the skin on the mantle
I’m holdin’; pull back and blow the wick
right off the candle, throw a kiss
until the world’s out of focus
So now (take me)”
The rest of the official tracks have no less of a dark air about them. “Swing Blades” featuring Cannibal Ox combines sparse drum programming with a wistful flute, with Grae making another failing attempt to connect with her spiritual side:
“They say that bright lights and angels come and get you
if that’s the truth, then I expect a black knight blockin’ the sun, I got issues
Another day with myself, another day without wealth
there’s gotta be another way, I need help
And so I pray like Pentecostal, Sufi, Buddhist, strict agnostic
hoping one will hit its target”
“My Crew” tips its hat to Jay-Z again, but can’t help but to be depressing as well. “Code Red” featuring Block McCloud and Pumpkinhead pairs some classic underground string samples with some rather lackluster beats as the three wallow in hate, unable to reach the heights of love. It’s a song you’re likely to remember when you catch her over Scarface’s “My Block”, saying, “I don’t even love life no more, my niggas, I just live it / and I don’t love love, all the hurting is infinite.” Somebody cheer her up already. Or maybe not. Much to the perverted delight of the public, hurt and anger are known to bring out the best in some artists. While it’s debatable if Jean Grae should continue down that dark road, “The Bootleg of the Bootleg” is definitely another step in her maturation process. She may be self-absorbed and cold, but when this lady sings the blues, she’s guaranteed to give you the chills.