Since 2004’s “This Week” we haven’t seen much from Jean. Between the grounding of the much-hyped “Jeanius,” and the switch to Talib Kweli’s Blacksmith label, she hasn’t been able to steadily drop albums. Nonetheless, an artist of her caliber will find herself with a certain amount of leftover tracks – songs that are either not up to par with her album cuts, or songs that just don’t fit in with their current musical sound.

“The Orchestral Files” is a compilation of both. Nothing presented here is among her very best work (which can be stunning), but there isn’t a song on the album that feels like a throwaway either. It’s entirely possible that these are throwaway tracks, but if that’s true, then Grae is just talented enough that even her throwaways are hot. Regardless, everything here belongs to similar tempo, so it all fits well within an album premise.

While Jean is on par here, many of the beats aren’t. Nothing here has any real bang or swagger, and it makes “Files” come off as lacking emotion. Jean already raps in something of a monotone, and doesn’t express enough vocal emotion to make up for the lack of it in the beats. Even when Jean goes for her usual 2-3 lyrical takedowns that come in her albums, they fall flat because of lackluster production. Still Jean’s fan will enjoy hearing that she hasn’t lost a step on songs like “Trouble Man”:

“Baby I’m hostile!
You don’t want me to freak out
They’ll lock the doors and all you’ll see is blood start to leak out, cuz
I keep a buzz like a barrel of bees
I need the love, niggas fuck with me please!”

Still, this is a much mellower album than Jean usually makes. Songs like “Soul Clap” are content with just enjoying life in general, and Jean generally seems much less grumpy here than she’s been in the past. While the direction is admirable, it’s not as effective as her darker songs are. She’s exploring a bunch of different directions here, most notably singing a lot more – “It’s Alright” actually doesn’t feature any rapping on it. She’s a decent singer, but her vocals don’t touch her lyrics.

“Orchestral Files” does nothing if not explore a variety of thematic moods. While she’s generally mellowed out here, there aren’t many songs darker than “The Story.” A tale of two childhood friends through life, the song ends absolutely horribly. And then in the very next song, she’s back to partying and talking shit again. These rapid switches in lyrical tone are a little bit of a shock – they keep the listener from being fully into the album as a whole.

The biggest flaw with this album is the production. It’s full of solid Jean verses where the song just isn’t exciting enough. None of the beats will move anybody, and Jean just doesn’t have quite the presence to carry an album like that. Ultimately, its something that could only appeal to her diehard fans, it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience. Everybody else will be better served waiting for her first official release.

Jean Grae :: The Orchestral Files