There aren’t too many in the rap game that can do it like Jean, regardless of gender. True heads know her from her work with Natural Resource in the mid-90s, while others might have heard her on collaborations with artists like Masta Ace, Talib Kweli, The Herbaliser, and her partner in crime on this release, 9th Wonder. Whatever the source, if you’ve heard her in action, you know she’s no joke and her take-no-prisoners rhyming style puts her among the elites in the genre.
If you’re familiar with Jean Grae’s career, you probably already know about this album, as it was shelved after being leaked to the internet a few years back. Fortunately, Kweli’s Blacksmith Music label has decided to reward loyal fans with an official version, for which Jean and 9th created four different covers, each playing off a classic album cover of the past. My own copy is a spoof of Raekwon’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx,” but others include parodies of albums by Public Enemy, Black Sheep, and Das Efx. This little wink at the serious hip hop heads who are her main audience is definitely appreciated, and it’s a good indication of her mindset on this release, which finds her at her sharpest, delivering her verbal lessons with a precision that is worthy of the classics she is invoking with her cover art.
Jean wastes no time proving her lyrical bona fides, promising on the “Intro” to “keep it gritty like the grates at the edge of the curbs” over 9th’s cinematic strings. The next track, “2-32’s” featuring DP, follows in the same vein with viciously witty battle raps spurred on by some pulsating 9th Wonder soul. This one is chock full of quotables, including her assertion that she’s “un-Common like Erykah,” or the boast, “I raise Havoc, like giving Mobb Deep a booster chair.” Other top notch shit-talking tracks include the horn-heavy “Think About It” and “The Time Is Now,” a dope-ass duet with Phonte where they claim to be “the Ashford & Simpson of this rap shit.” Jean asserts that she’s out to “get green like chlorophyll” while Phonte kills it in his first eight bars:
“At this moment, Phonte’s flow is
stompin through, y’all niggas just tip-toein’
Soon as they put it on, they say he Big Willie
You just a Lil Jon, tryna Get Lower
This is proof that the existence of persistence pays off and it’s showin
Cuz labels used to play me like, now they better pay me like
I’m Luke Wilson, check your books, I ain’t Owen”
In addition to the straightforward braggadocio, Jean also works her magic on a couple of stellar story-telling tracks. “Billy Killer” tells a first-person tale of a woman in a relationship with a man caught up in a high-risk lifestyle. Her narrative of his increasingly dire situation vividly captures the helplessness of the woman involved, who desperately wants to help but isn’t allowed to. The only thing that holds this song back is some random lyric deletions which I can only assume were edited out because they included objectionable content. Considering it’s a story about (I presume) fictional characters, the censorship doesn’t make much sense and is annoying to boot. “American Pimp” co-stars Median, and the two spin a couple of yarns about characters in unsavory circumstances. Jean’s verse centers on a young girl who might as well be Tupac’s “Brenda,” but the extra touches she uses to flesh out her story keep it from sounding like the generic ghetto narratives so many other rappers deliver.
While Jean Grae can spit ferocious battle rhymes like a young Canibus and weave together a verbal story like vintage Biggie, it’s the more personal tracks that give the album its depth. The weightiest of these is “My Story,” a song that should remind everyone why we need more women in hip hop, as Jean’s painfully personal verses about three unplanned pregnancies prove how badly we need to hear about these issues from the feminine perspective. I have to believe at least some of this comes from personal experience because of how visceral the descriptions are, but either way this is a truly powerful song. “Don’t Rush Me” is an honest reflection on her quirks and foibles that still manages to raise a finger to the haters.
“There’s nothin like knowin yourself
Like the way I know that smokin’s kinda broken my health
Like the way I know my flow don’t make appropriate wealth
I can’t change that, but funny I’m sayin that when it’s money I’m aimed at
I give a fuck if you frame that, or quote it
I meant what I said cuz I wrote it, point noted
I know I’m overly sensitive when it comes to well… just about everything
And I’m so hard-headed, I don’t need your help
Like no advice for these records ‘less it’s me myself
Like I don’t ever wanna breathe if it requires assistance, just-
Just shut down my system
I’m a victim of choosin bad love, bad luck Lucy
Every man touched seems to be a doozy and plus
I’m attached to this looseleaf, stand on my two feet
So it’s hard enough to even have to physically move me
Go ahead â€“ try”
With Jean at the top of her game, the music behind her need only be decent to keep the vibe going, and luckily 9th Wonder provides an impressive backdrop throughout. While much has been made of the supposed overhaul of the beats done since the album was leaked, in reality things are much the same as before. Rather than starting from scratch, 9th has retooled things in a few key places, highlighting a kick here, a snare there, and generally making for a more polished product. It is your standard 9th Wonder fare, meaning it’s straightforwardly soulful in exactly the right way. The fact that the album clocks in at a lean 13 tracks and 49 minutes helps prevent the feel of sameness from creeping in that often plagues 9th’s full-length productions.
While Jean has shown considerable promise in the past, delivering various mission statements on “Attack of the Attacking Things” and “This Week,” she has never before released an album this cohesive and consistent from front to back. She is in fine form here, and it is truly a sight to behold, like Kobe on the baseline or Nas over Primo beats. With a considerable assist from 9th Wonder on the boards, Jean Grae has finally produced the career-defining statement that we have all been waiting for, and it’s truly a work of Jeanius.