In Search of Jean Grae

In Search of <b>Jean Grae</b>
Jean Grae is in a funny, yet evasive mood. The topic at hand is the promo CD for This Week that features Grae crooning over a schmaltzy cocktail jazz arrangement, playfully teasing potential journalists that the tracks presented are not mixed or sequenced correctly. "I will say that the intro is in the right place," she quips good-naturedly. "Beyond that, good luck."

The fact that Jean Grae continues to employ a number of personas only adds to her perpetually elusive nature. She was born Tsidi Ibrahim to expatriate South African jazz musicians and first came to the notice of hip-hop heads as What?What? in short-lived group Natural Resource during the halcyon days of New York's mid-‘90s indie hip-hop renaissance. During this time, she logged time as a producer under the name Run Run Shaw in order to negotiate the male-dominated world of beat-making. After taking on her X-Men-inspired moniker in the wake of Natural Resource's dissolution, on record she's played a number of divergent roles. On Company Flow alum Mr. Len's "Taco Day," she was a vengeful Columbine-inspired suburban schoolgirl and on "God's Gift," from her acclaimed low-budget debut Attack of The Attacking Things, she jarringly critiqued sexism by rhyming from the perspective of a misogynist male MC.

Her elusiveness is heightened further by her deceptive delivery. Whether she's in a battle-hardened stance, conveying her stifling paranoia and depression, or delivering faux-party tracks with a heavy-lidded wink, everything is delivered in a seemingly detached monotone, attracting flak from critics. "To me it doesn't seem like it's subtle, that's just the way I talk, it's the way I am," says Grae. "I'm very dry and sarcastic and people don't necessarily get I'm making fun of them or making a joke until they walk away and they'll be like ‘Hold on a second.'" This delayed reaction is a common occurrence when listening to Grae's intricately woven lyricism on This Week.

Putting her phonetically comical prodution alias Nasain Nahmeen on hiatus, Grae sourced beats from other producers and focused entirely on writing. While she can get into different personas, her writing has also been intensely personal. This Week finds her taking responsibility and facing up to her past while moving on the path to self-acceptance, exhibiting striking detail, honesty and narrative flair. Writing is clearly a cathartic practice for her personally; one verse is in the form of an encouraging email written by herself to herself. Despite this, Grae is careful to draw personal boundaries around the relationship of the artist and the audience. "You don't know that person. You know them through the same conversation you have with them repeatedly, which is their album or their songs. You can get glimpses or sneak peeks into what a person is and who they are but that's about it."

One of these glimpses is outlined on the heart-wrenching "Forgive Me," a vivid narrative detailing abortion and its emotional aftermath. "It definitely took a long time to be able to say it and 9th [Wonder] gave me the track that brought it out. I did want to go into depth, for me as well as the listener," says Grae, stopping for a very deep pause. "It was hard to do. Probably the hardest one I've recorded in a while."

The aforementioned track was one of many recorded with Little Brother producer 9th Wonder over an intense five-day period that resulted in her already-completed next album, Jeanius — the title references Grae's nickname on the Roots' web site Okayplayer.

With Grae putting the Philly hip-hop group's offer to join them on hold while she pursues her solo career — which includes working on an interactive choose your adventure album as well as guerrilla marketing her Jean Unit (yep, you heard right) mix-tape — thankfully it doesn't seem like Jean Grae is going to get pinned down any time soon. But does she ever consider dumbing herself down to double her dollars? "Yeah, and then I just don't," she admits. "Every f***in' five minutes. I'll be like, if I hadn't used the word smorgasbord, dammit!"
Del F. Cowie