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The Trials of Jean Grae

Why an NYC rap star threatened retirement, and why she hasn't stopped threatening yet

Jean Grae once had two different albums leak on the same day. That is really hard to do. This Week, the official follow-up to the brash, volatile, riveting New York City MC's 2002 debut, Attack of the Attacking Things, saw official release as scheduled, in September 2004. That's also when Jeanius, a superior effort to This Week, began a horrifying four-year odyssey of neglect, abandonment, and (very) gradual evolution. Some of this ludicrous delay goes down to sample issues: Helmed by former Little Brother producer 9th Wonder, it's a mesmerizing ghost-town of classic funk/soul echoes—easy to love, hard to clear. But darker calamities have plagued our heroine, too, which explains, as we near Jeanius's long-awaited official release on Blacksmith Records (co-founded by Talib Kweli, overseen by Warner), why Jean herself is now threatening to retire via her MySpace page.

Her initial salvo, dated April 26, had the unmistakable ain't-we-had-fun wistfulness of a breakup letter. ("It's been a wonderful and awful journey all at the same time. Mostly leaning towards the wonderful part . . . lol.") It freaked people out. And though she continued to post, the content ranged from the suspiciously frivolous (a swarm of gnats sticks to her over-glossed lips) to the directly confrontational. There's a video for Jeanius's first single, the obscene-phone-call sex jam "Love Thirst," in which Jean frolics sexily in the back of an olde-tyme taxicab. She has disowned it. ("I think that shit is wack.") But even bloodier battles await: Though the record is by turns hilarious and vicious, there's an anguished insecurity at its core: "Don't Rush Me" is mired in frustration and self-doubt, while "My Story" recounts Jean's experience getting an abortion at 16 in brutal, vivid detail. Now her label wants to make a video for that one. Without her. Jean's not having it. And she might walk away still. But not quite yet.

Here are some excerpts from our chat.

No, she's not trying to scare you.
Biz 3 Publicity
No, she's not trying to scare you.

So, I take it you didn't actually retire.

[Sighs.] I've never done anything for the sake of a publicity stunt or anything else. But I was genuinely, really just like, "OK, I've had it." For many reasons. And I get that, being disenchanted with the industry—who's not disenchanted with the industry at some point? And especially after that many years?

Age-wise, kind of wanting to do other things, including changing careers. Been about 15 years. Wanting to have a family, wanting to be a mom. That, and not getting enough champagne in my room at all times. Always upsetting. Delayed product. I could come up with tons of 'em. It really did come from a really honest place. I definitely meant it. And at this point, it's kind of: "This is my job for better or for worse right now." And I do have a responsibility to do something I think is really important. Sometimes it feels like a real huge burden, but, yeah. [Sighs.] That, and—well, we can get into the other things later.

"My Story" mentions a heart murmur, an abortion, a miscarriage, and an attempted suicide. Is anything there even remotely embellished?

No. No. No. "My Story" is a really important song. It took me about 10 years or so to do. There's an energy that happened around that Jeanius album. With that specific song, it was just myself and 9th in the room. We have a very good chemistry working together. We never have to ask, "Go in and do this," or "I feel like this should happen here." It was just really natural and pure.

The letters and e-mails that I've gotten from men and women on the subject have been extremely important. I think you've seen my comments, how I felt about the "Love Thirst" video and putting it out. What really hurts at this point is that they have now gone ahead and done the "My Story" video. I don't know if they're done or not. Initially, it was: I'm gonna get to read the treatment. And I said: "Thank you. I really appreciate you took the time out, especially for this song—it is, to me, the most important song on this album, the most important song I've ever done. But the treatment that you wrote, it really goes against the whole idea of the song: It's become, 'Everything's gonna be OK; it's a happy ending'—no."

The whole idea of it was, no, I wanted to do a song that was this real about it. Taking you into the room. The anaesthetic. You're going through the whole process, especially experiencing it as a teenager. And not having anyone to share that with. And I said: "Please don't do this." The next thing I heard, they were going ahead with it. Casting it.

The most hurtful thing being that it's such an important song. The personal part of me baring my soul is fine. The political aspect of it—you couldn't have a more pro-choice song. So now, in essence, what you've done is taken the choice away for the video for the song called "My Story." I think it's the most disrespectful thing ever. It's really prompting me to have the kind of voice that I know I should have. I can't let it go. I can't let something like that go. And it's not fair.

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