By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
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.
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.
So where do we stand with this now?
You know, I don't know. As far as I know, it was being shot. So I'm gonna assume it's done already. And I was like, "Do I say something about it before they decide to release it—will that stop it from coming out? Or do I let them go ahead and let them do it and then we'll deal with it?" I guess I just made my choice.
Does being on Talib Kweli's label help? Wouldn't he have a better grasp of what you want and what you need?
I think the whole experience over the past year has definitely given me a better idea of how much more vocal—and vocal with tact—I have to be in certain situations. There's tons of things you could say. It's hard to not speak about anything passionately. And if you speak about it passionately, then you're being too emotional and whiny. Can't do that. And if I don't say anything about it, am I shirking my responsibility and leaving it open for everyone else to step in? How angry can I really be if I'm not doing anything?
The interesting duality comes from being female and immediately being written off saying anything—it's: "Oh, she's complaining again. See? And that's why bitches shouldn't rap." It's an interesting place to stand. It's sort of a "damned if you do, damned if you don't." I do wanna very much take a position on this song and this record and this video, because it would be insane of me not to.
With that MySpace bulletin, were you trying to scare people a little bit?
No. Definitely not.
I think from your fans' perspective, people were starting to take you for granted, and the thought of you being gone really kind of woke people up.
No, I mean, I haven't had music out in a while, and I can't expect the buzz to stay up if you're not putting anything out. I thought it was very interesting, and 9th and I discussed it: It was a real emotional time, and not just because I'm a girl—it was a huge thing to be like, "Hey, I'm not gonna be doing this anymore." And 9th and I spoke—he was like, "It's like you're dead." And I'm like, "It is like I'm dead!" It was amazing. I've never gotten so many hits on my page. I was like, "You know what? Not that it was a publicity stunt, but shit—maybe I've should've thought of it before as a publicity stunt."
Are you working on new material?
Is there a timeline there, or are you waiting to see how this goes?
I was. I was. After Jeanius, it's hard to go back and do something else. We actually went back and started Phoenix. Got about halfway through it. Really interesting album. Kind of modeling it after classic albums that we loved. We were like, "This one, this is Supreme Clientele." And I don't think I was in the right place to completely finish it at that moment. Really went through a period of not knowing the right way to go, what direction to be in. I was like, "Jeanius took four or five days. It shouldn't take long." It's been four years. And the songs are amazing and wonderful, but I don't exactly know if that fits into where I have to go for the next project. Which is great, because I love just recording and having things, have a catalog behind me. But. Yeah.
So when you threatened to retire, you talked about the things you'd do instead. What are those things?
Anything! Anything. Anything. I'm a writer. This is why I started doing this. So that'll fall into play. I don't know. When it's really time, and it's absolutely and completely right, and I don't feel like there's anything I really need to finish, then it'll be done.
Do you think you're gonna be doing this a year from now? Is this gonna turn out well? Or do you think you're walking away?
You know what? I need that Grammy. I think I might be able to stop after that.