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Perhaps never have an MC and the record industry needed each other more than in the case of Jean Grae. No female rapper has ever gotten as much mileage out of dark humor and self-destructive musings, and both attributes cut through the purism that renders so many underground rappers unlistenable.
While a few early cameos were notable, Grae didn’t really catch fire until her 2002 debut, Attack of the Attacking Things, which had her unleashing an array of unorthodox and sardonic couplets mixing underground fundamentalism with off-color jabs at whoever come may. Yet her most vulnerable moment, “Love Song,” was also maybe her most transcendent: “What I had thought was gold, was only gold-plated.”
But even though Grae has all the gifts of a generational standard-bearer, the line between Chino XL and Eminem is one of polish, a trait that Grae—as exemplified on her latest, The Bootleg of the Bootleg EP—sadly lacks. For all her shine, she’s a gem uncut, too often reveling in monotone flow and downtempo production. There are moments on Attacking Things that amount to a sonic flat-scan rippled only by the occasional cynical quip.
Like her debut, Bootleg shows little range. It also seems only nominally intended for mass commercial release. Instead it’s more like a for-sale demo, aimed at a&r’s in search of the next big thing and Jean Grae fiends who salivate over her every punch line. “I’m more necessary than violence on the Amistad,” she quips on “Hater’s Anthem.” “Oh my god, she’s wrong like eating bacon on Ramadan.”
The EP closes with a 45-minute megamix called “Chapter One: Destiny”—a rambling montage offering Grae’s take on tracks from popular rappers. But it’s also a showcase for her weaknesses. Her re-interpretations of Jay-Z’s “Breathe Easy” and “Excuse Me Miss,” though clever, mainly show off her inability to use her voice to contextualize her best lines.
But despite its flaws, Bootleg is orgiastic for lyric lovers. “They say that bright lights and angels come and get you,” raps Grae in “Swing Blades.” “I expect a black knight blocking the sun, I got issues.” If there is a message in Bootleg‘s bottle, it’s this: Someone sign this woman fast; you can—and almost certainly will—do much worse.