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Hip-hop’s senior generation of critics will argue that 25 years of corporate greed killed the music’s true spirit. Harder to find a critic who’ll admit that hip-hop’s quarantine of all things feminine has atrophied the music. It isn’t simply women. Hip-hop excludes tenderness, quietude, sentiment, sensitivity, and weakness. That’s what makes Jean Grae, a 10-year vet retrofitted for her second album by Okayplayer, hip-hop’s million-dollar baby.
A cosmopolitan homegirl straddling indie organicity and commercial flummery, she’s equally at home on cocky battle raps like “Watch Me” and introverted, insecure love raps like “P.S.” She compels the underground to get crunk and the mainstream to crack books. She compels local yokels to think global (her daddy is South African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim) and internationalist dreamers to get real (her style is rooted in the New York streets). Most alarmingly, she compels us to confront false opposites like butch-femme and masculine-feminine. Her timbre is plain and her tone unvarying, but her flow is testosterone-driven like Marilyn Crispell on the 88s—furious, pneumatic, synaptic, pugilistic. Grae has always tried on styles and personas, and on tracks like “Style Wars” she mimics Jay-Z’s swaggering Brooklynese. It’s audacious drag, like some vocal correlate to the mannish, breathless boxing with which Rosie Perez opens Do the Right Thing.
But remember: Rosie was fighting air. The dudes Jean Grae can and should battle have plenty of skills but little access to their emotional reserves. Her closest mainstream competition is Nas (both are intellectual East Coast lyricists with musician fathers and chart ambitions), but even marriage won’t extinguish Nas’s misogyny (“Remember the Times”). On This Week, Grae’s tracks sound diverse and accomplished but rarely more than serviceable. While pitched-up soul samples, prominent on “Supa Luva” (produced by 9th Wonder) and “Whatever” (produced by Belief), provide surreal blasts of expressive passion that let guarded MCs off the hook, Grae’s naked sensitivity makes them redundant.
On a blizzardy night in January at Rothko, Grae’s DJ would fade the ends of tracks and she’d freestyle a cappella. For those quiet, fleeting moments she seemed totally free as an artist, not fighting to be heard—literally or figuratively. Hip-hop’s Plexiglas ceiling will aggravate her bitter sarcasm or make her nuts, if her schizoid ramblings on “Going Crazy” offer any clue. Just as Aretha twiddled her thumbs on Columbia before Muscle Shoals’ rhythm section invented itself, there are few sounds, or peers, in hip-hop right now who can do justice to Grae’s emotional sophistication. Rumor has it the Roots asked her to join their crew. If there were any justice, the guys would join her.