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Jean Grae - Jeanius

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Artist: Jean Grae

Album: Jeanius

Label: Blacksmith

Review date: Aug. 11, 2008

“I’ve got to be more disciplined / I’m listening / To more straight logic, blocking shit that’s drifting in,” the rapper Jean Grae confesses on “Don’t Rush Me,” a soulful groove on her newest album Jeanius. But, contrary to Grae’s personal assessment, more self-restraint is hardly called for. Grae is already a model of discipline; as her intricate rhymes show, she is less a lyricist than a technician, penning her words as if they were lines in a schematic figure. Yet, for all of her mechanical prowess, Grae has always lacked an essential element, a trait that has kept her from resonating beyond the backpacker crowd. It is, simply put, a personality.

Grae makes headphone music. When the distance between the listener and music is closed by a set of earbuds, it’s obvious why Grae has been a cause-de-celebré in the underground hip hop community. In a subculture where verbal dexterity is valued foremost, Grae is a proven commodity; no wonder, then, that Talib Kweli - another exemplar of the underground’s wordy pretensions - quickly signed her to his Blacksmith imprint. Grae is an astute student of hip hop and Jeanius is full of clever moments, both in Grae’s wordplay and in her cadence and rhythm. Consider this passage that begins “Billy Killer”: “9 a.m., eying him / My eyes widening / Feeling like it’s Groundhog Day, he’s got to try again / The tired tied with thoughts of retirement / The pride flies and he wired me some truth and inspirement.” Forgive the incorrect nominal form at the segment’s end - this is a hip hop record, after all - and instead look at the internal rhymes and alliteration Grae employs. On this track, as on Jeanius as a whole, it’s clear that Grae has a shop’s worth of tools at her disposal.

When hearing Grae on speakers, however, one loses her rapping acuity in the widened space between the listener and sound. In this environment, Grae is less 'talented writer' than 'middling orator.' She often sounds deflated, and her delivery, an uninflected monotone, can come off as mumbling, if not pouting. Charismatic, Grae ain’t. She's aware of this criticism, though she’s not exactly in agreement: “You don’t like the way I flow / She needs more emotion, no / I’ll give you emotion, it’s you holding your broken nose,” she says coldly on “#8.” But even in this instance, where Grae could unleash some humor, some character, something to prove her doubters wrong, she declines to shed her smooth-operator pose.

For sure, this small moment on Jeanius demonstrates that Grae is principled. But her suspicion of any emotion is also more than a bit confounding. Grae submits that her refusal to be entertaining is plebeian. “Hardly elitist, I know the struggle / I mostly bubble underground like a soda below some broken rubble.” By shunning the idea that an MC moves a crowd with words and charm, though, Grae limits her potential for mass appeal. She targets the many, but her lyric-heavy style tickles the few.

9th Wonder, the busy North Carolina maestro, provides the production on Jeanius and helps make the album accessible to an audience broader than underground obsessives. His efforts, however, are not enough. As long as Jean Grae refuses to break from her impersonal approach, those doubters at whom she directs so many of her words will remain deaf.

By Ben Yaster

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