Sometimes when the planets align and all the stars have found their height, there is a second when the world slows to a crawl and your ears stand at attention, and in that moment it all makes sense. Jean Grae caught that second like a firefly and stuck it a Mason jar when she hooked up with famed North Carolina-based producer 9th Wonder in 2004 and created Jeanius. In less than a week, the two vibed off each other and birthed an album that was giddy and gritty, playful and serious, boastful and subdued. It was one of those magical happenings like the sun shining brightly on a rainy afternoon.
Unfortunately, fireflies often die by morning and bootleggers stay on the job. Before the masterpiece could be released, like a dove from a magician's handkerchief, Jeanius leaked over the Internet like a busted fire hydrant on a hot summer day.
Grae was crushed. Album production was halted. Later Grae blogged on MySpace about retiring, and it took some time for her to heal. She is now signed to Talib Kweli's Blacksmith Records. Jeanius has been dusted off, polished up and put on the white market since the black market already had it. The sound is pure 9th with soul-filled beats and harmonies that provide a beautiful background for Grae's rugged lyrics.
She makes no apologies for being all things on this album. Grae acknowledges early on that she is tough and playful, yet equally insecure and sensitive. On "Don't Rush Me," she states: Listen, there's nothing like knowin' yourself/Like the way I know that smokin's kind of broken my health/Like the way I know my flow don't make appropriate wealth/I can't change that/But funny I'm sayin' that when it's money I'm aimed at/I give a fuck if you frame that or quote it/I meant what I said cuz I wrote it, point noted/I know I'm overly sensitive when it comes to, well/Just about everything. And on the introspective "My Story," Grae waxes about how she feels she has disappointed her mother, such as her bad choices with sex and abortion and how the psyche shuts out the painful parts that are too hard to remember.
But not all of Grae's musings are inside the hurt. On "The Time is Now," Grae shows her silly side, playing up how she and Phonte of Little Brother are the Ashford and Simpson of rap. Then there are the four extremely limited classic cover parodies where Grae and 9th pay tribute to old classic rap albums: Public Enemy's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" (U.S. release); Black Sheep's "A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing" (international release); Raekwon's "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx" (digital); and Das EFX's "Dead Serious" (vinyl).
Grae's back story is as interesting as the tales she weaves. Born in 1976 in Cape Town, South Africa, to famed jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim aka Adolph Johannes Brand aka Dollar Brand and South African jazz singer Sathima Bea Benjamin, Grae, born Tsidi Ibrahim, was given music in the womb. She was birthed into the New York underground hip-hop scene around the time Jay-Z was posing for the Reasonable Doubt cover with a wide-brim fedora and a cigar. Hip-hop was still jiggified in 1996 when Grae—who was calling herself "What? What?" at the time—joined a collective called "Natural Resources" and released a couple of duds. In 1998, Lauryn Hill released The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and Grae bounced from the group and took on the moniker Jean Grae. The stage name was in tribute to the X-men superhero Jean Grey—fitting, since Grey's superhero powers are telekinesis and telepathy and Grae's emceeing is to get inside the groove and find the truth, to examine herself in a light that isn't always flattering.
In 2002, she produced, wrote and rapped on her first solo LP, "Attack of the Attacking Things," a raw and gritty release that sent the underground buzzing. In 2004, Grae released "This Week," which showcased her lyrical gifts. Later on that week, the underground took Jeanius.
Other than a few title changes, a few new beats and a few extra songs, not much is different on "Jeanius the official release" and "Jeanius the bootleg." Overall, Jeanius feels like the musical equivalent of Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth—an incomplete work that was finished by the estate. Separately, each song hits hard, but collectively there is little continuity. The standout single is the highly infectious "Love Thirst," in which Grae shatters the idea of the female emcee or "fem-emcee" being a two-dimensional oversexualized or thugged-out version of her male counterpart.
What Grae does best on the track is show the intricacies of being a woman. She pines, My caramel mahogany fairy tale/He gon' do very well; I'm fearin for the farewell, stay awhile/We could just lay awhile, see me smile better/Lean your chest on me, make you my sweater.
In the video she evolves in the back of a taxi from a member of the hip-hop cult classic Warriors street gang, complete with baseball bat and fitted Yanks cap, to sexy nurse to scandalous vixen to nun in full habit and Bible. The transitions are jarring, as the lyrics get steamier. It is the kind of video that videos used to be: accompaniments to the songs, not boastful montages of gratuitous excess.
But Jean Grae is nothing if not complex. Word on the street is still looming that the retirement might have been premature, that another album titled Phoenix may or may not be coming out and that a video for "My Story" might not include Grae.
Nevermind that, because at least for this second, Grae has her moment and has stretched it out long enough to give hip-hop a look inside.
Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is a Washington-based writer.