JEAN GRAE / “Don’t Rush Me”
OK, so here we are featuring a track that’s not commercially available from Jean Grae, an artist who is underground personified. In other words, legendary but generally unknown. Imagine MC Lyte’s loud-mouth bad-ass baby sister, and well, that’s Tsidi Ibrahim, BKA Jean Grae.
Jean is the daughter of South African musicians: pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin. A child prodigy who earned a spot in the Alvin Ailey dance company and tested into college at age 16, Jean Grae settled on hip-hop as a career focus. Her work has a wicked kick to it. The Jean Grae selections in the jukebox cover most of her solo work over the last decade.
My favorites are The Orchestral Files ("Trouble Man," "The Story" and "Break") and The Attack of the Attacking Things ("Block Party," "Love Song, "Get It" and "Live for You"). Two other releases commercially available are The Bootleg of the Bootleg EP and This Week ("Don't Rush Me") and ("PS").
When it comes to rap, I’m not equipped to do much more than just talk about what I like and what I don’t like. My limitation is not my taste but rather my ignorance about the general field. I don’t know if what Jean is doing is a copy of some deep somebody who preceded her or if her stuff is some for real uniquely Jean shit. I do know I really like how she foregrounds her own difficulties and contradictions when most rappers be relying mainly on braggadocio, hyperbole and personal exaggeration.
For example, “The Rain” is both the hardest and the most sensitive song about abortion most of us have ever heard. The hard is the honest portrayal of ambivalence, the clear-eyed examination of the difficult position of electing multi-abortions. Can no longer fall back on pure innocence when caught between rocking for fun and the hard reality of not-quite-ready for parenthood. Who do you blame when your ass does something stupid? Jean’s genius is she does not take the easy way out and in walking the walk, her talk helps us all confront our own failures in the face of difficult life choices.
1. Jean is a battle master. You don’t want to go one-on-one with her. Her battle raps are decapitating. There’s menace in almost every syllable, if you’re a male and blink cause it’s a woman in front of you, you just lost. In one millisecond she’ll slice you. “Trouble Man” is street creed: have mouth, will spit.
As a word wizard, Jean is at her most withering when she confronts herself. “Come On” is a calling card, “Gotta Have It” a resume, “It’s Her” one of those college admission autobiographies, and “PS” a brief chapter from her proposed memoirs.
2. She could rival Nas in her ability to build a coherent narrative. Whether a multi-verse novel-like epic (“The Story”) or interlocking short stories (“Love Song”) Jean has an ability to unsentimentally, albeit sensitively, sketch and detail the true realities of life challenges.
Although she proclaims she wishes it were otherwise, Jean Grae is too intelligent not to know that much of her music conflicts with being popular when “popular” is defined as escapist music that focuses solely on “feeling good,” i.e. dancing, getting down, occasionally reminiscing but saying nothing to make one think or change one’s behavior.
Jean can rock a party but even then there’s something else always going on. In other words, even when she’s bouncing for the duckets, there’s still some integrity there (even as notes: you can’t eat integrity!). But hey, it’s hard to be a total sell out when you profess upfront you’re just doing a particular song to make money—a successful sell-out can never acknowledge themselves as a sell-out. Part of being a true hit parade number one is pretending (or I should say, actually "believing") that bullshit is something serious.
How can anyone listen to “Don’t Rush Me” and not think about making choices? Nothing breaks a high like the cold water of honest introspection. "Don't Rush Me" is listed as a bonus track on This Week.
“Live For You” is archetypal Jean Grae self-exploration. As good as it is, I don’t think this is quite what one wants to party to. Moreover even when she goes for dead-pan comedy, the shit is hard to handle. Check “Getting Fuck’d Up,” a hilarious albeit deadly portraiture of Negro alcoholics that is built on a Christmas song. Tell me you didn’t laugh. And when it was over and you had a chance to think about it, tell me you didn’t wince. I bet you did.
3. Which all brings me to her third strength: in addition to being a beast with words, there is a deep consciousnes that permeates Jean Grae's work. Even when she masks it in wicked wit, Jean's seriousness is a distinguishing characteristic and, indeed, the unmistakable and uncamouflageable seriousness may be one reason her work is not more popular. Also, it would really, really help for her to pair with a producer whose music is as strong as her lyrics.
My introduction to Jean Grae was her Attack of the Attacking Things release and the seminal track “Block Party.” I was knocked out by her cursing to describe some kids whose cursing she had to deal with. Not one bit of self-righteousness mars Jean’s proclamations.
And then there’s the hard news of “Keep Livin” describing where she’s at by recalling where she’s been and envisioning where she wants to go. Built on a recreation of a piano figure I know from “Be Real Black For Me” (a Donny Hathaway/Roberta Flack song), “Keep Livin” could be the theme song of any serious artist trying to make meaningful music and simultaneously carve out a successful commercial career—although not impossible, it definitely ain’t easy.
I’m learning niggas but I’m slow at itMuch respect and big ups to Jean Grae as she (hopefully successfully) struggles with the art/commerce contradiction.
Always gave my motherfuckers the benefit of the doubt
But it seems that everybody’s just out for self
I used to love her, now I gotta make her work
for my wealth—I gotta eat y'all
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Why Jean isn't more popular
I’ve thought a lot about why Jean isn't more popular. I don't mean popular like 'top of the charts' popular—that's just not going to happen; I mean underground popular. Like selling enough to not have to grind from release to release. Kalamu touched on one thing: Jean's production could be better. But I don't think that's it either. The real problem, I think, is Jean is a throwback MC. Her style is straight out of the time when you just blessed a hot beat with some good rhymes, made up a name and then sent the thing out to be pressed. She's an MC who's in the mold of a Big Daddy Kane or MC Shan...or in later years, somebody like Ras Kass. She can really bring it lyrically, but she's not somebody who's going to attract the ear of average pop fans and average pop fans are the people who pay the bills.
Or like Jean put it herself:
I know my flow don't make appropriate wealth
I can't change that / But it's funny I'm saying that
When it's money I'm aimed at
I vaguely remember Jean rapping with a group before she went solo. I never heard any of those records (if they actually exist...I could be remembering it wrong) but that's an intriguing idea. For the real hip-hop fans out there, how'd you like to hear a trio made up of, say, Ras Kass, my man Freddie Foxxx AKA Bumpy Knuckles and Jean. I'm talking all three of them rocking over beats by Premier or Pete Rock or somebody like that. Jean's flow has a certain montone quality to it that doesn't usually keep me engaged for the length of an entire track, but at the same time, I really like her style, her voice and her whole vibe. I'd love to hear her drop those ill rhymes of hers one verse at a time.
—Mtume ya Salaam
P.S. BTW, I had no idea Abdullah Ibrahim (AKA Dollar Brand) was Jean's dad and I had no idea Jean's mom was a long-time singer, record label owner and industry insider. That's deep.
This entry was posted on Monday, March 17th, 2008 at 12:41 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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