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Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Underrated Saga of Jean Grae
By Alexander Billet

Of all the insults slung at hip-hop nowadays, none seems to be so prevalent as the accusation of mysoginy and sexism. Critics who otherwise couldn't care less about women's position in music are eager like Opie to point to videos on MTV and BET, the scantily-clad women and gyrating buttocks, as proof that hip-hop is a music of depravity and exploitation. It's a thinly veiled code for saying that blacks are a few steps closer to the jungle than "respectable" white America.

Which is what makes the case of Jean Grae so doubly frustrating. It's unfair to call Jean a great woman MC. She's simply a great MC! On the long awaited The Evil Jeanius, her collaboration with Blue Sky Black Death released last month, she proves to be a master of everything from pants-wetting battle rap to deep introspection and vulnerability. Though she has undoubtedly become a well-known fixture in the underground and has won respect in most hip-hop circles, her insane ability on the mic makes even the most cynical of listeners ask why she hasn't torn up the mainstream yet.

The reasoning behind that is at once complex and quite simple. The industry that is content giving us a minstrel's view of hip-hop also suffers from, as Pitchfork's Neal Patrin puts it, an "inability to properly market a female artist who operates more as a superhuman MC than as a sex symbol."

It's unsurprising that the same industry that presents hip-hop as minstrelsy gives short shrift to female artists. Women in general are prohibited from any real position of artistic power, and the pedestals of "popularity" are mostly reserved for the frail nightingales who can easily fit into a bikini.

Jean doesn't squeeze into that mold so snugly. The rhymes on Evil Jeanius are her par for the course: fully formed, multi-dimensional, unapologetically human. Like all great MCs, Jean is absolutely uncompromising in her confidence, unafraid to openly deal with the slings and arrows of life.

In the album's highlight "Strikes," BSBD create an intense atmosphere of foreboding as Jean hides in a diner from the cops after killing a man in self-defense. Her imagery is vivid, the kind of unflinching portrait of desperation that buys into not one cliche or over-embellishment. Jean's greatest talent is taking you with her, putting you right in the middle of the most frightening aspects of daily reality (which is why "Taco Day," her nine-minute portrait of a school-shooting, has become one of the few tracks I've resolved to never listen to again).

Being such a fierce artist in an industry as mealy-mouthed as this one is bound to take its toll, especially on women. Jean Grae's own career has been something of an erratic enigma at times. Rumors have swirled more than once that she is hanging it up. Her previous Jeanius, released this past July, was expected to be released four years ago, yet for one reason after another, it's taken until this past summer for it to drop. One can only wonder about the relationship between this and the industry's clueless handling of good female artists, but it's easy to speculate.

The Evil Jeanius is close to a flawless album. It's unfortunate that its long, touch-and-go background sullies its content. Nonetheless, Jean Grae is the kind of artist who has never been afraid to announce hip-hop's future. Given the right circumstances, she is an MC that could easily break-through the inertia of the biz and play a role in changing the face of rap forever. Word is she's working on another upcoming with 9th Wonder. If the cards fall right, this could be the realease we've all been waiting for; the release that both she and the heads out there deserve.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist, writer and activist living in Chicago. Regular contributor to Znet, Dissident Voice and SleptOn.com. Appears in the recently published "At Issue: Should Music Lyrics Be Censored For Violence and Exploitation," from Greenhaven Press.
Check out his blog Rebel Frequencies

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