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Jean Grae Shows There's No Better Femcee


Finally this hour, music from the rapper Jean Grae. Her latest album is called "Jeanius." She finished it in 2005, but it's only now being released. And our critic Robert Christgau says it's worth the wait.

ROBERT CHRISTGAU: Jean Grae was born Tsidi Benjamin in 1976. Her father is the great South African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, her mother the South African jazz vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin. Though Grae was born in Cape Town, she grew up in Manhattan in locations from Harlem to the Chelsea Hotel. She attended the "Fame" high school, LaGuardia. She danced as a young teen with Alvin Ailey. She was briefly a music business major in NYU, and by age 20, she bet all her cultural advantages on hip-hop.

Ms. JEAN GRAE (Rapper): (Rapping) The dream-shattering girl without collateral urls, unimaginable, shattered like a lateral curls, tight, expanding your world, and I'm like could this fight this game like a roof for your volleyball move like in the aim to get analogies right ya dumb as Mallory right but Jean is smarter than you thought at first apparently right, please don't be mad at me, I'd rather be liked 'cause your opinion really matters automatically - psych. I'd get...

CHRISTGAU: That's from the lead track of Jean Grae's fifth album, "Jeanius," J-E-A-N-I-U-S. The rapping is remarkable for its rapidity, clarity, and idiomatic cadence. The writing has a good-humored polysyllabic literacy that, believe me, is framed at both ends by colloquialisms we can't play on the radio. Forget Missy Elliot and Little Kim, technically, there has never been a more gifted femcee, as women rappers are now sometimes called. But Jean Grae isn't confident that her gifts guarantee her success.

(Soundbite of song "Don't Rush Me")

Ms. GRAE: (Rapping) I know I'm overly sensitive when it comes to, well, just about everything. And I'm so hardheaded, I don't need your help. Like no advice for these records 'less it's me, myself. Like I don't ever want to breathe if it requires assistance. Just, just shut down my system. I'm a victim of choosin' bad love.

CHRISTGAU: Jean Grae loves battle rhymes, witty, profane taunts aimed at her supposed peers, but she also writes a lot about her numerous neuroses and swears that the most striking track on "Jeanius" is as true to life as its title, "My Story." Among other things, it describes an abortion.

(Soundbite of song "My Story")

Ms. GRAE: (Rapping) And you don't know what it's like in waiting rooms and outside, they're picketing, pictures can slay you. They're screaming victims and spitting 'til they shame you. I hold my head low and shiver, push my way through. They put you in a room where you can change into a gown and shower cap shaking as a fiend would do, and that's when you think of fleeing the building, and then they call you and you hear and they're calling your children. They count down from 10 now, you want to stop them but you say it in your head. You're out for the cut, and then you wake up in another room with plenty others. They call it recovery, you're thinking we ain't mothers. And then prescription pills wherein a scripted chills, an understatement, get dressed but you're naked still. And your brain won't think straight, wait, can't finish this...

CHRISTGAU: "Jeanius" is Jean Grae's first major-label album. Its official release was delayed endlessly due to sample clearance hassles. In April, Grae wrote a MySpace post implying that she planned to quit the business, and in a recent interview, she didn't exactly disavow the possibility, just postponed it. She wants to have kids, wants to write full-time, can't stand the videos her bosses at Warners are making. One all sexy, the other giving "My Story" a happy ending. But right now, she added, rapping is her job. She's doing it so well that everyone should hope that's how things remain.

Ms. GRAE: (Rapping) The double standards are dropping me, I'm mechanical now, the catalog is gradually bigger and annually I'm a...

BLOCK: Jean Grae's latest album is called "Jeanius." Our reviewer, Robert Christgau, writes the monthly consumer guide to CDs for You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robert Christgau
Robert Christgau contributes regular music reviews to All Things Considered.