Although many can speculate that her songwriting has strengthened in the last decade, Jean Grae‘s [click to read] album-making in many critical eyes, remains unmatched by her now out-of-print 2002 debut Attack of the Attacking Things [click to read]. While 9th Wonder [click to read] and will.i.am [click to read] have now worked with the outspoken emcee, her most tightly-woven work was either self-produced, or under the helm of veterans like Evil Dee and Mr. Len. True to the counter-pop formula then, when in-house Babygrande Records production team Blue Sky Black Death took unreleased Grae songs from her label tenure, and called it Jean Grae: Evil Jeanius, it’s strangely believable that the very release she’s unhappy with, may contend as her best.
Purchasers of Bootleg of the Bootleg EP [click to read] can testify that Jean Grae has an uncanny ability to take others’ songs and beats and convince the listener they’re her own. That is true of “Threats,” which borrows Jay-Z‘s [click to read] hypothetical play-by-play of torture and makes it her own. Plausibly recorded to 9th Wonder‘s production of the Jay-Z album cut classic, Jean‘s sweet side fades to the same woman who challenged record critics, label A&Rs, and a sea of non-believers. “It’s Still A Love Song” updates her ’02 seminal diary-song, this time not analyzing one specific relationship, but rather the uncertainty and mistakes of life in the twenties. This is a poignant way to close the album, and joins “Don’t Rush Me” [click to read] and “Keep Livin'” as the emcee’s most personal, introspective writing to date.
Blue Sky Black Death make a lot of this album’s resonance possible. Rather than chase radio-friendly sounds, as was the case on Bootleg and This Week, the San Francisco duo has a Just Blaze approach to bringing a homogenous blend of live instrumentation and sample-supported textures. The ambient electronic creation of “Strikes” allows Grae‘s imagery to sound as though it is told with a cautious urgency. The organ chord changes of “It’s Still A Love Song” masterfully make the work sound less like a diary entry, and more like a sermon. Just as Ski did so well for Jay-Z or Dr. Dre for Snoop Dogg, Blue Sky Black Death added drama and a cinematic quality to this album. The effort deserves added recognition, as it is presumed these beats were tailor-made to Jean‘s vocals, long after she left the label for Talib Kweli‘s Blacksmith Music.
Whereas another un-endorsed Jean Grae collection, The Orchestral Files, was a distraction from her true catalogue, this work is an appetizer. While Grae, who has expressed her hopes of releasing upwards of three full lengths, got her wish in an undirect way, this effort shows an entirely different sound than Jeanius [click to read]. The more polished, more seasoned and more versatile New York emcee revisits her roots and wonderfully unique approach with beats that seem to fit her words snugly, and dramatically. While Rap-A-Lot and Death Row have struggled to package former artists with remixes and after-the-fact production, Babygrande and its producers may have stumbled on something strikingly good.