In an industry where every other MC seems to have a mile-long rap sheet -- or is in the process of earning one -- Jean Grae can't help but laugh about her own bad rep.
"I find it interesting what record companies will deem a 'problem artist,' " says the New York City-based rhymer. "I guess they think, 'She writes too much, dammit!' "
Indeed, hip-hop's most ferocious female MC does all her damage with words. Just ask any target of her ire, like the rapping rival to whom she directed the immortal couplet, "I'll cut your dick off / And sell it like it's porn to the pawn shop."
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Jean Grae doesn't have to be on the mike to wreak havoc, either. An op-ed piece she wrote for Allhiphop.com last year created a buzz throughout the hip-hop world. Fed up with fighting for recognition and paychecks, Grae took the industry to task in a firestorm of rage, regret and revulsion.
"I hate the music business because it has shit to do with music," she wrote. "I don't even know why I fucking put my heart into doing this when it's obvious that so many people who don't, get what they want out of it Why do I have to keep turning out entire albums or releases full of music when some cat can spit on a mixtape once, or give someone a pound and then get on immediately? Why try to do something that's apparently so fucking different and impossible, that I have to defend it to myself everyday?
"What am I supposed to do? I'm tired of writing because everything is coming out angry and I don't want to be that person Fuck the rap game. It's not about the music or the heart or how hard you play. Fuck you for not letting me in, cowards." (Read the whole thing at www.allhiphop.com/ features/?ID=736.)
Several months later, Grae sighs at the mention of the editorial. "It was a frustrating day. Like anyone else, you get frustrated about your job, and you gotta vent somewhere," she says. "So I think there was a point where I definitely regretted writing it, and then the regret kind of led to 'Whatever happens, happens.'
"And there has to be a reason it got around so much. There was definitely something in it that struck a nerve," adds the surprisingly soft-spoken MC, who proudly describes being recognized one day by a father and his young son. "He pointed to his son and said, 'Remember that thing I had you read about the music industry? This is the lady that wrote it.' "
Although she remains, in her own defiant words, an industry "outsider," there are other reasons for Grae to have a more optimistic outlook than she did a year or two ago. She made a well-received guest spot on The Tipping Point, the latest effort from her old friends the Roots. She also moved up the indie food chain to sign with the Koch-distributed Babygrande, which released her newest album, This Week, in 2004. And the disc, delivered in the form of a weeklong diary, won her renewed appreciation from critics, who noted her less furious, more introspective approach -- especially on tracks like "P.S.," a track-long apology to those Grae felt she'd wronged in the past.
"If you're just fuckin' pissed off all week, then you've got some issues," she says with a laugh. "But I wanted to showcase a more well-rounded person, and emotions vary from day to day."
Equally impressive is the fact that the album was delivered in the shadow of Jeanius, a highly anticipated collaboration with producer 9th Wonder that was scrapped after bootleggers pilfered the rough mixes. Grae worried that fans might view This Week as a consolation prize, she admits, but adds that the demand for Jeanius has been a plus, instead.
"Initially, it's kind of disheartening to have a project put out there that you know isn't finished. We didn't even get to name the songs. Not mixed, not mastered," she says. "[But] if anything, it's good to know that people want the music."
And contrary to her original plans to shelve the Jeanius material, Grae now intends to release it at some point. "My views on it have definitely changed," she says. "It needs to come out and find a wider audience."
Which is just what Grae has been looking for since entering the game in the late '90s. The daughter of South African jazz musicians who immigrated to New York shortly after her birth, Grae grew up an outsider -- "The rest of my family is [in South Africa], which made it pretty difficult" -- but naturally gravitated to the arts and later hip-hop.
Originally dubbed What? What?, before adopting her current, Marvel Comics-inspired handle, she was part of the underground group Natural Resource, attracting enough attention to earn her own appearances on albums by the likes of the Herbaliser and Da Beatminerz before going solo with 2002's Attack of the Attacking Things, which won critical raves.
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But as the old story goes, if good reviews and word-of-mouth buzz alone could break an artist, then the fleet-tongued Grae would be a household name. It hasn't happened yet -- and hasn't in the wake of This Week either. But Grae focuses on progress instead of succumbing to frustration.
"What we had hoped to happen didn't necessarily happen, but the love has been really, really good," she says. "It's nice to see a lot more females in the audience. It's nice to see a lot more black females in the audience. It seems like [the album is] getting out."
Just don't confuse her newly positive outlook with a reluctance to speak up if she's done wrong.
"I'm an opinionated person. My job is to speak my opinion. If I don't do that," she says emphatically, "then I'm not doing my job."