[16 November 2008]
Like the Blob, the footprint of technology seems to be spreading faster and faster over the musical landscape. First, there was “Unforgettable”, Natalie Cole’s 1991 collaboration with her legendary father, who, by the way, had been dead for over 25 years. Then, the 1990s, which I affectionately like to call the “cut-and-paste decade” of music, saw the birth of the bedroom producer, who cheaply remixed any and every song. In 2004, Little Brother MC Phonte and Dutch producer Nicolay collaborated over the Internet to create Connected under the fitting group name Foreign Exchange. Now, there is Jean Grae: The Evil Jeanius, a collaboration between west coast production duo Blue Sky Black Death and New York MC Jean Grae.
According to the Internet buzz, not only did the two parties never meet or discuss the project, but Grae wasn’t even aware of the album’s existence until Babygrande announced its release several months ago. Grae has responded to Babygrande’s use of her vocal tracks by vowing to bypass labels, at least for the time being: she posted a Craigslist ad, offering her vocal and MC services to any willing producers for $800 per 16 bars.
For Babygrande, it seems the album is a no brainer. Take one of the hottest production duos in hip-hop. Combine with one of best MCs in hip-hop. Add a bit of controversy. Stir thoroughly and count the revenue. (At the time of this review, the album could no longer be found on Babygrande’s Web site.)
Putting aside the controversy surrounding the album’s release, the proposition of a collaboration between BSBD and Jean Grae is almost as much of hip-hop head’s wet dream as Grae’s “authorized” 2008 release, Jeanius, which was produced by rising superstar 9th Wonder.
So, does Jean Grae: The Evil Jeanius live up to the sum of its talented parts? Or does it come across as haphazard cut-and-paste job?
The answer, of course, is both. (Isn’t it always both?)
First, the beats. There are some great beats that exemplify the electro-hop that has been BSBD’s bread and butter. “Ahead of the Game” growls like a James Jamerson bassline. The song’s intricate layering of an old school guitar sample with a great, off-kilter piano riff comes right out of RZA’s bag of tricks. “Nobody’ll Do It for You”, also, swings soulfully along with raspy vocal yelps. The song “Threats” is a clear nod to old gospel, featuring BSBD’s trademark Eno-esque atmospheric keys subtly layered under blaring vocal accents; it’s as infectious as anything the duo has done.
The majority of the beats, however, prove to be very safe, inoffensive, and unassuming. The pastoral “Away with Me” sounds like a stripped-down version of “Pray Together” from BSBD’s excellent 2007 album Hell Razah: Razah’s Ladder. However, unlike that record, songs on Jean Grae: The Evil Jeanius rarely spark and sputter unpredictably, but, instead, tend to hum along comfortably like a bullet train, demanding little from the listener. Individual beats rarely vary except for the occasional break. But even the breaks don’t seem to correspond to a high or low point in the song or a particularly poignant lyric. Instead, they occur rather predictably, towards the end of a verse or at the end of the intro.
Lyrically, Jean Grae: The Evil Jeanius is a welcome addition to Grae’s catalog (though not by Grae herself, evidently), featuring the direct, earnest, and emotionally stark narratives that have made her an underground sensation. “Away with Me” showcases Grae’s skill at the poetry of everyday life, particularly relationships: “It’s easier to keep running than switching faces up / OK, I’m stuck / Do you hate me or what?” And later in the song: “I know how deep I get and emotional when we connect / I bring up baggage like conveyor belts for Lear jets”. In “Threats”, Grae takes on the record industry, the media, and the critics who fail to take her seriously as an MC: “Female, black, and young so they want to strip me naked / But you’ll never have me like none of my adversaries”.
Grae’s delivery does tend to be monotone and she rarely varies her flow. It’s difficult to determine if she’s on the first verse or last verse of a tune (or the beginning or end of a verse, for that matter) or if she’s angry or excited just by listening to the sound of her voice. Fortunately, though her voice is as flat as the prairie, her lyrics dip and climax like the Alps.
There are some exciting individual moments on Jean Grae: The Evil Jeanius. However, as a whole, the album lacks the cohesion and comes across like an uneven mixtape, assembled without an active contribution from all parties. And, after several listens, Jean Grae: The Evil Jeanius eventually starts to resemble what it truly is: a stew, made with fresh ingredients, that has been thoroughly undercooked.