”Don’t ask me any questions that you can fucking Google.” – Jean Grae
Like the X-Men character for whom she is named, Jean Grae is a bit mysterious. Few non-hip-hop heads know about her despite her long presence as an artist whose talent on the mic transcends regional trends, rivalries, and sub-genres. The Source named her Unsigned Hype back in March 1996, when Tupac and Biggie were both still living, and her resume since reads like a winning card of Career Artist Bingo. She’s worked with everyone from Cannibal Ox and Lil B to Immortal Technique and MC Frontalot. She sort-of retired in 2008, narrated an audiobook, released a three-part album over the course of a month, offered her rapping services on Craigslist for $800, and produced a web series called Life with Jeannie, an alternate universe Broad City in which she drinks copious amount of vodka and dances through Bushwick in a tutu.
Basically, Grae’s in the no-fucks-to-give phase of her career, which makes her newest musical offering not as shocking as one would think. That’s Now How You Do That: An Instructional Album for Adults features Grae blowing off steam, aiming her caustic wit at stupid people, lazy people, rude people, and anyone else who displeases her. And she doesn’t rap on it. Not once.
Musically, That’s Not How … is a low-key genre-hopper centered around jazz-lounge piano. Lyrically, it’s downright bilious, Grae taking aggressive shots at people who comment on Twitter without reading the timeline, people who get off escalators and just stand there, and folks who generally don’t know how to fucking exist on airplanes. It’s a combination of late-career Henry Rollins and Richard Cheese from the woman Talib Kweli called “one of the last true MCs left.” An MC who isn’t afraid to rhyme “cunt face” and “one place” with a straight face. Next level rhyming achievement unlocked.
The songs on That’s Not How… are most effective when they don’t overstay their welcome. “Planes: The Trilogy” has a trio of hilarious tracks jammed into two and a half minutes, one encouraging people to “Use your core!” rather than grabbing the seat in front of you to stand up. On the other hand, “Don’t Be a Dick to the Waitstaff” spends twice that time on a single conceit with too many extended bouts of argumentative dialogue, though it does come around at the end when Grae pointedly tells her friend (whom you could probably guess was being a dick to the waitstaff) not to “come outside and put your issues of superiority on other people.”
Detroit rapper Quelle Chris takes the helm on three tracks that have a more experimental bent, for example using pitch-shifted samples of people talking loudly on the phone in public to tackle that particular social plague on “No One Cares (STFU)”. He uses a lighter lyrical touch, more sardonic than scathing, and these tracks are a welcome break from Grae’s. Without Quelle Chris, That’s Not How … would risk coming off like an overly long Facebook rant – the kind that requires you to click “read more” multiple times – the general content of which seems to be “everyone sucks except for me.”
Still, for longtime fans that have delighted in her mercurial nature, this will be a fun listen. And for others, it could open them up to the broad, weird world of Jean Grae. And despite bordering on crotchety and having limited replay value, That’s Not How … still manages an impressive feat: it will genuinely surprise you a few times, enough so that you’ll immediately want to share it with someone in your life. After that, though, you’ll probably just want to put it away and go watch (or re-watch) Life with Jeannie.