Music

Jean Grae: This Week

Jalylah Burrell

Jean Grae

This Week

Label: Babygrande
US Release Date: 2004-09-21
UK Release Date: 2004-11-01
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"Something there is that doesn't love a wall": that arbitrary division locking in the distance between pine trees and apple-orchards; commercial hip-hop and underground backpackers; superior MC Jean Grae and the thousands of dick-wielding beat-riders who have come and prospered. Of course that distance is predicated on difference: pines shed cones, orchards bear fruit; commercial artists boast major label dollars and distribution, indie artists subsist on monetary crumbs; Jean's female, they're obviously by virtue of their dicks very male.

South African born, New York bred multi-talent Jean Grae offers a nuanced take on brutal barriers in "The Wall", the tenth track from her exceptional sophomore album This Week. The irreverent architect of 2003 should-have-been-a-smash "Hater's Anthem" rhymes over a thumping track where skeleton-like keys tiptoe out of closets accompanied by the hushed tones of a tentative gothic organ. A high school vocal major, Jean exhibits singing chops honed at the feet of her jazz-singing mother on the eerie chorus: "You can try but you will never know Jean / Only what I give you and you can't get in I / Never meant for anyone to know me / You can try but you can't find me I'll be hiding." Although confessedly "cold to the bone when exposed in your home stereo", Jean speaks like she has no fear unveiling layers of insecurity, alcohol dependency, alienation, and good old-fashioned pathology formerly hidden behind her "fuck you" b-girl stance.

But fear not hard rocks. The self-proclaimed "wax hedonist" prone to lyrical assaults and mental attacks is never abandoned. Emotional wreckage, psychological crisis, and health concerns comprise a day in This Week, a representative sample of Jean's raucous hip-hop life. "Styles upon styles upon styles are what she has," evidenced by the comic tales, horror stories, fierce battle rhymes, love songs, amd ego-stroking monologues packed into the rest of This Week's eventful days.

Monday's requisite mania shows up on "Going Crazy". Jean's tongue-in-cheek escapade into some "Geto Boys 'Minds Playing Tricks on Me' shit." Frequent Dilated People's collaborator Joey Chavez gives the stock horror movie soundtrack a hip-hop makeover. Relentless rhymeslayer Jean treads lightly at times before erratically breaking into a full frenzied sprint then stubbornly holding her ground just like every other bug-eyed crazy. Her script-like lyrics, understated delivery, varied syllabic emphasis and absolute assuredness create a monster track. Add on lines like: "How about I Ed Norton it / Find a support group" or "Drown beers like I'm Norm avoiding Vera in Cheers" and semi-retired rap don Jay-Z's masterful allusive dexterity is undoubtedly evoked.

Jigga's unexpected Black Album contributor 9th Wonder cranked out two bangers, "Supa Luv" and "Don't Rush Me" for Okayplayer tourmate Jean Greasy. Tuesday's offering, "Supa Luv", on it's own, warrants bended-knee prayers that 9th and Jean's leaked full length collab, Jeanius, eventually sees the light of day. On the shameless love song, Jean manages to speak on the sentiment, not to mention the reticence, infatuation and game that surround it, without cornball or mush over the dirty drums, driving basslines, doting horns and damned soulfulness we've come to expect from the North Carolina beatsmith. 9th passes the torch to Midi Mafia on Wednesday's stand-out selection "You Don't Want It". Taking a cue from Lil' Flip's "Game Over" and most recently Talib Kweli's "A Game", the musical Mafioso's creation channels the video game sound to booty-rocking heights. Quickly rewind to the grimy "Style Wars" and listen as scatologist Jean Grae promises "to poop scoop your fans up" and with all due respect to Lil' Flip the game is officially over.

Yet there is a wall that obscures Jean Grae's rising talent from the judges table. Paul Hamm-type Olympic scandals persist in hip-hop, too unfairly apportioning obscurity and fame. The recently resuscitated rapstress Lauryn Hill presaged it would "all fall down". Robert Frost's aforementioned meditation subtly suggests we tear it down. Bold beyond comprehension, This Week's Jean Grae acknowledged the "tilted" field, rolled up on the wall "and filled it with a billion other quotes".

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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