The idea of a seamless, flawless album is contrary to the nature of Jean Grae's entire career so far.
"9th and Murs burned first / now it's Jeanie's turn", Jean Grae raps near the beginning of Jeanius, her collaboration with producer 9th Wonder, formerly of Little Brother. But that album-length 9th Wonder/Murs collaboration she's referring to, the first of two, came out in 2004, making the lyric seem anachronistic, though not false, in a genre with such a short memory. Except that 2004 was also the year Jeanius was originally meant to debut. And in a way, it did. The album leaked before it was finished, which apparently is why it didn’t come out until years later. In 2008, that already seems like odd thinking, that an album wouldn't be completed just because an early version made its way to some listeners. Perhaps that's why 2008 is the right time for Jeanius to actually come out, once and for all.
That four-year gap has been enough time for an aura to build up around the album, especially since one was already growing at the time. By 2004, 9th Wonder had catapulted upon his indie-cred to produce a track on Jay-Z's "final" LP, The Black Album. Jean Grae had firmly built a cult following and a quiet reputation as one of the most underrated MCs. Since then, both have added credits to their discographies and further cultivated a true hip-hop-head following, without becoming big stars. Neither has done anything to damage that notion of being an overlooked genius.
The breathless anticipation around Jeanius has subsided some since '04, probably because of the leak. But it's still an album likely to be identified as a 'classic' by those who consider themselves 'in the know'. The album art for Jeanius cleverly spoofs that notion by putting Jean Grae and 9th Wonder inside the album covers of other acknowledged hip-hop classics: Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Das EFX's Dead Serious, Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, and Black Sheep's A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing. Jeanius isn't in the league of those albums, but those albums weren't perfect, either, which is part of the point. (The other part of the point is sheer love and nostalgia for a bygone era filled with interesting, memorable hip-hop.)
Jeanius might be loved in the same way by some fans, but the idea of a seamless, flawless album is contrary to the nature of Grae's entire career. Whether consciously or not, she tends to fight that notion of "perfect", of "classic", through intermittent release schedules and through her very style of creating songs and albums -- sometimes through her style of rhyming, even. On Jeanius, she continually jokes around over the intros and conclusions of songs, pretending that her and 9th Wonder are Ashofrd & Simpson, or riffing on some of her brags in a goofier style. None of these jokes are funny; they seem like clutter consciously placed to keep the album rough, imperfect. Or, at the very least, they’re an indication that she doesn’t care at all about keeping surfaces spotless.
Having one producer behind all of the music definitely facilitates the 'classic album' idea. Maybe 9th Wonder is working towards that by giving the album one essential sound: a clean, ‘60s-‘70s soul sound, in keeping with his style. That notion of classic albums fits more closely with his past -- the way he overhauled Nas's God's Son as a (re)mix CD (and, like here, replaced Nas with himself on the cover); the way Little Brother framed their albums, especially 2005's The Minstrel Show, as capital-A Albums. But like it or not, it's the MC as much as the DJ who defines the forward face of an album, and on Jeanius Jean Grae seems, as always, intent on fighting.
As an MC, she also sounds most comfortable when she's fighting. On the album's second track, "2-32's", she states, "Most of this here is just braggadocio / Impeccably spoken / Incredible rap flow". That sums up part of her endeavor, and hip-hop's: bragging with style. She's incredibly good at it, at sounding sharp and mean, at menacing while making it obvious how much joy she finds in it. At her best, she echoes the toughest battle MCs, verbal boxers who punch when you think they're backing off. Like on the eighth track, "#8", where she imagines that listeners want her to be less cold, feigns interest, and then says, "I'll give you emotion / It's you holding your broken nose".
What's going on there is also an awareness that she doesn't fit in, with expectations or trends, and a stubborn determination to continue to defy. Sometimes it's that determination which defines her presence on the mic; other times it's that awareness. "Don't Rush Me", one song title proclaims, as the same title did back in '04 (it was one of two 9th Wonder-produced tracks on her album This Week). It was true then and now. She doesn’t want to be rushed to be or do something she isn’t comfortable with. "This World", the best track on Jeanius in terms of synchronicity between the producer and the MC, is all about her resistance to those in the music business who accept her with open arms, as long as she changes to fit their idea of her. The identity of Jean Grae, what she is, seems essential to not just Jeanius, but all of her work under the name (her birth name is Tsidi Ibrahim; her previous stage name was What? What?). She’s always pushing back against definition, while pushing into the confusion of self-definition at the same time.
Grae stands out from the crowd for how well words flow from her mouth. She stands near the best MCs of all time in that regard. She also stands out for the sheer darkness of her vision -- at least, when a dark vision is what she wants to explore. Much of Jeanius is, as she puts it on "2-32's", braggadocio first and wordplay second. A relatively far third is her dark vision of American life, and that's the most interesting side of the equation. She has a way with sort-of-introspective tracks about madness that are just as much about the madness of the world, with shadows, nightmares, and demons, personal and public, lurking everywhere. “My Story”, the fourth track, is the first on Jeanius to set off in this direction, as 9th Wonder’s almost easy-listening backdrop stands in contrast to a confession given while thoughts of suicide hang overhead, along with miscarriage, abortion, and deep pain. It’s a powerful track, and no less so for the contrast between the softer-style music and the hard, hurt rhymes.
“Billy Killer”, “This World”, and “American Pimp” are in this vein too, where 9th Wonder takes the music in luxurious directions while Grae gets into an intense state of mind and rhymes powerfully. The latter track, though, is one of several on the track that pairs Grae with an MC whose presence is forgotten as soon as he finishes, or at least as soon as Grae utters a syllable. In hip-hop circles, both producers and MCs roll with friends in tow, but that’s not always a good thing. Jeanius isn’t just Jean Grae meets 9th Wonder, its Jean Grae meets 9th Wonder and his friends from North Carolina: Daily Planet, Phonte, Median, K Hill, Edgar Allen Flow, and Joe Scudda. None of them are terrible, but none of them do much more than take up space next to Jean Grae. This within an album that should be about her rhymes over 9th Wonder’s music. The guest MCs do neither the album nor their own careers much of a service by appearing only to get shown up. No doubt, though, Jean Grae doesn’t mind their presence, and doesn’t care if anyone thinks they’re just taking up precious space. In her world, recording space isn’t precious in that same way. And if there’s one point she makes clear throughout Jeanius, it’s this one from the first track, “Intro”: “I give a fuck what you can think that Jean can do”.