Not Your Superwoman

“Taco Day,” rapper Jean Grae’s Columbine-inspired fantasy, from ex-Company Flow DJ Mr. Len’s 2001 solo album, Pity the Fool, would have made her name—taken after the mutant Marvel Comics X-Men telepath and telekinete’s—one worth remembering, even if it had been her only contribution to the game.

A 9:14 dirge, plodding with the drone of inevitability—Philip Glass’s “F-104: Epilogue From Sun and Steel,” on his soundtrack to Paul Schrader’s Mishima, supplies the same—”Taco Day” unfolds mostly from the perspective of Rebecca Gates Scott. A popular, 16-year-old high school junior, her good looks, brains, athleticism, and white, upper-middle-class prosperity hide a maw of insecurity, self-mutilation, sexual abuse, and a rapidly devolving mental state: “I hear them talking about me . . . /All my friends /even the teachers/even when I’m cheering/I can hear them whispering way up in the bleachers.”

Given the vile curvature of American history, what isn’t surprising is that Becky chooses to solve her problems by methodically killing them: first, murdering her family, then driving to school with a shotgun and visiting upon the students of Melon Bayside High more bloodshed than a romp through Quake 3. What’s unexpected is the way Jean Grae’s scatlike, asymmetrical rhythmic sensibility, coupled with an almost perverse eye for fleeting detail—e.g., the inevitable Asian female reporter covering the breaking tragedy initially mispronounces the shooter’s name as “Scotta”—gives “Taco Day” its unyielding internal momentum, sturm, and drang; the title refers to that day’s quickly forgotten lunchtime special, though no mention is ever made of this in the recording.

Attack of the Attacking Things, then, is Grae (formerly known as What? What?), after dozens of similar cameos over several years of underground records, finally battling demons on her own turf, trading on both her unaltered gift for lyrical delicacy, and her distinctive, deliberately understated vocal style. Having conclusively found her voice on “Taco Day”—a less melodic timbre and more muted cadence than that in her 1996 Natural Resource crew debut, “Baseball,” or 1998’s all-femme super-cipher, “Estragen”—she often raps in a carefully modulated monotone (a mono-and-a-half-tone?), that is, talking in the flat, emotionless way that, say, a teenager who’s been caught in a series of lies does. She rhymes like she’s staring at her shoes.

Fitted with woodcut production by Mr. Len, Masta Ace, Da Beatminerz, Block MC Cloud & Ev Price, Koichiro, and the ever present “Nasain Nahmeen” (Grae’s own producing alias; say it out loud with a smiling, Ebonic drawl), Attack has an unpolished, handcrafted feel. It’s besotted with bleeding organs, wheezing strings, softly sampled woodwinds, and spackles of static. Unlike the perfectly mixed, perfectly balanced, radio-daypart-perfect hip-hop that, in its first week of release, will outsell Jean Grae’s freshman album 300-to-1, a couple of Attack tracks even bear the immediacy and crush of light distortion and overmodulation on the vocals and basslines. (Grae recognizes this: The album’s subtitle is “The Dirty Mixes,” and droll liner-note diagrams indicate prescribed bass, midrange, and treble settings for those who want to hear her imperfect amalgamation as originally intended.)

What it lacks in flam and polish, however, Attack makes up for with the determined and singular power of a compelling personal vision; something too frequently missing in the contemporary hip-hop that Black people are widely being paid off to make. “They still want chicks with tits and ass out,” says Grae of those scoundrels’ labels. “My respect is worth more than your advance cash-out/I’m fuckin’ you right in the ear/If these chicks did it you’d be gettin’ gonorrhea/The only thing I spread is tinnitus.”

And despite its origins in the brain of an MC who once boasted of spitting lyrics “so hard I chipped my front tooth,” Attack is, more often than not, a surprisingly tender work. Slightly subduing Grae’s tendency to hurl sputum is her proclivity for poignancy, these being mutual expressions of her hard-candy-shell outside/soft-chewy-center inside nature. Here, she’s more scared, mutant child than mighty, avenging superhero. (On the album cover, Grae appears as the Hindu god Shiva the Destroyer, wielding a microphone, a kitchen knife . . . and a daisy.)

These are really intricate performances, in other words. Whether navigating the architecture of male-female post-coital contempt from the male point of view on “God’s Gift”; singing along with the Stylistics like a heartsick 14-year-old pressing her tear-stained cheek against the stereo’s speaker, on “Love Song”; uncertain of but yearning for motherlove on “Live 4-U” (Grae is the daughter of South African expatriate jazz royalty-vocalist Sathim Bea Benjamin and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim); or ultra-subtly harmonizing the words “change” and “you need to . . . travel the world” on the chorus of her weary “commentary auditory editorial” “Block Party,” Grae creates moody word-pictures of awesome tonic and semantic beauty and density.

“I made brushfire noise,” she speaks of heat from her earlier records, on the harpsichordic, medievally textured “No Doubt.” “I need four-alarm, 3 a.m.-on-the-lawn-with-two-kids-and-one-slipper-on blaze, now.” Track after track after track amazes with the writer’s talent for building depth and nuance by layering and accretion. For example, besides forming a striking, picturesque metaphor, note how that “blaze” lyric sequences four numbers into an implied, urgent countdown. Her opening verses on “Knock,” dropped over a woeful bass guitar loop, may be some of the most evocative written about the horizonless, paycheck-to-paycheck grind faced by the generation now entering the workforce—the one that, unlike their parents, will never own their own homes: “Yo, this shit keeps weighing me down/Beatin’ me up/Like every day’s governed by Murphy’s Law/It never drops/But inside I’m/Tied up/In stress knots and chains and bills that ain’t paid/I damn near work for Dun & Bradstreet/Keep a bank card and a wallet for show/I hate empty spaces/Fill ’em with MetroCards that’s been already took me places/Fun Passes/Loose changes/Gum wrappers/Maybe numbers/Battery covers to CD players and that’s it/I got some plastic/But can’t even use it the bad credit’s so drastic.”

Meanwhile, “Get It” is as upbeat as “Knock” is disconsolate. Atop the balmy spread of its sunny background vocals, meaty synth brass, and arm-waving, 80 b.p.m. sway, Grae extols the intrinsic worth of common people: “All the chicks who act crazy . . . /The chicks who stay blunted/Drunk in the middle of the dancefloor, like, ‘Fuck it!’ . . . niggas caught at checkpoints . . . straphangers . . . niggas who pay for shit with five fingers . . . hookie party jammers/exotic exquisite women friends . . . thugs and gentlemen . . . from N’Sync to Eminem”—a profound and blessed panoply of the so-called great unwashed. My vote goes to photographer Jamel Shabazz (Back in the Days) to direct the video.

On the unreleased “Wildstyle 2001,” Grae figures herself “the rap Joan Jett,” signifying, perhaps, both women’s manly-yes-but-I-like-it-toooo confidence and abundant skills. However, in truth, Grae may more be the rap Melba Liston—the recently passed, overproductive, underrecognized jazz trombonist and arranger. Like Liston, Grae blows an idiosyncratic instrument on her own terms, notwithstanding the relative absence of apt notice or praise. Hands down that this artist will eventually acquire all the recognition she deserves, though, given her powers—far beyond those of mortal men.

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