By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
The Bootleg of the Bootleg EP
Until recently, female MCs have been regarded by skeptics as a rare novelty in a dick-swinging pantheon. Though we live in an era where Missy is an MTV icon and a rare Sure Thing in rap, even the most glowing reviews of women rappers still seem to include the word "female" as a qualifier, as if just calling an artist one of the best MCs period isn't feasible. When Village Voice scribe Greg Tate called Eve "the one woman in hip hop who can ride and rumble with the hardcore guys and be uncomplicatedly embraced and not considered an embarrassment by the Official Culture of African American Women," his statement read less like a compliment than a sneer at every other female MC. Allmusic.com opened their review of Trina's Diamond Princess with the line "So many female rappers as attractive as Trina are there because of two things: first, they know someone; second, they're gorgeous." And the Philadelphia Weekly had an odd way of describing Jean Grae's debut full-length last year, claiming that she "verbally bitch-slaps" her targets, "half-nekkid heifers like Khia, Trina, and Lil' Kim." Praising a mic-wielding woman is like praising Donovan McNabb: Get too laudatory, and eventually some asshole is going to slag your "PC tokenism" and accuse you of some liberal-guilt attempt at chivalry.
But Grae can fend for herself just fine, thanks. Recording under the alias What? What? in the late '90s, the rapper (born Tsidi Ibrahim) established her presence commandingly on Natural Resource's underground classic "Negro League Baseball" and various tracks by UK instrumental hip-hop crew the Herbaliser. That handful of guest appearances proved that she could steal spotlights, and by the end of 2001, her thousand-faced versatility shone. She was a protective lover on Masta Ace's "Hold U"; a covert assassin on Immortal Technique's "The Illest"; a chillingly rendered molestation victim turned psychopathic schoolyard killer in Mr. Len's epic "Taco Day." With these characters, Grae demonstrated her ability to tell stories male MCs couldn't, lending a voice to the heavier elements of the female psyche that hip hop rarely ventured into.
By the time she hijacked Mr. Lif's "Post Mortem" with her portrayal of an anarchic maniac self-destructing in the face of an impending nuclear doomsday, heads were snapping up her '02 debut Attack of the Attacking Things. Grae spit club bangers, stress raps, and conceptual rhymes with equal ease: "God's Gift" let her take the piss out of misogynist thugs by role-playing as one, creating a "bitches ain't shit" anthem that underscored the insecurities behind their facade of hardness. She showed her own vulnerable side in "Fade Out," a stirring eulogy for a friend killed on a trip to Florida ("Tears frame the page, my fate is outlined in chalk/The other day I freaked on the street when someone walked like you walked/It took a second not to think it was you/And everything crashed down..."). Though the album's somewhat muddy mix-down provoked complaints from a few listeners, nearly every track (including the ones produced by Grae herself under the pseudonym "Nasain Nahmeen") banged with a bottom-heavy, slippery soul thump that proved hard to nail down but easy to ride over.
On her new EP, Bootleg of the Bootleg (Babygrande), Grae's flow becomes the true highlight of her arsenal. Her voice boasts the sort of self-assured smoothness Erick Sermon carried in '88, retrofitted to adhere to the multiple-assonance virtuoso techniques of the post-Shady underground. If skeptics aren't shook by the halfway point of the album opener "Hater's Anthem," they need to get off the OxyContin. Her barrage of razor-tongued snaps have the power to shrink scrotums and break wills: "Gnash your teeth, smash you, then bind your feet/Thrash holes in your dome, snatch your soul and retreat/Mad Maxess, the pro so dope it's fantastic/Now fold up your dough before you get your ass kicked." The chorus: "Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you (hold up), fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you (wait, naw)." The only thing that makes the track's impact stronger is the fact that Grae follows it up with suicidal thoughts on "Take Me." The succession of the two songs takes on a pervasive battle-rap theme: Most MCs would rather self-destruct than have others take them down. And when a rapper rhymes "I'm raisin' the barrel envisionin' marrow splashed on the wall polka-dottin' all my apparel," God only knows what she plans to do to the people who piss her off.
Initially, Grae's mission seems to be a cleansing-by-fire rap reclamation, with her anti-bling critique neatly outlined in "My Crew": "Rap's dead, rap sucks, and thanks to y'all for killin' it/Grillin' it down and spillin' its guts and fillin' it back up with trash/Wait, I mean cash..." But the player hatred here is more love-loathe than the first listen betrays. In a massive 45-minute bonus track, she spits nimble coolness over instrumental versions of Eminem's "Role Model" and Jay-Z's "Excuse Me Miss," as though she'd studied them as influences and peers rather than antagonists--and damn if she doesn't sound ready to share the airwaves with them. But the mainstream needs to get ready for her, making the idea of marveling over a female MC who keeps her clothes on as ridiculous as the concept of being startled over Redman's lack of LL-style beefcake posing. If Grae doesn't make it, it won't be her fault. You can blame it on the true "bitches"--the men who can't fathom the concept of a woman who throws haymakers instead of slaps.