JEAN GRAE with Apani B Fly and Tara Chase at the Reverb (651 Queen West), tonight (Thursday, May 15). $15. 416-760-3332. Rating: NNNNN
You may not be aware of it, but you might already be a fan of NYC MC Jean Grae.The panther-slick rapper, who started producing joints at age 13 and graduated from the High School of Performing Arts as a vocal major, has been simmering in the New York underground scene for years.
In her prior incarnation as What? What?, Grae punctuated the Herbaliser's mellow head-bobbing triphop with the easy flow of her whip-smart rhymes, laying down tracks on 97's Blow Your Headphones and 99's Very Mercenary.
On the latter disc's Mission Improbable, which chronicles a fantastical spy-girl operation, her deadpan delivery and ability to spin a captivating story within the space of a five-minute track blew my mind. So I was stoked to discover that the woman behind last summer's lauded Attack Of The Attacking Things (Third Earth), a disc some pegged as the new Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, was none other than the rapper formerly known as What? What?
The name change threw me for a loop.
"Holding down an entire album or song is very different from being in a group and having your 16 bars or doing a cameo on someone else's record," Grae explains from her home base in New York. "So it was a question of coming into my own and growing up. And not necessarily wanting to be called What? all the time," she laughs.
Grae's solo debut features intelligent lyrics snaking their way around soulful samples and ample beats. She deftly bridges De La-style whimsy and the grinding sultriness of Missy's more booty-shaking tracks while honouring hiphop's import as a tool of social commentary. On Attack Of The Attacking Things, Grae neatly eviscerates pompous record execs who envisioned her as just another thong-wearing piece of T&A, and gives props to the heads who've followed her career since Natural Resources' classic 1997 12-inch Negro League Baseball.
One of Grae's most striking statements, however, appeared as a cameo on perennial collabor-ator Mr. Len's Pity The Fool album. The track, called Taco Day, is a bloody account of a prom queen's killing spree.
Grae says she's cool with the fact that the cartoonishly violent song drew comparisons to Eminem.
"As long as I can make someone feel something, then I've done my job. Someone actually wrote me saying that they were no longer going to purchase any more of my records 'cause they were so disturbed by it. I thought it was incredible, that I could make someone feel so emotionally strong about something just through the power of the words."
Grae dislikes being pigeonholed as a female MC, saying it just adds to separatism in hiphop. So it's bit odd that she's participating in tonight's I Used To Love H.I.M. event. A play on I Used To Love H.E.R., the old Common track about his affair with hiphop, the showcase brings together lady MCs - Grae, her pal and collaborator Apani B Fly and local dynamo Tara Chase.
Grae claims she was drawn to the chance to perform with Apani. And the event's ethos jibes with her own philosophy.
"If I could find some way around actually showing up to do photo shoots, then that would be great. A lot of times I don't think it's necessary, 'cause you're just supposed to be listening to the music. What happened when people didn't have videos? People have totally only begun to focus on the image, at the expense of everything else."