Jean Grae Jeanius

[Blacksmith; 2008]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles:  hip-hop
Others: 9th Wonder, Mos Def, Talib Kweli

Though it bears only one name on its cover, it’s best to consider Jeanius a duet between its top-billed MC and producer-cum-N.C. hip-hop poster-boy 9th Wonder. Here, 9th’s production serves to complement Jean Grae’s vocal counterpoint, with snappy beats sounding far more energized than anything 9th has offered us lately (witness this year’s lukewarm collab with Buckshot, The Formula) and his trademark spliced-soul samples buttressing Grae’s verses. And in like fashion, Grae complements her producer, her voice flowing with the beat rather than just on top of it.

The duo’s dynamic lends the album a smoothness born not of complacency, but of natural synergy, allowing the songs to traverse gravity and playfulness with equal aplomb. “My Story,” a heartbreaking narrative backed by trudging drums and jazzy woodwinds, gives the abortion debate much-needed pathos by avoiding politics and focusing instead on the desperation and regret of the song’s speaker. Pair that with “2-32’s” whose beat comes with woodblock clacks and a swaggering bass drum, and whose rhymes come rife with vibrant wordplay and braggadocio punctuated by laughter. Even when the album’s relatively few guests (a bevy of Carolina talent, none of whom are strangers to 9th Wonder productions, including Little Brother’s Phonte, Median, Edgar Allen Floe) step up to the mic, 9th and Grae still carry the record. The cameos offer peripheral support to Jeanius’ just-so flow every step of the way.

Only at the end of “Think About It,” — when a hypeman’s rant that is meant (I hope) as a sarcastic screed against racial profiling ends up sounding blindly venomous and misplaced on both the song and the album — does Jeanius falter. But despite such a glaring flaw, the record still succeeds and stays fresh upon repeated listening. Even as Grae proclaims on “Intro,” “Jean change your flow./ No./ 9th change your drums./ No.,” acknowledging both artists’ retro-reverent style (which has on past efforts been a stumbling block), here the backward-looking aesthetic turns back around, sounding revived instead of tired.

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