November 14, 2010

My Gut Reaction: Jean Grae - The Bootleg Of The Bootleg EP (October 7, 2003)

The other artist from the original line-up that I'm going to discuss this time around is Tsidi Ibrahim, better known as Jean Grae.  One year after she dropped her debut project, Attack Of The Attacking Things, she signed with Babygrande Records and released the most ridiculous excuse for an EP ever conceived, The Bootleg Of The Bootleg EP.

I say that because this EP notoriously features a forty-minute hidden track that contains multiple songs within it: when combined with the rest of the program, this shit is longer than most actual albums.  Obviously, somebody was trying to change the perception of what exactly an EP is supposed to be.

Anyway, The Bootleg Of The Bootleg EP was the album that propelled Jean Grae into the subconscious of many major players in hip hop, including The Roots, who let her into their OkayPlayer artist collective after noticing her skills behind the mic, both over underground beats and the more mainstream stuff that she stole borrowed for the bonus "track".  (This also eventually led to her work alongside Talib Kweli, but we'll get to that another time.)

I've never listened to this EP before, so I realize these introductory paragraphs are seriously lacking, but I just want to get to the fucking music already.

The Bootleg Of The Bootleg EP kicks off with a melodic instrumental (from the combined efforts of Belief and Ruddy Rock) that houses our pessimistic host and one of the most inane and fucking ridiculous hooks that I've ever heard this week (it consists primarily of the phrase “fuck you”). That chorus is stupid enough to derail the train as a whole, so it's a testament to Grae's lyrical ability that her verses are still capable of entertaining the listener, even though she treads water during a significant portion of the song. She sounds as though she's performing in the world's most bitter freestyle cipher. Oh well.

Will Tell's beat utilizes the soulful vocal sample-as-part-of-the-instrumental technique that hip hop producers have since used to death, but at least it helps facilitate Jean Grae's monologue, in which she questions her religious beliefs and the possibility of an afterlife. Grae's bars run much deeper than whatever the fuck was going on with “Hater's Anthem”, as one would expect when a rapper explores his or her own mortality. This was actually pretty decent. Perhaps I have nothing to worry about.

My love of Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein has been well-documented at this point, so this should have been a home run (or at least a ground double and some half-price nachos), right? Apparently not: I didn't care for this song at all. On The Cold Vein, El-P's production work established him as an unofficial third member of the crew, as his dark instrumentals wrapped their way around the hearts and minds of the listeners (and of Vast Aire and Vordul Mega, to be honest). So I tend to find both of these guys awkward whenever they preform over something that isn't from El-Producto, which is often, since he doesn't really work with the duo anymore. (I'm sure a lot of you two have a similar problem.) Bravo's beat is not a suitable replacement for much of anything, and the track suffers for it. At least it's really short, allowing just enough time for Grae and her two invited guests to kick a verse and get out, with Vast Aire trying his best to walk away with the song with his undeniable, unorthodox flow.

Is this song a declarative statement lamenting the demise of Jean Grae's former rap crew? Is it an ode to a lost love that has since moved on? Is it a metaphor for missed opportunities? Or is it a song-length request for people to stop fucking around with our chosen genre? I'm not going to bullshit you two: I don't follow Jean's career nearly enough to know which, if any, of the above options are the correct one, especially since there are valid arguments for each possible outcome. The music on here is pretty annoying: the beat chimes in, interrupting your slumber with ill-advised Jay-Z vocal samples, and the hook is almost laughably nonchalant. Pass.

Possessed not a single ounce of the sense of urgency that the song title would seem to demand. This posse cut was boring as fuck. That's all I got.

Jean Grae presents listeners with a novel concept: her tale of a contract assassin on the run allows the listener to choose what the main character will do at the end of the story. Sure, the trick doesn't really work like a Choose Your Own Adventure-type deal: the logistics of planning an album around that conceit would be far too ridiculous to actually execute. (Or are they? Ghostface Killah or Slick Rick, you should get on that shit.) But that tactic gets you caring about Grae's hitwoman character immediately, so much so that when you discover at the very end that there isn't any more story, you get pissed off. This track, with its close attention to action movie conventions and a Moezhart beat that sounds like one of Bad Boy's better crime sagas in its heyday, fucking rocks. This was a pretty interesting way to end our regularly scheduled programming.

After a brief moment of silence, The Bootleg Of The Bootleg EP launches into its grand finale, which is referred to simply as “hidden bootleg tracks” when you load the album up onto iTunes. This special bonus track (or tracks, depending on how you look at them) is erroneously referred to on the Interweb as Jean Grae's “45-minute megamix”, which makes no sense, when the entirety of track number six lasts for forty-five minutes, including “Chapter One: Destiny”, and there is a very obvious break between that song and the special bonus track. Anyway, the remainder of The Bootleg Of The Bootleg EP consists of eleven additional tracks, some of them freestyles, some of them original works, but none of them labeled properly. The following song titles were taken from multiple sources on the Interweb.

Jean Grae tackles the beat from Jay-Z's “Lyrical Exercise” (Cormega also used the same sample for his “Dead Man Walking”) and comes across as a natural, as her threats and random acts of violence mesh beautifully with the polished Just Blaze instrumental, as if it had been crafted for her in the first place, even though the fact that she apes Shawn Carter's flow and song format would suggest otherwise. Not bad.

Contrary to the title, Jean doesn't use D.I.T.C.'s “Day One” beat to tell a story of any sort: instead, she sticks with the battle rapper status quo, which is a nice way of saying that she strings together punchlines and declarations of potency in a fairly loose manner. Just like with Jay's beat, though, Grae rips the stuffing out of this teddy bear of an instrumental. One wonders what a Jean Grae album would sound like if she had a bigger budget and could afford some name brands behind the boards.

Jean falters with her Slim Shady impersonation over the Dr. Dre-produced beat for his “Role Model” (which still rates as one of the best Eminem songs ever made, and one of my personal favorites). Grae sounds uncomfortable, as though she just donned the sonic equivalent of an itchy sweater. This bit of freestyle fluff isn't worth listening to more than the once.

On “You Don't Want It”, Grae bragged that she had enough clout in the underground that she could release a rap album “with no edits”. However, her take on Jay-Z's “Excuse Me Miss” is censored. Why the fuck would a bonus track on an underground hip hop album be fucking censored, anyway? Was Babygrande hoping to somehow attract a family-friendly audience? Anyway, our host has some fun with this song, which is more of a remake than a straight freestyle, and as a silly trifle, it works much better than it has any right to. Jean Grae rarely sounds like she's enjoying herself behind the mic, so it's good to hear her cut loose over some Neptunes production that she didn't have to pay for. The coda was also pretty fucking hilarious. However, I'm now left wondering what Jean Grae would sound like over the instrumental to the “Excuse Me Miss” remix, “La La La”. That could be interesting.

Grae returns to a more somber pose, although that's more because of her decision to spit over Nas's “Purple” than anything else. The instrumental is a loop, so you'll hear Nasir's vocals pop up over and over again in the background, which is pretty distracting, so much so that you're left grooving to the beat and paying zero attention to anything Jean has to say. So it goes.

There isn't really any way to perform over Scarface's “On My Block” without looking back at your childhood memories. Grae comes across as a conscious rapper, conscious of the fact that violence can actually solve at least a couple of your problems. Not bad for a freestyle, but she doesn't add much to the already entertaining instrumental.

Jean Grae is apparently a not-so-secret fan of Jay-Z, as this is the third Hova instrumental that she's swiped. “U Don't Know” is one of the only Just Blaze beats that Shawn actually sounds good over, but that doesn't mean that just anybody can borrow it: this type of musical backing requires an aggressive, damn near sociopathic flow. To that effect, Grae's promise to hide thumbtacks in her palm and rip your balls off fits the bill. She also attacks music journalist Oliver Wang for giving her previous album, Attack Of The Attacking Things, a poor review. Which now places her with the scores of other rappers who take any critiques personally. Based on what I've heard thus far, she may not be that happy with me, either.

Jean Grae fills in some empty space by including one of the singles that her former crew, Natural Resource (which also featured rapper Ocean and DJ Aggie), released in the late 1990s. It was alright, but it can't help but sound incredibly dated when compared to the rest of The Bootleg Of The Bootleg EP. Grae and Ocean spit over the instrumental with ease and candor, though, so while it's understandable that the artist formerly known as What? What? was the only one to spin off into a solo career, it's at least interesting to hear her roots.

The other Natural Resource song that Grae included for the fuck of it. I believe that more rappers should dig into their vaults and (officially) unleash their early work for their fans to devour. The instrumental sounds too similar to the mood “Bum Deal” set up, and the track was fucking censored (really?), so it was hard for me to get into this shit. For collectors only.

For all I know, this may be an original Jean Grae song: at least, if the instrumental was borrowed, I couldn't place it. Grae sounds pretty good, but the uncredited guest rapper disrupts the overall flow of The Bootleg Of The Bootleg EP, pouting the type of hip hop clichés that our host was trying so hard to avoid. It also seems to cut off abruptly, so there you go.

The Bootleg Of The Bootleg EP's “hidden bootleg tracks” program ends the evening with a decent posse cut (featuring more uncredited guest performers) that sounds much more mainstream than Grae's performances over Jay-Z hit songs: violent thug rap will always have a place in the musical landscape. Jean Grae bats cleanup, kicking a hot verse over a pulsating instrumental that'll make your head nod and drive you crazy with its repetitive nature, all at the same time. And with that, she's finally done.

THE LAST WORD: As an EP, Jean Grae's The Bootleg Of The Bootleg EP is far too long, and as a proper album, it feels too rushed and empty. It lacks the cohesion required to make a proper album sound like more than a mere collection of not-very-well-thought-out singles. Grae tries to have it both ways: she embraces the underground audience with her unique take on love and life, but her violent threats, which all sound as though they were delivered in a fit of desperation (especially during the “hidden” portion of the project), fail to be convincing, which isn't good news for a battle rapper. The dull instrumental work during most of the actual EP (save for on “Chapter One: Destiny”) only becomes more apparent when you hear Grae tearing up higher-budget tracks from the likes of Just Blaze and The Neptunes during the bonus “song”. On The Bootleg Of The Bootleg EP, Jean Grae fails in her primary mission, which is to provide entertaining music, which makes a straight-through listen nearly impossible, especially during the final track. There are some good songs and decent concepts to be found on here, but the project still sounds like a compilation of random half-thoughts and leftover freestyles originally recorded for mixtapes. Maybe next time.




  1. So it's ladies week but all you came up with so far is the worst albums of both artists... you on some macho shit here, trying to prove chicks cant make good albums? ^^

    PS: If you write about Nicki Minaj but not about Invincible, I'm outta here for good!

  2. I recall a lot of people stating they loved this project of Jean's in the comments on your review of her debut, so I'm shocked this isn't getting more angry retorts. I liked Jeanius though, so I suppose that review will be fun in 2014. (Also, I'm hoping the Invincible album that FLX is referencing isn't the one by that boy band Five.)