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There are an increasing number of second acts in indie rap. Little Brother’s Phonte recently returned with his strong new album No News is Good News, and Kool Keith reunited with Dan the Automator and Q-Bert for their thankfully batshit indie synth-hop opus Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripilation. There’s also been plenty of chatter about Mos Def and Talib Kweli reuniting for a sophomore Blackstar album, produced by Madlib.
Still, the return of Jean Grae is surprising. When indie rap was really popping in the late ’90s and early ’00s, she was always a bit of an outlier. To state the obvious, she was one of the few females in hip-hop’s boys club, and unlike her counterparts in mainstream hip-hop, she didn’t position herself of a hyper-stylized, endlessly sexualized ubermensch. She was emotionally neurotic, with a thematic palette and persona that was more straight-forward, more real. She was also a supremely technically gifted emcee; her bars stood up next to the rhymes-for-days, meat-and-potatoes emcees of that scene. But, despite this, she never achieved the success or acclaim she deserved.
But it’s 2018 now. She’s changed and so have we. It’s seems a little aspirational to say that we as a culture are more inclusive and tolerant when Trump is president, but certainly there are pockets that have opened up to be more accepting of different voices, hip-hop among them. Grae is still doing Grae, but Everything’s Fine — her recent collaboration with Detroit rapper/producer Quelle Chris — is the most conceptually adventurous work she’s ever done. It’s also perhaps the most outward looking. Yes, she’s still wrestling with her own competing impulses and trying to reconcile her own conflicting internal narratives, but she’s also doing this in the context of the shitstorm that’s raging outside (Trump, police shooting, etc).
“Gold Purple Orange” is an obvious standout track from the album. The beat has a droopy, loopy quality and sounds like the hip-hop equivalent of a giant, stoned sloth. It’s the perfect backdrop for Quelle Chris’ loose, punch-drunk flow and intoxicatingly ironic raps that examine racial and gender stereotypes: “Everybody black dick gotta be long…Every Jew, golden rule, gotta save bills…Every young nigga gotta deadbeat daddy.” His verse kicks off the song, and is a nice counterweight to Grae’s verse, which is both more structured and more personal. She’s the frizzy hair, bookworm” who’s an “immigrant children watchin’ Buckwheat late night” and listening to “Depeche Mode, Big Audio-o Dynamite.” This leads to an “identity crisis” and “coming later, vices.” It’ deeply autobiographical, and also pretty self-critical, but this is part of her process. Later, she’ll conclude that “With difficulty comes learnin’” and “I ain’t got to be nothing for you but me.” Despite the new collaborators, focus and sonic veneer, this is archetypically Grae — difficult, honest, and dope.