Pop Lock These Words: The Story of Jean Grae’s Jeanius

Dean Van Nguyen dives deep into the 9th Wonder-produced, long-delayed, and heavily pirated cult classic.
By    September 1, 2020

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Dean Van Nguyen‘s visions have been multiplied like liquor drinkers.

Claymation Couldn’t Mold a Better Mind

By the time Jean Grae unveiled Jeanius in 2008, a version of the album had been knocking around fan hard drives for years. The saga could chiefly serve as a reminder of how unauthorized leaks once wounded the already delicate careers of individualistic rappers. That is, if the music itself didn’t deserve a legacy independent of its fractured release.

A stirring cycle of songs tweaking The College Dropout-era soul and the spirit of yesteryear New York street rappers, Jeanius is both Grae and producer 9th Wonder’s greatest showcase. It’s a legitimate hip-hop tragedy that sample clearing issues led the album to spend four years in purgatory and eventually forced deviations from the duo’s original vision. Today, Jeanius is missing from streaming services and is extremely rare on vinyl, suppressing the cultural presence of one of the most underrated rappers to rise from Gotham’s underground.

This story begins halfway across the world. Grae’s Earth-1218 birthcert reads: “Tsidi Ibrahim. Birth place: Cape Town.” The daughter of legendary South African jazz musicians Sathima Bea Benjamin and Abdullah Ibrahim, Tsidi was transplanted to New York at just three months old amid racial tensions sparked by the 1976 Soweto uprising. Raised on profound amounts of music and stand-up comedy, she emerged in the mid-1990s under the name What? What? to embark on her singular rap odyssey.

Ibrahim forged close ties with Boston trio Ground Zero (the first artist ever to be featured in The Source’s Unsigned Hype column) and later joined the group Natural Resource. In an era of hip-hop purism, What? What? kicked wickedly funny and uniquely funky flows over jazz samples and boom-bap drums. 

Natural Resource dissolved in 1998. Galvanized by her experiences, Ibrahim dropped the What? What? moniker and reemerged under the cloak of Jean Grae, drawing strength from the powerful X-Men mutant of almost the same name. She released Attack of the Attacking Things in 2002 with the assistance of Da Beatminerz, Mr. Len, and Masta Ace. By 2004, Grae’s rolodex included alt-rap kings The Roots, Pumpkinhead, and Cannibal Ox. It’s correct to say she was on the cusp of indie rap deification. Sometimes the opportunity doesn’t come around twice.

That’s not to assume that Grae felt the weight of the moment when in April 2004, she journeyed from New York to Missie Ann Studios in Raleigh, North Carolina, the lair of local rap collective Justus League, owned by group co-founder Cesar Comanche. Welcoming her was Patrick Douthit, the 29-year-old beatmaking whiz, who under the name 9th Wonder, had become Justus League’s most prominent flag carrier.

As Grae prowled the sidewalks of New York, 9th built a reputation as a deft handler of carved soul loops. He developed his craft as a member of the group Little Brother alongside fellow Justus League cohorts Phonte and Big Pooh, and got his major break producing “Threat” for Jay-Z on 2003’s The Black Album. It was Jay who asked 9th to send his beat CD to Destiny’s Child. 9th would go on to produce three tracks for the group’s final album Destiny Fulfilled, including the single “Girl,” and “Is She The Reason,” the best Beyoncé song you might not have heard yet.

It’s fun to think about the comic book influences behind the names Jean Grae and Justus League and wonder if their union was as likely as the coming together of The Avengers. But in truth, Grae and 9th’s creative partnership was more casual than inevitable.

As 9th told Complex in 2011: ”So I met Jean Grae when we were in D.C. and I was coming out of the hotel when she was walking in. She said, ‘9th, what’s up?’ Then we talked for a minute and she said, ‘I want to come to North Carolina and rock with you.’”

That unremarkable interaction is how Grae ended up voyaging down the East Coast to Ruff Raleigh. There was no real plan in place for when she got there; the concept of Jeanius was far from formed. It’s difficult to have a vision when you’re only in town for four days—even harder when the two central cast members like to work in the moment and see where the energy takes them.

“Planning ahead for albums doesn’t work well for me, I’ve got to do it real time,” Grae told me in 2015. “The way that I like to work on any project is that I see it at the end, so I have to kind of work backwards. So meeting someone else who was kind of like, ‘Oh, ok, whatever,’ [I thought to myself], ‘Oh great, that’s how I work.’ I still had to figure out how to put it together.”

With Grae in town, 9th summoned the Justus League for assistance and they hurried to the studio, eager to be in the presence of a rapper of such high quality. The camaraderie perhaps helped bless songs with a sense of vivacity. Grae smoked and drank with the crew, but her mind stayed sharp to the task at hand. As 9th shuffled through a prepared buffet of beats, his star collaborator selected cuts she found most inspirational. From there, Justus League respected her creative space.

“Initially, I don’t think they had a dedicated plan as to the concept, what direction they wanted to go in and so on,” Justus League rapper Edgar Allen Floe explained to me, also in 2015. “I think they wanted to make dope music. They basically just let the music happen for those three or four days. 9th would play beats, Jean would say, ‘I like that one,’ 9th would put it on repeat, everyone would step out of the studio, and she would do her thing right on the spot. The majority of the tracks—from the moment she heard the beat, within an hour in most cases—she had the entire song done—singing, everything—and just recorded it that same night.”

It’s one thing to let bottomless rhymes flow. Grae mesmerized onlookers by hastily putting together themes, concepts, and hooks, quickly crafting songs like a frontiersman crafts garments out of animal hide.

Two or three tracks revealed themselves to Jean and 9th every night. The sessions also produced “Super Love,” which appeared on Grae’s This Week album, and “Don’t Rush Me,” which curiously was included on both This Week and Jeanius. One of the first songs recorded during the sessions, 9th’s voice can be heard on the intro to “Don’t Rush Me” as he chants “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” to test the microphone. That the unplanned moment can be heard on the final product reflects the freewheeling nature of the duo’s expedition.

When he felt like he needed a little something extra, 9th wielded the power of the Justus League. Khrysis, one of the crew’s in-house producers, is credited as helming “#8” and “American Pimp.” Then there’s “Smashmouth,” produced by another beatmaker in Fatim, which came together on the final night of recording. Arming them with a freshly burned CD of the instrumental, 9th ordered K-Hill, Joe Scudda, and Edgar Allen Floe out of the studio and into Floe’s car to write some rhymes. Less than an hour later they were back in the building with fresh material inked. K-Hill dropped an unconsciously long verse; Floe rapped in the great tradition of boasting your lyrical supremacy and calling out rivals’ weak bars. Grae, of course, smashed her part like it was nothing. Then there was Scudda. He put the hook together with little fuss, but when it came time to drop a verse, wore a smirk on his face that suggested, “I’ve got something for you.”

“We were listening to the lyrics and he was talking about stealing you lunch money and we were dying laughing in the studio because the verse was just so crazy,” remembered Floe. “Jean was just having a ball. She was just laughing so hard how dope it was. The stuff he was saying was so witty and crazy, we just got a kick out of it. That whole process with ‘Smashmouth’ was really special because we knocked it out spur of the moment, but it was just fun. The entire process, from beginning to end, everybody just had a great time.”

Floe’s verse of “Smashmouth” also sees him namedrop the album title that he himself had gifted the project. With a majority of the tracks finished and an album starting to form in Grae and 9th’s minds, the crew were asked to brainstorm some titles. On the spot, Floe triumphantly declared, “This album is Jeanius.”

With the record wrapped, and Grae back on the road to NYC, 9th and the crew simply kept the energy going. “We got Jean knocked down, who else are we going to rock, fellas?” 9th asked his infantry. “Who else is going to make an impact?”

“He just really wanted to show people that North Carolina and the Justus League, what we do is really amazing and people need to pay attention,” said Floe.

But as Jean Grey once telepathically told Charles Xavier, “If you knew… everything… what is about to happen wouldn’t be happening, you bastard.” Even the most powerful among us can’t boast perfect clairvoyance. Especially not in the mid-2000s, when the free-for-all, peer-to-peer internet could cause a band like U2 to threaten alterations to their release schedule and throw Fiona Apple’s career into chaos. Equally, Grae and 9th couldn’t have known when these idyllic sessions wrapped that the fruit of their creativity was fated to walk a cursed path.

You Gotta Let Some People Die

The sole woman of the original X-Men, Jean Gray first appeared on paneled pages under the hero name “Marvel Girl.” As generic pseudonyms go, it’s up there with Jeffery Williams’ decision to develop his evolutionary rap style under the unremarkable moniker “Young Thug.” Like Thugger, Marvel Girl’s name hid the capacity within. Gray might have fought on the right side of the Marvel universe’s allegorical persecution of minorities, but her power was untamable. Years before Lil Wayne got so high he “could eat a star,” Gray, as the physical manifestation of the cosmic Phoenix Force, devoured the energy of a celestial body, resulting in a supernova that killed the entire population of a planet. Such has been the legacy of the Dark Phoenix storyline that Hollywood has twice tried to adapt it and both times failed miserably.

Fitting the name “Jean Grae” onto Tsidi Ibrahim was Pumpkinhead’s idea and it clicked right away. Here was Grae, operating in New York hip-hop at a time when crews always seemed to recruit one woman and one woman only, many of whom were berated and marginalized as they became vocal targets of arguing men. Shedding the skin of What? What? and becoming Jean Grae was akin to Jean Gray’s death and rebirth as Phoenix. The power she was capable of unleashing was of a different dimension to most of her contemporaries. Yes, Jean Grae was one of the good guys, but not so virtuous you wouldn’t fear being on the wrong end of her pen.

What’s in a rap name anyway? In the case of Jean Grae, it wasn’t about putting up a dividing wall between person and artist. She told me a story in 2015 to make this crystal clear: “I can’t remember who I was dating at the time, but I know that we broke up because of this. He was like, ‘I want to talk to you, I don’t want to talk to Jean Grey.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t have multiple personalities, they’re all the same thing.’”

She continued, “I think it’s probably more of a challenge that I try to be a superhero all the time in general. I don’t want to take off my glasses and be like, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t know, that’s crazy, I didn’t know that was you.’ I just always want to keep it continuous which is really not an easy thing to do. You want to save everyone all the time. I think it makes for a darker superhero. You gotta let some people die.”

Impossibly, Jeanius leaked on the same day as the This Week album. The source of these leaks is unclear. What we do know is that it didn’t take long for This Week—a comparatively flawed showcase of Grae’s talent—to receive a full release on Babygrande records. Meanwhile, Grae and 9th’s opus fell into a state of limbo. For four long years the album sat on the shelf before dropping on Talib Kweli’s Blacksmith Records. New artwork featured Grae and 9th recreating various classic hip-hop album cover including Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

The biggest issue was the myriad of samples 9th had used to build the beats. Grae suggested to me that some of the music couldn’t be cleared and so to traverse legal barriers it was recreated in the studio.

“We had a lot of issues and clearing samples when putting it out on a major when we were doing in,” she said. “Now, I figure it would be dope to go back, because there’s so many things that got cut from it: Everyone talking in the background, the little things that happened, and the actual feel of the original samples versus playing stuff over the beats.”

The missing samples—as well as dialogue from the movie X2 that was presumably slashed from the album’s intro for similar legal reasons—are present on the leaked version. In my mind, this is the superior record. The Jeanius leak is warm, slightly grubby, not overly produced, more in-keeping with 9th’s reputation as a dusty soul-jacker than what was eventually released. Take “Don’t Rush Me”: the first edition features a sample Jerry Butler and Thelma Houston 1977 cover of “If You Leave Me Now,” while the official version offers a more spotless sound that gives the illusion of extra symmetry.

When Jeanius leaked, the files weren’t tagged, meaning there were no song titles out in the ether. If you find a copy of the original leak, it’ll probably still title each song as Tracks 1 through 12 when dropped into iTunes. Not only did this further suppress the potential impact of music only available via nefarious routes, it ran counter to the song-based nature of Jeanius.

Some might quibble that Grae’s rhymes lack the dense complexity of other portions of her discography. But by accident or design, Jeanius is her pop record, and she tunes her flow to find the appropriate pocket, never falling into a space that feels disposable or bubblegum, maintaining street integrity at all times.

It helps that Grae can attack with a killer one-liner whenever she needs to. “I raise havoc, like giving Mobb Deep a booster chair,” she spits on “2-32’s.” From behind the boards, 9th positions himself as kin to Kanye West, J Dilla, and Madlib, constantly peeling his wax collection for fresh loops.

My favorite song on Jeanius is “Love Thirst.” It’s a favorite of 9th Wonder too—“I’m a sucker for nighttime beats, and that’s a nighttime beat for me,” he told Complex. On Grae’s pop record it’s the track that most resembles a crossover hit. Built around a sample of Syreeta and G.C. Cameron’s “Station Break for Love,” the leaked version retains that number’s warmth and soul. The official version features polished-up keys, glimmering like a disco ball that’s just caught an unexpected beam of light. Both are excellent, with Grae sliding into a sultry space, declaring herself high off her beau’s love. A remix featuring Busta Rhymes later dropped, which didn’t gain the traction it might have done, as well as a video featuring Grae contorting in the back of a taxi, which she later renounced.

The song with the most prominent life outside of the album, though, is “My Story,” which recounts Grae’s experience getting an abortion at 16. Despite the scattered nature of the Jeanius sessions, “My Story” took a decade or so to form. Presented with the sound of mournful horns and a wailing vocal sample, the music (and moment) felt right for Grae to recant the experience in deep detail, capturing her strength and sorrow. As she described it to The Village Voice in 2008: “You couldn’t have a more pro-choice song.”

In a sickening twist, the label released a video for “My Story” in 2008 without Grae’s input or blessing. The clip attempts to put pictures to Grae’s words by hiring a young actor to walk through the rapper’s narrative. It’s alright, but impossible to shake is the sad and infuriating truth that a woman’s heavily personalized work that examines choice had been wrestled out of her control.

“So now, in essence, what you’ve done is taken the choice away for the video for the song called ‘My Story.’ I think it’s the most disrespectful thing ever,” Grae told The Village Voice. “It’s really prompting me to have the kind of voice that I know I should have. I can’t let it go. I can’t let something like that go. And it’s not fair.”

On Jeanius, Grae releases the tension of “My Story” by following it up with the far brighter but also personal “The Time is Now.” Grae’s sad declaration on the hook defies the vibrantly sung delivery: “Been through so many struggles in my life/You would not believe where I have been.” The track turns ridiculous on the outro with Grae freestyle singing some goofy nonsense and asking for cake. That’s Grae: the power and the peril, the aggression and the meditation, the joker and the phoenix.

The career of 9th Wonder has maintained its course. These days his client list boasts Kendrick Lemar, Anderson .Paak, and Jill Scott, among a galaxy of other stars. He’s rarely deviated from the core tenets of his sound because there will always be a market for soul-bap beats.

Grae, meanwhile, skulks the shadows like David Banner, eternally out of step with rap norms. It was around the official release of Jeanius that Grae began talking of retirement and offering 16-bar guest verses for $800 via Cragislist. Also released in 2008 was The Evil Genius, an album cobbled together by Babygrande without the artist’s permission that she’d later disown. And though she never officially put the button on her career, music came in short splutters—a loosie here, and EP there. The next thing that could be reasonably pitched as a Jean Grae album didn’t arrive until 2018 with Everything’s Fine. A team-up with now-husband Quelle Chris, it received the critical outpouring that had previously eluded her. Grae’s verses are sharp, her flow as well preserved as George Foreman’s punching power post-comeback.

That’s artistic life in the margins, when your brief appearances leave all the impression of seeing an apparition, and your finest album is a ghost. But we do still have Jeanius, an unlikely moment of balance in a stunted career, when the components of Grae and 9th fitted together like a Roman vault. If genius means exceptional creative power, then these recordings were touched with it.

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