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Trying to come up with a list of great female MCs is a little bit like trying to name the best white American players in the NBA.  If you can name five who are even decent, you’ve accomplished something.  Obviously there’s Lauryn Hill (that is, when “her heart still was in rhymin’”), and she’s better than most, male or female.  But you’re quickly forced to consider Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim and Eve among the best and that brings into question whether the list is worth making.  Not that I’m hating on what those ladies have accomplished (Foxy’s Broken Silence is an underrated album, by the way).

In any case, Jean Grae, born in South Africa and hailing from New York, and her latest album produced by North Carolina’s prolific 9th Wonder, are pretty good.  Not great and certainly not Jeanius, but the so titled album is a credible, consistent effort, and Jean is a polished, professional MC.  In fact, in such a male-dominated genre, she’s one of the better female talents and surely deserves her respect regardless of gender.

9th Wonder, of course, is known for his wonderful production work on Little Brother’s first two albums (The Listening and The Minstrel Show).  He’s also done a plethora of other collaborative efforts with the likes of MURS and Buckshot, as well as bigger name artists (Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige, De La Soul).

The problem here is that while everything is solid throughout, there aren’t many tracks that truly stand out.  They’ve all got a nice soulful groove, but they don’t necessarily demand cranking up your speakers.

Some are more interesting than others.  On “My story,” Jean gets into her hard come-up–leaving home at 16, finding out she’s got a heart murmur, dealing with the guilt of abortion and the pain of a miscarriage—over some mournful horns.  On “Billy Killer,” 9th pulls out one of his classic female soul-singing samples, and Jean gets all hot and bothered on the smoothed out “Love Thirst”: “Turn the lights out/no, turn ‘em back on/want you to see my back bone/and my black tone.”

As someone who wore out The Minstrel Show, there’s a few beats on here that I feel like I’ve heard before, particularly “The Time is Now” featuring Phonte of Little Brother.  Jeanius apparently was on the shelf for several years and maybe that has something to do with it.  It’s not entirely a bad thing, as these beats hold up perfectly well, even after repeated listens.  In the absence of a group with Little Brother’s chemistry, though, I think 9th’s work would be best served with a truly charismatic MC carrying the show (check out his work on Jay-Z’s “Threat” off the The Black Album, for example).

The album’s worst misstep may be the last track, “Smashmouth,” a posse cut featuring Kevin Hill, Edgar Allen Floe and Joe Scudda, which bothers me on several levels.  First of all, posse cuts worth listening to are few and far between.  Secondly, the title and hook (“smash mouth/smash your mouth”) reminds me of the group Smash Mouth (“All Star”), which is not a good thing.

Jeanius is a bit of a conundrum for me.  It’s, on one hand, easy to like, because of the solid beats and respectable rhymes.  On the other hand, it doesn’t have a definitive characteristic or moment that puts it over the top.  Jean Grae’s got skills, but she doesn’t really compel me enough to continue seeking her out.  This is probably about all the Jean Grae I’ll need.  With the aforementioned Ms. Hill taking care of Zion (her departure from the studio is one of the great musical losses of my life), I guess I’ll just have to wait for the next great female hope to come along. - Stefan Shumacher

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