Jean Grae takes her name from a mutant superhero in The X-Men, but the world depicted on her remarkable debut is recognizably life-sized. It's a place where self-professed players string along vulnerable women with honeyed words coupled with manipulation and emotional abuse, credit-card bills pile up, good men die for no reason, and mothers are a last bastion of strength and solace in a an unforgiving society. It is, in other words, a world far removed from the hedonistic fantasyland of most hip-hop, and a terrain listeners will likely recognize as their own, which is a big part of the reason Grae's album is being released on a tiny independent label instead of a monolithic major. Hip-hop has a way of marginalizing nonconformist rappers into a handful of familiar personas, particularly women who refuse to play the role of either gangsta bitch or sex kitten. But within those margins, there's often tremendous artistic freedom, and Grae revels in it on her debut, using her outsider position to level a thorough critique of hip-hop's misogyny and materialism. The ironically titled "Block Party" chastises hip-hop's younger generation for its misplaced values, dishing out a tongue-lashing worthy of KRS-One or Chuck D, but elsewhere, the political content is more implicit than overt. On "God's Gift," she raps from the perspective of a proudly sexist thug who views women as anonymous extras to be used and discarded. "Love Song" finds Grae switching from third person to first as she chronicles the evolution of a woman who remains a hopeless romantic in spite of a series of romantic setbacks. Gorgeously produced by indie heavyweights like Da Beatminerz, Mr. Len, and Masta Ace, whose seductive, slinky production feels Grae's pain, the filler-free Attack Of The Attacking Things is shot through with hard-earned wisdom and purpose. Grae can trade punch lines with the best of them, as she proved on Da Beatminerz's Brace 4 Impak, but she'd rather speak for the outsiders and misfits that mainstream hip-hop relegates to the sidelines. Attack boasts one of the year's best titles, but it's also misleading, since its lighthearted goofiness belies the depth and substance of Grae's auspicious, uncompromising debut.

Advertisement