Jean Grae stays true to herself

Boston Globe, November 29, 2005

“My name is Jean, and I rap. And I try to be really honest about it.”

That’s how Jean Grae introduces herself. Grae, a favorite of the hip-hop underground, has made honesty the north star of her journey to recognition and, she hopes, commercial success.

But despite three albums and dozens of cameo appearances, all to critical praise, Grae, who plays the Roxy on Thursday with Talib Kweli and Pharoahe Monch, remains little known.

“This Week,” released in late 2004, found Grae rhyming at the level of socially conscious rap stars such as Kweli, Mos Def, and the Roots over beats courtesy of 9th Wonder, among others, the producer-guru behind Little Brother.

Her material is personal, sometimes confessional. She relates love affairs, self-doubt, and her struggles as an artist in a voice that’s conversational and emphatic at the same time, calling to mind the stripped-down, unpretentious Nas of “Illmatic.” “I’m really hard on myself,” Grae says by phone from a tour stop in Tampa. “I don’t want to do the same flow twice. I’m always challenging myself to do something new.”

Grae’s perfectionism stems in part from her upbringing. Born in South Africa and raised in New York, she’s the daughter of jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and singer Sathima Bea Benjamin. She was drawn to hip-hop, she says, by her early love of writing.

“I was a kid who enjoyed book reports. I’m a nerd.” Appropriately, she took her stage name from a character in the “X- Men” comic.

Now 29, Grae spent 10 years in the New York hip-hop underground, where talent and creativity bubbled. She once lived in a house with up to a dozen MCs and its own production studio, but commercial success was hard to come by.

Flaunting guns, bling, and bare skin was not an option. “There’s a way I need to carry myself,” Grae says. “My parents come to my shows. I hold myself to a standard; there are some things I won’t do.” Cursing, however, is all right: “My mom really enjoys that.”

By early 2004, a frustrated Grae was ready to shut it down. “I grew up in a family of independent struggling musicians and I’m sick of being a part of that cycle,” she vented in a long posting on the site “Why do I have to keep turning out entire albums or releases full of music when some cat can spit on a mixtape once, or give someone a pound and then get on immediately?”

“I really felt `I’m going to quit, and not do this anymore,’ ” Grae says of that time. “And my family and friends were behind me whichever way I went.”

She simplified her life, put some space between herself and the business, took some time to think.

A remarkable song on “This Week” called “P.S.” captures that thinking in progress. In it, Grae writes apologetic e-mails to two old friends she’s wronged. The third letter is to herself: “I used to hate your [expletive] guts, please pardon me / Tried to kill you more than once, I’ve acted horribly / And all my pessimism towards your life still bothers me / But you’re a big girl now, you fought and made it through.” She signs off: “Love, you.”

Though she came close, she never did quit making music.

“I’ve been learning to play the game a little differently,” she says. “When you complain long enough you get tired of hearing yourself complain.”

As if to show that perseverance creates its own rewards, Grae recently consolidated her friendship with socially conscious rap luminaries Monche, Kweli, and Mos Def, signing to Kweli’s new Warner Music imprint, Blacksmith, and joining the current tour.

“It put me in a much better mental place,” she says of the move. “I don’t have to stress or go nuts about little things in promotion and marketing, and I get real support, not `We don’t know if this is really a single.’ And being out on the road every night with people that you respect so much, we’re definitely becoming a more close- knit group.”

Together, the musicians are attracting larger crowds and a more mixed audience than the typically white male-dominated scene, much to Grae’s relief. She’s still getting used to it.

“I’ve learned to value fans as fans,” she explains. “But there are actually girls coming to the shows! There’s black people in the audience. And black women! It’s really great to see. Usually it’s just me and somebody’s girlfriend.”

Her faith in music and herself restored, Grae is back in the game. A new album is in the works. She says, when asked about artists she enjoys, that she’d like risque comic-of-the-moment Sarah Silverman (“I think she’s hilarious”) to do a cameo.

And her EP “Jeanius,” which was leaked to the bootleg market, has been extended into a full album that Grae’s hoping to release soon as well.

Not everything has fallen into place. She’s made no secret of her desire to have children, but things didn’t work out with her erstwhile fiance. Balancing music with personal life is “really, really difficult,” she says, forthright as ever. “I don’t know how I’ll get to have a relationship anytime soon.”

Is she OK with that?

“Hell no! I’m going to have to work that out,” she says.

Honesty. It’s the way Jean Grae tries to live, and what she pours into her music, now more than ever her outlet.

“This has always been like talk therapy for me,” she says. “I need to get this off my chest.”