Full disclosure: I have known the rapper Jean Grae for quite a few years now. She was in my first feature film Big Words, we’ve shared many drinks, she once made me a delicious dinner out of Slim Jims and a frozen burrito (entirely true), and we ran into each other at Target a while back (somewhat apocryphal). But, no matter how long we’ve known each other, Jean Grae continues to surprise me and the rest of her fans. The critically-lauded emcee’s latest EP, #5, contains roughly eight bars of actual rapping. The rest is an intimate collection of sultry vocals and sexy mood music that straddles the line between R&B, trip hop, and several extremely private letters you wrote the summer after your freshman year in college. I interviewed Jean on a rainy Wednesday this week about the decision to finally let her musical freak flag fly.
How are you doing?
It’s stupid outside and my brain is tired from thinking about this shit all week which I didn’t know was actually going to do as well as it did.
As different as this EP is from your previous records, it’s being well-received. So you have good problems.
Better than last week’s problems. Last week’s problems were horrible. This week’s problems have almost solved last week’s problems. I had no idea, like, “So, you guys want this thing more than you want the other thing…? Great! Why didn’t you tell me before?” I’ve been making records for a long time. I’ve never had a first week in sales like this. Not with any single project.
Really? To what do you attribute that?
People like sexy things.
And welcome to the Playboy Conversation!
People like sexy things. I like sexy things. I waited a long time to not be weird about being a grown woman and rap and not feel super asexualized. It was really nice to be like, “I’m not going to do that anymore. By the way, there’s fucking. And everybody likes fucking. So take off your backpacks and be okay with that.”
For most of your career you’ve let your sexuality take a back seat to your considerable skills as a rapper. That was intentional, right?
Yeah, but I think I’ve been slowly working people into being more comfortable with [me as a sexual being]. For the past, maybe, six years, just being like, “Hi! Hello. Yes, these clothes fit me. This is a dress. It’s okay.” I dress like that in normal life. I’m just going to be all the way who I am all the time. I think that kind of softened the blow for people… Heh, heh. The blow.
Even now, with this record, you’re not playing into what people think of when they think of a hyper-sexualized artist.
I know what I like. When it’s right, I feel like it’s something that I want to play in my house on repeat. The first time I did that was with “You & Me.” I was like, “Okay. Nailed it! I know the fucking formula.” Whether it’s sexy shit or not, I was like, “I want to make an album full of that. And I think I can do it.” And for me, that doesn’t have to include rap all the time. I like other shit far more, anyway. So, I made what I wanted to hear. And I presented it the way I wanted it presented. Even choosing the cover for it. I remember when I posted that picture on Instagram and people were like, “What?!? That’s crazy! Are those your boobs?” I was like, “Yeah. I have a great set of New York boobs and there they are. Enjoy them.” The more I’ve chosen, “I’m going to do what I want,” the more successful things have been.
There’s only about eight bars of actual rap on this album. In many ways, that must be a relief. But did it also make you nervous to rely entirely on singing and traditional songwriting?
I’m not afraid of doing it. It’s a lot of work in a different way. I was super hard on myself. But I like arranging. I like harmonies. And I like stacking things. It’s far more rewarding than just rapping. And not everything has to rhyme in the same way. And there’s far less words. Yay!
Can you address your love/hate relationship with rap?
It’s like being in a really weird, abusive relationship and people are like, “This is not working out for you. You should definitely leave.” And you’re like, “No. It’s okay. He loves me. He just pushed me down a flight of stairs.” It’s really hard to love something and know that it’s never going to embrace you or love you back.
In addition, there was a point where it got boring. It got really annoying to actually have to rhyme that much. Why can’t I just say it? Why can’t I just tell you the story? If anyone was talking to me like that, I’d be like, “Just fucking say it. Oh my god, why are you talking like Dr. Seuss?”
The need for me to tell narratives in a different way has turned into me breaking out and doing a bunch of different things. Even if it’s cooking. That’s still creating a narrative — for me. And then being able to go back to rap projects and being like, “Okay, I can do this now.” So, I’m kind of cheating and fucking a whole bunch of other things and then coming back to rap like, “Yeah. Things are good here.”
Rap will never find out.
You know what? It doesn’t care. It’s too busy doing other things. Staying late at work. Whatever.
You’ve been doing a lot of other things, too.
Doing some acting. Telling some jokes. The whole stand-up thing was very interesting. When I started doing it, I was like, “Oh, okay this is awesome!” Then I’d do a show and be like, “This is not so awesome. I should stop doing this right way.” But, it was just a matter of me finding my voice in that, too. Maybe my thing isn’t necessarily to get on stage and do an eight minute set. It’s having Wyatt [Cenac] say, “Hey, come do Annie Vs. Oliver” and doing a 20-minute musical. It’s been nice going into something and being met with open arms so much faster than with something I’ve been doing for 20 years.
Man, I’m really talking bad about rap! I have some rap projects coming out that are really good. I didn’t mean it like like that.
Rap always forgives.
Rap does not forgive. Rap never forgives. I just want to make it clear that, unless you’re trying to be Katy Perry or Pitbull or Flo Rida — did you know it was Florida? — you can make up your own rules along the way.
Yeah. I make secksy time music. #5…. but I will still rip your face off like Travis the Chimp with raps. Your whole fucking face.— TheHonorableJeanGrae (@JeanGreasy) November 6, 2014
I know your process a little bit… Actually, I don’t. I know that sometimes I see you socially –
– and then sometimes I go away.
Right. You disappear. And, when you come back, there’s a record. So, I can only assume that, during those blackout periods, you’re making music.
I work better throwing myself all into it. That’s it: Make the beat, write to it, record it, move on to the next one. Mix it, master it, drop everything in real time. I go away, do nothing but that. The second that I’m done with the mastering, it goes directly online. People will be like, “When did you do this?” I’m like, “Now. This record is about everything that just happened.”
How long would you say this album was in production?
Three days. Five songs. Wow.
Okay. I kind of cheated. It’s actually four songs because “So Glad It’s Over” was on an album I dropped a while ago called Jeannie. I feel like it got kind of ignored, so I’m going to put it on every album until you guys fucking love it — because I can. These are the kinds of things you can do when there are no rules.
This seems like a good time to ask a timely, current events question that doesn’t necessarily apply to you.
Is it about Artie Lange?
It’s about Iggy Azalea… No, I’m kidding. I don’t even think I have an Iggy Azalea question.
I would love to answer a question about Iggy Azalea. I just want her to stop doing that crazy voice. I have no problem saying this: I feel like it’s really fucking offensive. I’m offended. Is that what I’m supposed to sound like? What are you doing? I call it “verbal blackface.”
I’m definitely not going to quote you on that. How do you feel about Taylor Swift pulling all of her music off of Spotify?
I think that’s cool. I’m with it. Go ‘head, Taylor Swift. She keeps doing things to make me like her. You absolutely deserve to be getting the rate that you think you should be getting. And you have the absolute right to be like, “No. I don’t want my music there.” There’s a lot of services that, although they have the reach that they have, they’re not beneficial. Financially, it doesn’t make sense. I’d literally have to sell my body to the night every night. And then I’d be a shell of a human, and I don’t want that. So, I think it’s great that, in an age of technology, as an artist making that decision, to be like, “No. I have millions of dollars. I know there’s going to be another service, or I can think about creating another service where artists at least get paid.” So, yeah, Taylor Swift, go 'head — except for that “Welcome to New York” shit. Shut up.
You quote Playboy.com contributor Sara Benincasa on your Bandcamp page.
Sara is actually a good friend of mine. We met via Twitter.
I think she’s the sex columnist…. I don’t know if that’s a real thing. I might have made that up.
You might have made that up. You probably did. I don’t think she’s a sex columnist at all.
I think it’s because I want to be the sex columnist.
You should ask them. You should ask them in this article.
Sara described #5 as “an album of fuck music.” Would you describe it thus, as well?
Yes. It is an album of fuck music. I specifically made it fuck music. I’m doing a video on Sunday which will make it very clear that it’s fuck music. I know how to make fuck music, and I wanted to prove that point. I’m glad to say that it’s been very successful thus far. Fuck music.
(#5 is available on Bandcamp. As of yet, Jean Grae has not had to sell her body to the night.)