X-Factor

You know the feeling in the air when the barometer and temperature drop as a big storm blows in? It's like that around Jean Grae these days. Not that she's suddenly materialized like a cold front. Grae got her start in 1997 with Natural Resource, when she was 16. She was called "What What" at the time, based on the classic Abbott and Costello skit, which was the inspiration for the group's 12-inch debut, Negro League Baseball. Grae's 2002 debut, Attack of the Attacking Things, drew some praise, but it was after last year's terrific This Week (as well as collaborations with Talib Kweli, and The Roots) that people really started to take notice.

Grae's muscular flow is loose and limber like her rhymes, which are smart, even sly, and honest enough to be brash. It almost feels inevitable that she ended up in hip-hop, considering that she grew up in New York City with jazz musician parents who were supportive of her artistic pursuits. "I think it would've been more difficult if I hadn't gone into music. I think that they were definitely thinking that it'd be music or it would be something creative and a little off the path," she says.

In the early '90s, hip-hop was the environment, and Grae was one of the boys. "I was very much a tomboy at the time. . . . I was around a lot of producers and a lot of MCs," says Grae. "I didn't really think it would be a career move or anything. I had a rap group because everyone had a rap group back then."

She's long since paid her dues. Nowadays, everyone's abuzz about the leaked tracks from her forthcoming Jeanius album, featuring Little Brother's DJ/producer Ninth Wonder (Jay-Z, Destiny's Child). The collaboration was a revelation for Grae, and they worked in several intense, productive stretches.

"The vibe of the Jeanius album was all dope. . . . I was in a place where I was really into recording," says Grae of the sessions. Ninth Wonder would lay a beat and she would just go, rhyming and feeding off the energy. There wasn't even a sound booth.

"Part of it was seeing people that were still hungry about it and hadn't been painted by that 'fuck that industry shit.' And pretty much every song, there were nine people in the room," she says. "It was a nice vibe to bring me back to what I was missing. After a while in this business, everything turns cold and you forget why you were doing it."

 
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