Jeanius has four different album covers, all of which remake classic hip-hop cover art: Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Black Sheep's A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing and Das EFX's Dead Serious (shown), with Grae and 9th Wonder shown instead of the original artists.
The "real" Jean Grey is a superheroine: Jean Grey-Summers, who's down with Marvel Comics' X-Men crew. That Jean Grey has boundless telepathic powers, can defy death and manipulate life and matter any way she wants.
As for the rapper with the comic book alias, what's she got to wage war with the forces of darkness?
"Gardening and making pita bread," jokes Jean Grae, the 31-year-old MC.
Grae admits that she's a comic-book nerd but that she opts for more down-to-earth pursuits, like cooking, in her off time. "I will definitely get up to cook," she says. "It's another creative process. You're getting to make something from scratch, and create something that didn't exist before."
The key ingredient on Grae's new album, Jeanius, is production whiz 9th Wonder. He's been the master chef behind tracks for Mos Def, Destiny's Child and Mary J. Blige.
Jeanius, the fourth full-length solo disc from the Cape Town-born, New York-bred rapper, was supposed to come out in 2004. A stalled release date couldn't stop bootleggers, who have been spreading the songs across the Web for years. Grae has learned that tough 21st century lesson about success: Make music people love, and your fans will even steal to get their hands on it.
Grae had already earned props among hip-hop fans. Her success came partly for what she wasn't: namely, a female MC sexing up her act just to move units.
"I think for the first photo shoots I started doing, I did repeatedly call my publicist and say, 'Can you do me a favor? Can you tell them to stop bringing swimsuits? Because there's really no use for them. And it's not going to happen,' " she recalls.
When Jeanius was shelved indefinitely, Web-savvy fans dubbed countless bootleg copies, and the album was officially an "unofficial" hit. Since the disc has gone legit, Grae went back to give it another listen. She tuned in partly with a critical ear — Grae is, after all, a classically trained musician and the daughter of two jazz artists.
A Personal Journey
Going back to Jeanius was also a personal journey. When she pressed play on the track "My Story" — an autobiographical cut about abortion — she says, "It was a good cry. But it was finally being in comfortable place to talk about it and really detail the whole thing and not trying to sugarcoat anything."
Grae dropped another personal bomb on her fans earlier this year: She announced her retirement from the rap game, at least for now. Grae made the move, she says, because of issues with her record label.
"So I just kinda stepped away," she says. "And I was like, 'Before I make myself completely sick and end up in jail with the rest of the female rappers, I'm gonna just chill out and see what happens right now.'"
A few months later, Jeanius hit stores. It's an uneven product that gets bogged down at times by sing-songy hooks and beats that don't inspire. For an MC with such a dynamic moniker, it's surprising to hear Grae get locked in a wooden, two-dimensional flow at times. At her best, though, Grae cracks open a can of flawless confidence.
Right now, Jean Grae is thinking outside of hip-hop. She wants to start a family, perfect her cooking skills and maybe do some work in film. But she's not likely to stray too far from the world that made her don a superheroine's name. From the way she talks about rap, it's clear that Grae's a junkie for life.
"I really, really love hip-hop very, very much," she says. "And I can't really say, 'I quit.' Because you can't. You can't quit. That's impossible. I am hip-hop."