Legacy is everything. Nowhere is this more proven than in the world of sports, where teams are often led to championships due to a strong veteran presence or a person who has already had experience in “the big game” serving as a team leader or coach. However, it also holds true in the world of music. The weight of a cosign from someone considered an old-head in the game goes a long way – just ask Jermaine Cole, or Freddie Gibbs, or Kendrick Lamar. Neither of them essentially needed to be “endorsed” by certain higher up rappers, but the cosign from a big name certainly made more people take notice quicker.

The veteran presence is crucial when it comes to the femcee as well. Two female rappers in particular who are far from new to the rap game, made returns in 2011 that hint to their making big waves on the shore of success in 2012 as Breakout Queens. Today, I’ll highlight the first.

 

Jean Grae

Greasy Jeanie, alias “What? What?,” aka Jean Grae has technically been in the rap game for just over two decades, having humble beginnings with the Brooklyn Academy and Natural Resource from 1996 to 1998. Arguably, however, Jean wouldn’t “blow up” until releasing her LP Attack of the Attacking Things in 2002, an incredible albeit heavily napped on record on which Grae tackled love, life, the industry, and everything in between. She followed up Attack with This Week in 2004 and the heralded Jeanius in 2008, along the way aligning herself with Talib Kweli’s Blacksmith records. 

Jean Grae could be, in a sense, the Sade or Prince of rap. Rather than following the form of her peers, who release albums annually or multiple albums in a given year, Jean opts to drop projects sporadically… which results in listeners getting quality rhymes damn near every time. Jean laid a subtle groundwork for most of the start of 2011, releasing the singles “You Don’t Like It (So What)” and “Casebaskets” (the latter of which would later appear on her free mixtape, Cookies or Comas); collaborating with Lil’ B and 9th Wonder for the surprise smash “Base For Ya Face”; and making strong appearances on Rapsody’s, Talib Kweli’s and Pharoahe Monch’s albums, spitting powerful guest verses on “Blankin’ Out” (Remix) from Thank H.E.R. Now, “Uh Oh” and “Chicken Soup” from Gutter Rainbows and “Assassins” off W.A.R., respectively.

But I hesitate to compare to Jean Grae because she’s always been the type of artist to defy convention and avoid comparison, to do things differently. Take, for example, “Casebaskets,” on which Jean drops a line like “Redesign placements – nos-ag-stic,” that serves a dual purpose: literally rearranging a new word, while playing on the word “agnostic” when she’d just made a reference to religion in the two lines in the verse prior to that one. Or a song like “Give It Up,” which on surface appears to be a love song, but the object of Jean’s affection isn’t a person – it’s hip hop itself. Peruse the lyrics of “Give It Up” and you’ll find that Jean cleverly name-dropped every active record label at the time the song was recorded, back in 2004. Or even her last project of 2011, Jingle Fucking Bells with longtime collaborator MeLa Machinko, which is filled with all kinds of “non-traditional” holiday themed joints. That type of cleverness and sarcasm… that willingness to not merely step outside of the box but create her own circle in which to stand… is what gives Jean Grae a leg up on the competition. Going deeper beyond the cleverness, however, is a woman with a story to tell. For the hard, raw-spitting Jean (“R.I.P.,” “Haters’ Anthem”) holds a stark yet beautiful contrast to the vulnerable Jean that rears her head every now and then (“Don’t Rush Me,”  “Love Song,” “Live 4 U,” “What Would I Do”).

After a year of appearances and two solid projects in Cookies & Comas and Jingle Fucking Bells, Jean Grae really has one thing left to address in 2012 – that elusive album she’s hinted to forever and which her fans have impatiently awaited, Cake or Death. For Jean Grae, it’s been about the music but especially about being true to herself (as opposed to what people would expect her to be). Jean’s aware of her presence in rap. She knows her talent, knows what she’s capable of, and also knows she’s doubted, primarily because she’s complex – she said as much in “Jeannie’s Rules.” But if recent release “U&Me&EveryoneWeKnow” is any indication, then for sure – 2012 is the year Jean Grae finally gets her due and #BreaksOut.