“I’m just telling you a story. I’m just trying to waste some time.”
Jean Grae is issuing a challenge. She makes clear that her new undertaking, a trilogy of EPs entitled Gotham Down, will not be explained, and leaves the work of understanding to the listener. The mind-melting, time-traveling experiment calls for work from her audience, work that is unique to the unusual thematic motifs and modes of storytelling that the Cape Town-born, New York native employs. Grae is, more than anything else, the epitome of wit–her verbal acrobatics have balanced sarcasm with genuine emotional exploration. She is able to maintain this balance because of her immense technical skill, both as a writer and musician.
The sprawling world of Gotham Down showcases this skill better than any other project she has developed. No other names are credited across the three EPs–as she writes on her Bandcamp, the project is “By Jean Grae, for Jean Grae, Jean Grae on all voices, instruments and equipment that involve Jean Grae and even people who don’t SOUND like Jean Grae being on things at all times.” The vision is from one source, which makes the creative scope all the more impressive. Tracing the life of an assassin that she first developed in 2003 on her Bootleg of the Bootleg EP, she jumps forward in the character’s story to 2016, placing the listener after the action. She paces the story masterfully, explicating pieces while simultaneously raising new questions about how her protagonist ended up a scarred, sarcastic sociopath who sits “at a business meeting in a tea lounge bleeding out, […] Office Space calm,” as she describes on the feverish “Fuckery Level 3000”.
This feverish creative energy can, at times, be a bit intimidating, especially when the listener is confused about the narrative. With all of Jean’s energy channeled into building the story and accompanying soundtrack, the listener may at times end up feeling lost, falling down a rabbit hole. Yet the rabbit hole is always neatly packed with clever lyricism and stellar production that creates the appropriate mood for each point in the story, even if the details aren’t presented explicitly. It’s not that Jean doesn’t give enough to be understood–rather she is purposely challenging her listener to understand for him or herself. As she explains on “Stains”, the last track of the trilogy, “sometimes, in order to really understand things you have to take a step back and look at the puzzle pieces, and then put them back together. But in order to really understand things, you really have to go back to the beginning”. The story doesn’t end, but instead cycles back to the beginning, leaving the listener spinning with the frustrations and joys of discovery and imagination.
4 out of 5
Note: This is indeed a review of all three EPs. We just couldn’t seamlessly fit the art into the beginning of the post.