Jean Grae came on stage last night necking a bottle of what looked like red wine wrapped in plastic skeleton fingers. She drained it in almost one go, but it’s difficult to applaud this kind of frat house trick when the rapper has often made reference to the serious issue of alcoholism throughout her fifteen-year career (she even started a pseudo booze fund via Twitter so fans could pay for her vodka: “Albums don’t get done without vodka.. Send what you can!”). If this was meant to impress it did the opposite; an artist who has consistently proven her lyrical worth and is frequently cited as one of the best in those “name your favourite femcee” debates (however backhanded the accolade) should be beyond this kind of stage gimmick. Then again, Grae is infamous for her wickedly nihilistic sense of humour so it’s possible this was purely facetious self-referencing.
Grae may be an established rapper, respected for her quick witted and visceral rhymes, but warming up the stage for longtime comrade Pharaohe Monch’s booming spitfire is not necessarily an easy task. Firstly because Pharaohe’s fans were out in force and eager to see their headliner, and secondly because, despite the blast of its content, her flow is studious and understated, the kind of considered cadence that’s perfect for meditating on but not so great for rebel rousing. Microphone issues cut her off more than once, particularly unhelpful during the intro of a soul-brewed track that saw her singing rather than rapping, and the all-too-predictable tribulations of being a female MC opening for a male peer popped up in a heckle or two from the crowd. Grae, naturally, was quick to shoot these down face on, however, earning a round of whooping applause from the less Neanderthal attendees.
Company Flow founder/DJ Mr Len took care of the beats and even wound Grae up in ‘Coin Operated Boy’ style, cranking an imaginary wheel on her back whenever she ‘timed out’. That and the helium mic FX she opened with were playful touches in a set that inspired existing fans but may have been lost on newcomers. As expected, Grae débuted new tracks from her upcoming LP Cake Or Death, most of which sounded promising, and fan favourite ‘It’s Still A Love Song’ got an airing (albeit in a shortened version, admitting that her penchant for “nine-minute long motherfucking songs” aren’t always the best fit for live shows). Grae did her best to prod the crowd into action more than once, but, with the exception of a few scattered pockets, it seemed like the majority were Pharaohe devotees, unacquainted and just a little unsure about how to respond to this super talented, singular but grossly overlooked MC.