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“I’m searching for something,” sings New York crooner Jesse Boykins III at the top of RAtheMC’s latest mixtape. “Got a handful of nothing.” But whatever RA’s been looking for, she seems to have found it on The Grace Jones Experiment, a release whose themes concern creative autonomy—and whose music features no dearth of it.
It’s an appropriate approach: The Grace Jones Experiment is RA’s first project since last year’s Victory Lap and the demise, not long after, of Studio43, the once-formidable local label that shepharded the Largo rapper’s early releases. Victory Lap was confident and ambitious, but occasionally populist and unfocused, as though the label had cramped her style. Now, she’s shed her early work’s pop excess for a more streamlined set. Released on RA’s International Tastemakers label, Grace Jones clocks in at just 38 minutes, and it’s refreshingly aggressive. RA’s creating what she wants, on her own terms. “I’m getting back to my old ways, so ain’t nobody having no say,” she rhymes at one point.
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RA mostly goes at it alone throughout The Grace Jones Experiment. Rappers Phil Adé and Javier Starks lend energetic rhymes to “Fall Back,” Boykins sings the intro and outro, and vintage Grace Jones audio serves as the tape’s backdrop. The rest is all RA, who oscillates between brash battle raps and reflective cogitation. A lively lyricist whose fluid mic skills have made her one of the DMV’s most intriguing hip-hop talents, RA has a ’90s cadence and largely sticks to autobiographical tales. RA likes to go shopping (unusual fanny packs, especially), but she can rhyme about the hood with clarity.
On “OJ Simpson,” RA briefly thinks about sex appeal. “I can’t come out like Marilyn Monroe with tits and ass, because I haven’t got any,” says Jones in the interview sample that leads the track. RA’s version: “I got a couple fans, I would have more if I showed my titties, but I don’t,” she raps. But that’s about the only thing RA has to say about gender. That she’s one of the area’s few prominent female MCs—for whatever reason—isn’t really a concern here. The Grace Jones Experiment is about finding a voice as an artist, in the broadest sense possible.
Sonically, the mixtape dabbles in sleek electro-soul, bolstering hulking drums with airy synthesizers. Against a concoction of wistful strings and well-placed drum fills, RA ponders the struggles of career and relationships on “Million Miles Away.” On “Believe,” her tone gets more sardonic: “Funny now, funny how everybody wanna hang/But when they see the rain, everybody wanna change.”
Through it all, The Grace Jones Experiment serves as a reintroduction of sorts. While it hasn’t been that long since RA’s last project, it’s been a while she’s been in complete control of her career. But unlike the Jamaican-American provocateur for which it’s named, The Grace Jones Experiment won’t shock you. Instead, RA reminds you that she can rhyme, and she doesn’t need a gimmick to pull you in.