The long and winding road to Jay Electronica's 'new' record, Act II
Blog-era hip-hop fans rejoice! It’s time to put the kids to bed, forget about the mortgage and plug into the record you’ve all been waiting for… and waiting for…
In a twist befitting a year such as 2020, hip-hop enigma Jay Electronica has finally delivered the second act of his mythical magic-themed trilogy.
A shining beacon in the blog era, Electronica’s infamous issues with Act II – originally intended as his debut record – bucked his fast-moving hype train from the tracks. Intrigue became indifference; excitement became exasperation, and after a few years, even the most devoted fans worried that Jay Elec might never make good on his word. It became an enduring mystery: why would the emcee behind Act I and Exhibit C refuse his seat at the table?
Answers were as elusive as the second act itself… at least until 2020 rolled around. In January, when Elec announced an entirely new debut record, it seemed another instance of ‘the emcee who cried release date,’ but when he followed through in March, fans were both stunned and divided. Mixed as the reception was, the arrival of A Written Testimony seemed to close the book on Act II, a concept record that never quite crossed into reality.
Then, earlier this month, a group of Discord fanatics coordinated a record-breaking group buy – $9000, all in all – and passed the leak onto the people. ZIP files spread like wildfire and Jay, though initially resistant, seemed to soften under a deluge of praise, love and well-wishes. He put the record on Tidal the next night, ending 12 years of anticipation with little more than a few keystrokes. In the space of seven months, Jay Electronica went from infamously recordless to dropping two debuts.
It’s worth recapping just how this all happened, seeing as an entirely new generation – of which I’m a part – are now receiving one of yesteryear’s most anticipated albums.
Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn) was first announced for Christmas 2009, but with only a few days' warning, it certainly seemed a little optimistic. In 2010, Jay Elec announced a September release, once again fuelling speculation. He signed to Roc Nation in November, still without a debut, and dropped the celebratory Jay-Z collaboration Shiny Suit Theory. That record felt like the unfurling of a red carpet, complete with the luxe instrumentals and legendary cosigns that bode well for his considerable hype.
In March of 2011, a ‘making of’ clip showed Jay working on Better In Tune With The Infinite in South Africa, and four months later, the Roc’s newest name declared his debut complete. On the one hand, this was a year-and-a-half on from his initial date, but on the other, fans figured it was the good news they’d been waiting for.
Months passed. In May 2012, collaborator and label head Jay-Z told MTV that Elec “operates at his own time, but the album is really close.” Few emcees could stoke a cult following like Electronica’s, but fewer still could measure up to his pen, one which seemed to burst from obscurity with all the poise and power of a well-heeled veteran. A tracklist tease in July 2012 was the first piece of solid proof that something – anything at all – was out there.
The eight years that followed were much of the same. Elec claimed it would chase Jay-Z’s Magna Carta, Holy Grail. He suggested Chris Brown would be on the single, claimed Control, his infamous collaboration with Kendrick and Big Sean, was intended for the project and shot off a few dates that came and went without so much as a word. At one point, he responded to Just Blaze’s claim of completion by publicly threatening deletion. Headlines dried up, the Roc went quiet. A Written Testimony was forecast, recorded and released, but all the while, Act II remained a mystery.
All this is to say, this came as something of a surprise. Even more surprising is how closely the project resembles its original tracklist, issued via a tweet eight years ago and almost immediately scrubbed from the feed. The record contains all the loosies, singles and teasers that were drip-fed over the decade, as well as most of the promised features – and that’s no mean feat. Kanye doesn’t show on New Illuminati or Rough Love, and Diddy doesn’t come through for Welcome to Knightsbridge, but otherwise, the record resembles that long lost version of itself almost exactly.
In the wake of A Written Testimony, that version is a return to Jay’s more familiar quirks, sidelining arrangements like the ones that underpin Universal Soldier and The Blinding. Real Magic opens with all the tenets of a classic Jay Electronica track: a dusty loop, piano keys imbued with a little of that titular power; a vintage flip of some distant pop-cultural relic, in this case, Ronald Reagan’s 1964 A Time for Choosing speech; a patient flow that imparts majesty to even the lightest lines; and that specific soundbite of cheering children that Jay seems to adore.
Those ever-enthused kids crop up again on New Illuminati, which falls as little more than an extended verse. Atop dissonant chimes, Jay laces his shoes, invokes the shortest verse in the Bible – John 11:35, “Jesus wept” – references Muhummad, Ramadan and Louis Farrakhan, shouts out Biggie, Hov and Diddy, implies the existence of the New World Order and places himself at the helm alongside the rest of the ‘New Illuminati.’ There’s really no telling when this one was laid – his strong rebukes of Bill O’Reilly and Rudy Guiliani are as evergreen as bars get.
Title track Patents of Nobility fuses a 1960s Dick Tracy toy advertisement with the majesty of King Crimson’s The Court of the Crimson King, running the entire TV spot over an anthemic loop of that prog-rock standard. If Jay doesn’t take to the mic, it’s hardly worth noting, as this kind of interlude – not quite a skit, not quite a song – is at least as distinctively ‘him’ as his bassy proclamations. Life On Mars likely sounds familiar, either because you remember it as @fatbellybella, leaked in 2010, or because you recognize the flip of Wee’s Aeroplane (Reprise) from Kanye’s Bound 2, which came three years later.
Bonnie and Clyde stitches Jay’s autobiographical tracts together with a refrain from Serge Gainsbourg and Brigette Bardot’s 1968 track, a slow and typically sensual song recorded in the wake of their fling. Dinner at Tiffany’s is perhaps the most indulgent of the unheard tracks, and as the first movement of Shiny Suit Theory, that makes a lot of sense. A segue from personal folklore to outright ostentation, it stands as one of the most collaborative cuts on the record, featuring orchestral arrangements by The Bullitts and lead vocals by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who stepped into the role after Jay couldn’t convince Julie Andrews. Lyrically, it falls as an acrostic poem, each verse spelling out “DINNER AT TIFFANYS” and each refrain “HOLD LOVE.”
Memories & Merlot plays tinkering keys like a slow-flowing waterfall, disembodied melodies fading in and out of the mix as Jay recalls childhood readings with a sense of Biblical import. He muses over the intangibility of such memories, flattened into a pale imitation when seen through a lens, offering a light thematic segue into the wistful Better In Tune With The Infinite. That track, followed by Letter to Falon and Road to Perdition, feel at home deep within the record, and the eccentricities of these singles – arrangements that sideline Jay’s emceeing, constantly cheering children and Ronald Reagan introductions – make more sense within the greater context.
Rough Love feels more unfinished than most, boasting more than a minute of unadorned instrumental that draws even more attention to Kanye’s absence. That’s not entirely on Yeezy, as Nights of the Roundtable devolves into a flurry of partly-enunciated melodies and repeated bars, slipping from a rough mix to something closer to a reference track. We lurch forward in the tracklist with a little whiplash, going from that skeleton to something fully realised. Originally released by The Bullitts in 2011, Run & Hide stands out by virtue of its completeness. On that 2012 tracklist, the song was billed as “guest-starring The Bullitts,” but if anything it’s Jay who provides backup, spitting a 35-second verse considering deception, power, accountability and assuredness.
The back end of the record skimps on completeness for an array of half-formed ideas. It’s a credit to Jay’s approach that they’re still largely effective, marrying his ear for melody with his potent pen, but taken alongside his already poor technical treatment, the tracks can feel like a look into what might’ve been. Closer 10,000 Lotus Petals falls as credit music, an exotic conclusion to The Turn that’s anchored about a Shamisen. It seems to pull from the tantric tradition, one of Jay Elec’s common references, with the image reminiscent of the Sahasrara, or crown chakra, often depicted as a lotus flower of 1,000 petals. The deliberate lack of closure here echoes his quip on Real Magic – “this is the turn, they ain't ready for prestige yet” – but as far as ellipses go, it’s one of the more unlikely teases. The fact that Act II now exists is miraculous enough, but in technically delivering on his word, Jay might just intend to close this trilogy out… eventually.
Jay Electronica found his fiercest fame as ‘the man who wasn’t there,’ and even in his arrival, he flaunts that secretive approach as one of his greatest assets. He’s discerning in both direction and delivery, his bars as crisp as his presence is deliberate. A handful of the most affecting moments fall in his absence: the epilogue to Better In Tune With The Infinite is a moment of beauty that elevates his fleeting verse to something transcendental, and the Gainsbourg-led Dinner at Tiffany’s brings a symphonic prelude to what’s already one of his most luxurious victory laps.
That’s not to say that the record is all rosy – from the very first bar, “sometimes I don't know what to say,” the album seems to elaborate on feelings of self-consciousness and poetic inadequacy. On the deeply personal Life on Mars, Jay’s romantic confessions mirror that same fear: “sometimes I don't know what to say, the pain never stops / the cloud never goes away, the rain never drops.” There’s an inclination to read into these bars – the rain, like the record, looms overhead, obscuring the light of the sun without the relief of release – but as compelling as it reads, Jay remains a guarded man. Nonetheless, his recurring speechlessness lends further perspective to the opening of Better In Tune With The Infinite, which finds Jay lamenting how “it's frustratin' when you just can't express yourself.”
The suit-and-tie luxury that exudes his more ostentatious bars is a hip-hop guise and Roc Nation tenet, and though there’s certainly truth to those celebrations, there’s no such dressing for a speechless emcee. As the record ensues and the finer details land dulled and diminished, it almost plays like a crisis of confidence; a take on the mind of a perfectionist quietly losing faith in his own abilities. It’s a torturous cycle gone full circle, and though many feared Jay’s response to the leak, he seemed truly relieved. It’s almost as though he wanted Act II to be released, even if he couldn’t bring himself to make that call. The record arrives, but the mystique remains.
Act II is a 16-track, 53-minute record. Four singles – Shiny Suit Theory, Better In Tune With The Infinite, Road To Perdition and Letter to Falon – trickled out over the last decade. Run & Hide was released by The Bullitts almost a whole decade ago, Memories and Merlot leaked last year, and Life On Mars has been in rotation since at least 2010. That leaves nine previously unheard songs, three of which don’t feature Jay on the mic.
The arrival of Act II is something worth celebrating, but it’s hard to shake what it could’ve been. Less than an outright revelation, the project plugs the gaps left after a decade of singles, leaks, collabs and cold feet. It’s unmastered and choppy, with well-intended segues emphasising the peaks and troughs of the haphazard mix. Tracks range from intricate to incomplete, and bars run the gamut from crisp to outright indecipherable. It would normally be unthinkable to release work so patently unpolished – unless you’re Kanye, of course – but Act II is far from normal, musically or otherwise.
It doesn’t live up to the hype, but what could? If Frank Ocean had kept Blonde in the chamber for 13 years, it would’ve arrived amidst rumours of restorative powers and faith healings. If The Avalanches had been telling us that Wildflower was complete since 2003, it’d probably lose some of the magic. It’s pretty much impossible to separate the record from the rollout, but Act II is a uniquely Jay statement, defined by moments of familiar beauty and bombast. There’s that same curiously distant nostalgia, and traces of that familiar reluctance, which so often works in his favour. Who knows – if we wait another decade, maybe Hov will get Young Guru to upgrade it from 8-bit to CDQ!
It’s only a matter of time before Jay starts teasing The Prestige, and whilst I’m committing to a cool indifference, you already know I’ll be impatiently downloading it the day it drops. That’s alright, though. I’ve got plenty to keep me busy in the meantime: my career, some time abroad, starting a family, not retiring, preparing my will, casket shopping…
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