Eleven years ago, a new rapper burst onto the scene with one of the most inspired debut mixtapes of all time. As enigmatic as he was talented, Jay Electronica quickly cultivated a powerful image. He seemed destined for greatness: his dense rhyme schemes and innovative visions were more accomplished than those of already-established talents.
For many, it seemed all he needed do was participate. Greatness all but assured, Electronica was a vision of hip hop’s future – why, then, did he choose to shun his audience? Following the release of two official singles in 2009, Electronica all but gave up on mainstream releases. His absence stoked anticipation and fostered legend, but it eventually became a burden: without a debut album or subsequent mixtape to substantiate his place in the culture, Jay slipped away.
Some see him as a talent without drive, whilst others see a perfectionist immersed in the pursuit of greatness. Ten years on, Jay strikes me as what could have been, a legend in all but execution, gifted with the tools to immortalize himself if only he tried.
Some fans have forgotten about their own excitement. Some have sworn away their anticipation, feeling betrayed by Jay’s continual obfuscation. Many, for some reason or another, have given up hope. After ten years of irritating mystery and false starts, is it too late for Jay Electronica to achieve greatness?
“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige".
Cutter, The Prestige (2006)
Jay Electronica – real name Timothy Elpadaro Thedford – was born on September 19, 1976. He was raised in the Magnolia Projects, a housing block in uptown New Orleans famed for having some of the highest crime rates in the country. Jay moved away in 1995, ten years before the projects were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. He told MTV that he travelled between New York, Chicago and Atlanta trying to break into the industry.
Electronica did so with his first official mixtape, 2007’s Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge). Released through his then-dependable MySpace page, it was a fifteen-minute project split into five separate tracks. Distinctions between tracks are cursory and thematic – the music within plays as a single, dynamic piece. Most interestingly, the project was built atop looped instrumentation taken from Jon Brion’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind soundtrack. This structural curiosity was key to the mixtapes success. Electronica shunned percussion, a choice that forced him to find the cadence in the instrumentation’s intangible grooves.
The tape opens with the roar of the MGM Lion, launching into a subtly looped edit of Brion’s piano theme. Two of his friends – Just Blaze, a producer with whom he frequently collaborates, and Erykah Badu, with whom he’s fathered a child – reflect on their first encounters with him. Despite Jay’s well-documented musical talents, the intimacy of the six-minute “Foreword” is one of the tape’s most inspired and emotive moments.
Over the course of four short sample-heavy vignettes – “Eternal Sunshine,” “Because He Broke The Rules,” “Voodoo Man” and “FYI” – Electronica explores the intricacies of faith, heartbreak, ignorance and materialism.
The mixtape’s final utterance – “are you watching closely?” – is perhaps the most obvious of Electronica’s myth-spurring efforts. It’s a sample taken from Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, a film with an important role in Jay’s vision.
The implication was clear. Are you ready for what’s coming? Are you looking out for Jay Electronica? Suddenly, in the wake of the tape, people were. It spread throughout the internet, disseminating on message boards and spreading amongst friends. Excited audiences geared up for what they saw as one of hip hops most exciting and enigmatic up-and-comers.
Then, just like that, nothing happened.
Well, not really.
The album was originally slated for Christmas 2007, a deadline which came and went without news. In 2008, Electronica collaborated with a then-enamoured Nas, producing a single track on his untitled 2008 album. In an interview with URB Magazine, Nas offered some prescient comments about Jay himself:
"He’s onto his own thing and that is everything to him. It doesn’t matter if people pay attention today. It doesn’t matter when they get it, but they going to get it."
Jay released two singles – “Exhibit A (Transformations)” and “Exhibit C” – in 2009. NME called the latter “the most accomplished piece of ‘conscious rap’ this millennium – perhaps ever.” It was christened an ‘instant classic’ by MTV at their Sucker Free Summit. Yet, off the back of one of the most successful lead singles of all time, Jay still withheld the album.
The eagerly anticipated debut, Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn), became an impatiently anticipated debut. With each and every year it seemed less like a reality and more like another layer of myth – despite continued assurances and occasional loose tracks, Electronica’s debut remained elusive. In 2010, he signed with JAY Z’s Roc Nation imprint. In 2011, he tweeted that his album was complete. In 2012, he tweeted that it was complete – again.
He supplemented his twice-completed album announcement with a soon-deleted tracklist. It only added fuel to the speculative fire.
1. Real Magic [ft. Ronald Reagan]
2. New Illuminati [ft. Kanye West]
3. Patents of Nobility
4. Life on Mars (@FatBellyBella)
5. Bonnie & Clyde guest starring Serge Gainsbourg
6. Dinner at Tiffanys (The Shiny Suit Theory) [ft. Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jay-Z & The-Dream]
7. Memories & Merlot
8. Better in Tune with the Infinite [ft. Latonya Givens]
9. A Letter to Falon
10. Road to Perdition [ft. Jay-Z]
11. Welcome to Knightsbridge [ft. Sean Diddy Combs]
12. Rough Love [ft. Kanye West]
13. Run & Hide guest starring The Bullitts
14. Nights of the Roundtable (first draft skeleton)
15. 10,000 Lotus Petals
Electronica would release a few of these tracks over the next few years – “Road to Perdition,” “Better in Tune with the Infinite” and “A Letter To Falon” – in what may have been an effort to soothe fan impatience. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. By 2017 – the tenth anniversary of Act I – it seemed like Act II was another mysterious allusion coined by the unreliable and enigmatic artist.
In February, Jay sat down with billboard.com to discuss his debut. When asked when the record was coming, he replied:
“Maybe if Minister Farrakhan said put the album out then maybe I might go home tonight and throw something together and put it out.”
Farrakhan – the 84 year old leader of the Nation of Islam – is unlikely to comment, though he has discussed Electronica in a letter published on the website of NOI publication Final Call. Seeing as nothing short of a decree from the NOI’s most revered minister could force Jay’s hand, the world must keep waiting on his record. He continued:
“I have to be at a place where I’m pleased with the offering. So, it will come - it’s coming soon. Slowly but surely.”
--and so, the people wait.
In 2017, MF DOOM announced the most unlikely of projects – a KMD reunion. KMD, or Kausing Much Destruction, was the rap trio in which DOOM cut his teeth. Formed in the late 80s – when DOOM was known as Zev Love X – KMD had minor success with their debut album. After the sudden death of DOOM’s older brother, DJ Subroc, the label shelved their incendiary sophomore album, Black Bastards, and dropped the group. KMD became little more than a footnote in hip hop history until, twenty-five years later, DOOM suddenly resurrected the outfit with a new single, “True Lightyears.” The track featured one Jay Electronica.
This appearance – taken alongside Jay’s feature on Chance The Rapper’s “How Great” – shows him as non-averse to the mainstream. According to one writer, his feature on the very-recently release Talib Kweli album "remind[s] everyone that his inability to sign off on an album qualifies as hip-hop’s own Greek tragedy." He still exists in elusive features and Soundcloud teases, his long shadow cast over the rap game well into 2018.
Alfred Borden said it himself – “every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts.” Though he claims that it’s the third of these – ‘the Prestige’ – that elicits applause, Jay Electronica managed to captivate the culture with the Pledge alone. The impact he could make with ‘The Turn’ is the stuff of legend, though a now ten-year wait has undoubtedly dampened the spirits of even his most ardent advocates.
Jay Electronica’s capacity for greatness should never be in doubt. It’s his capacity for achieving it that remains in question – a famed emcee turned infamous artist, Electronica’s legacy will be tarnished by his refusal to release his debut album. Ten years on, only the most incredible of efforts could exonerate him from his place in hip hop history.
Hopeful yet fatigued, we barrel on.