They call him Jay Electronica. His name is combustive, causing instant reaction from the right type of person. Usually that person is either a) a rap nerd or b) a 1-percent of the 1-percenter rich class, thanks to his two-year dalliance with a Rothschild. He is perhaps the most un-prolific rapper ever. Jay’s last official single is approaching a decade-old and he became 40 years old last year.
Outside of a few, yes, immaculate Soundcloud loosies in the form of “Better In Tune With The Infinite” and a “We Made It” Remix with Jay Z — whose record label he’s signed to — as well as some stellar guest verses, Jay Electronica has done little musically to warrant fans’ sustained caring. His debut album, Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn), is probably never coming out. It’s been maybe possibly dropping forever. It doesn’t help that Jay says things like “The album is a false concept anyways.” This album has reached Detox and Chinese Democracy levels of suspicious anticipation and remember: one of those albums was eventually released and the other will never come out. If he read that, I bet Jay would love that comparison.
Yet Jay Electronica is undeniable. When I heard he was performing at VEVO House during SXSW, I immediately knew I’d go. To not would be blasphemous. Jay’s songs are timeless, something closer to rap gospel than rap record, and still sound fresher than 99% of anything else released today (Just Blaze deserves some credit for this).
Within the past couple of years, being a rap consumer (any pop culture consumer, really) has become overwhelming. There are probably 17 records you need to hear (and now), six shows to binge, a Breakfast Club interview to watch, and further ancillary content to feed upon. This is why, more and more, I’m obsessed with perfect records. I prefer artists with one perfect record I know I’ll listen endlessly to during various stages of my life versus someone with 70 good-maybe-great tracks.
A loaded term, perfect, but I mean perfect in its own way and necessary to the art form. I can’t imagine living in a world without “Dead Presidents” or “Can I Kick It?” or “Ms. Jackson” or “Ultralight Beam.” Our world would be lesser, my life would be lesser, and many records derivative of those songs wouldn’t exist.
Not every popular artist has perfect records. Big Sean has never made a perfect record. Bruno Mars hasn’t (great? yes; perfect? no), Future hasn’t really (though he’s a game changer in other ways), The Chainsmokers (obviously) haven’t. J. Cole went double platinum with no features, but nope—no perfect record.
The moment Jay Electronica stepped on stage, the production for “Exhibit A” started, and Jay rapped, “I spit that Wonderama shit,” those of us in the audience were witnessing perfection. And everyone knew it. That sort of feeling isn’t rationally explained—not well, anyways—and the best evidence I can offer is it was the least amount of phones I’ve seen at a concert in years.
Okay, let me try again: Jay Electronica has this soothing stage presence to him. It’s that goofy, gold-capped smile of his, pure like a child’s glee. He instills you with joyful empathy, and reminds you more of a fun uncle than a rapper when he isn’t spitting. He steals drinks from the crowd like a lifelong friend might, confrontationally joking “There better not be no Molly in this,” before disarming you with that golden smile again.
The DJ plays the track, and Jay raps, and it flips back to watching living perfection. He would intermittently cut the production halfway through a song, and rap the rest a capella. Other rappers do this, but it often feels more like a gimmick. With Jay, you craned closer, wanting to hear him rap those words you’ve heard before.
I don’t mean to say Jay himself is perfect, by the way. Only that the songs, which he brings to life, are. Part of these slightly zealot vibes I’m delivering could be explained by the stage. Jay was almost a full story above us, backlit with rich blue and green and red lights. Smoke would blow through and swirl around, cloaking him.
But Jay knew this, and jumped down from stage twice to perform in the crowd. It brought everyone tighter around, encircling him as he performed. Of course the final song he performed was “Exhibit C,” the track that made his career and continues to give it life now. He cut the track once again, rapping the final words slower, elongating the moment everyone wished to remain in. The concert finished, and Jay in the crowd, the phones finally came out. A disjointed line formed, as everyone wanted to pose with the New Orleans MC, despite his musical disappearing act, despite the vitriol his name still embroiders online, despite his hyper idiosyncratic artistry. That line was long. But for Jay Electronica, they waited.