On 2009’s “Exhibit C,” his breakthrough and still biggest hit, Jay Electronica writes his young adulthood as a parable––that of a drunk, depressed wanderer who “shines like [he] grew up in a shrine in Peru,” but who sleeps on trains, starving, mad at Okayplayer headlines. The New Orleans-born rapper claimed to be of the spiritual plane, but also turned out to be of this world: After dating the heiress Kate Rothschild, he spent more time in the British tabloids than the studio in the next decade, delaying a much-anticipated debut album to the point where everyone gave up on him, only to finally reappear with a very good Jay Z-assisted album, A Written Testimony, earlier this year.
But earlier this week, that long-lost debut, Act II: The Patents of Nobility (The Turn) finally leaked online after a group of internet users raised about $9,000 to buy and release it, after it had apparently been lifted by hackers. (In Discord chats, Jay’s representatives first said they would seek legal action to block the release, but on Twitter the artist was gracious about the album’s reception, and later uploaded it to Tidal.) This is the album that Jay had originally slated for Christmas 2009; the version that appeared over the weekend has the same tracklist as was announced in 2012. Its title comes from Michael Caine’s opening monologue in The Prestige.
Earlier this year on Testimony, Jay knowingly addressed his decade-long absence, rapping about the pressure he felt to deliver on his considerable promise (“Hov hit me up, like, ‘What, you scared of heights?’”). In his music through about 2010, Jay’s dual existence between the metaphysical and the unnervingly modern seemed to give him an energy and clarity of purpose. But Act II, his would-be magnum opus recorded nearly a decade ago, often takes self-doubt and depression as its subject, in stark opposition to those more assured early songs.
For years, Act II was whispered about as an inevitable classic, the culmination of a run that included some of the century’s strangest, most inventive rap music. It is not quite that. Despite the delay, Act II is unmixed and includes some demoed vocals, suggesting an album that was abandoned and never quite finished, rather than one that is still unfinished. In places it is probing. It’s also thin: there are long stretches with no rapping at all, and––this is possibly a side effect of being unmixed and unmastered––songs like “Letter to Falon” and “Real Love” are left feeling like experiments in style rather than part of a coherent whole.
From its languid opening, Act II is weighed down by a leaden sadness, preoccupied with the way modern life has interrupted our communion with the natural world. There is a tremendous moment in the opening verse of “Real Magic,” when Jay’s delivery of the line “It’s a genuine miracle that I got up today” plays as both a bleak read on his psychological state and as sincere awe at the wonder of life. (A stock clip of children cheering, always a staple of Jay’s music, is given new resonance here––something so organic, triggered over and over in perfect duplicate by a sampler.) The previously released “Better in Tune With the Infinite,” one of the strongest songs here, is also the bleakest. The words are resolute, but Jay’s performance is appropriately pained:
“They might defeat the flesh but they could never, ever kill me
They might can feel the music but could never, ever feel me
To the lawyers, to the sheriffs, to the judges,
To the debt holders and the lawmakers:
Fuck you, sue me, bill me
That name on that birth certificate, that ain't the real me”
Even “Life On Mars,” a sweet song which is a minor variation on an internet release called “@FatBellyBella” (Erykah Badu’s Twitter name)––and which is built around the same sample as Kanye West’s “Bound 2”––here is cast in a grimmer light. For years, the line about “a man on a hectare of land like a fortress” evoked a cheery pastoral image; in the context of Act II, I wonder whether “fortress” might be swapped for “prison.”
The somber tone is reflected in the production: large swaths of Act II are built on soft drums or absent them all together. This puts the album in opposition to the frequently punishing Testimony, and to many of the signature Jay Electronica songs from the late 2000s and early 2010s––though not to the project that made him a minor star, his 16-minute session over the various movements of Jon Brion’s score from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. That was officially titled Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge), perhaps an indication that this trilogy was meant to have slightly left-of-center music. Its most uptempo beats––“New Illuminati,” “Letter to Falon,” “Road to Perdition”––are its weakest, and sound uniformly cheap.
As always, Jay’s a deceptively crafty vocalist. There’s the aforementioned tonal tightrope he walks on “Infinite,” but also moments of playfulness: the way he stretches “news” and “shoes” on the opening lines of “New Illuminati,” or the sneering glee when, on “Welcome to Knightsbridge,” he calls himself a “true gentleman” before suggesting Kate Middleton call him when she gets bored with her prince. (Given Jay’s past entanglements, it’s not a stretch.)
Act II is strange––the third song is, simply, the audio from a Dick Tracy Two-Way Wrist Radio commercial laid over music––and in spots rewarding. But it must be said that few of its songs rank among Jay Electronica’s best. Both “Infinite” and “Shiny Suit Theory” have been available online for years, and while there are no outright failures (“Rough Love” verges on disposable), there are also few passages as arresting as those on “Departure,” or “Exhibit A,” or “Swagger Jackson’s Revenge,” or over those borrowed Dilla beats, or even on the dozens of nearly uncategorizable bootleg clips.
And so it’s fitting that, even with this release, Jay Electronica’s work is colored by the shadow of what could be. On “Night of the Roundtable,” Jay, now 44, writes of the truths it took him 34 years to accept. “I’m not a rapper,” he says toward the end of what would be the song’s first verse. “I’m like an angel on the mountaintop.” And then that verse decays into a mumbled flow reference that he surely planned to fill in later.
Originally Appeared on GQ