jai paul

Let Jai Paul’s Brilliant Return Be a Lesson to Leave Creators the Hell Alone

You come away wondering what Jai Paul can accomplish if left to work on his own timeline. Photo: Timothy Saccenti

The older I get, the more I appreciate a reclusive creative. Your time is finite, but sometimes the demand for it isn’t. This can make a week a sort of dragnet of “yes,” “no,” and “maybe.” You feel like you’re always ghosting someone or delaying something, or otherwise meting out a hundred proverbial California noes a day with your silence. In college in Massachusetts, an English-major friend and I used to muse about finding the legendary John Updike, who famously spent the ’60s and ’70s in the quaint, riverfront town of Ipswich — the North Shore locale where he wrote the classics Couples and Rabbit Run — and lived quietly in the last decades of his life in the even quainter seaside community of Beverly Farms, one town away from our school, his movements known only to savvy locals. If I make it to 70, I want to be hard to find; I want to be hard to find now, and I’m only halfway there.

This week I feel for Jai Paul, the singer-songwriter and producer whose “BTSTU” sparked a fissure in the sound of popular music on arrival in 2010 and whose debut album was leaked, named, sold, reviewed, and slotted on year-end lists in 2013 by a music fan and journalistic apparatus that decided it was a PR stunt because we were too hungry for the sound of the future to respect a man ferrying us there. That album received an official release this week as Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones) with most of its tracks branded as “(unfinished),” a reminder that we never asked whether the record we heard that April had even been completed. Alongside the Leak release, Paul wrote about the experience in a letter that is his longest public correspondence to date: “It was frustrating and disorientating to find that I had no ownership over the story (or the music) and that people were choosing to believe a different truth. I guess this all made it feel like I had thousands of people not believing me, not trusting me, and also that in some strange way I was responsible for all of it.” Revisiting Jai Paul’s impact for us this winter, Ezra Marcus called the story of Leak a “moralistic fairy tale” about greedy citizens chasing away mercurial genius. That about covered it.

To commemorate the release of the leak, Jai Paul dropped a “double B-side” of songs leftover from the 2013 sessions that he has since completed. “Do You Love Me Now” and “He” feel just as enticing and confoundingly alien as the others. “He” kicks into gear like Pink Floyd’s plodding, atmospheric “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1),” all promise and maddeningly patient build for the first few minutes. But Jai Paul songs are journeys. You never end where you started. By minute four, “He” is a patchwork of intersecting rhythms, each piece highlighting different accents in the beat. It invokes the moody guitar licks and computerized funk grooves that became pop music’s central thrust in the ’80s, but it’s too crunchy, dirty, and washed-out to have come out of the era of slick, plastic, synthesized coke music. Listening in headphones, you’re transported to a white-hot dance floor of the mind, some offbeat outer space reconstruction of the real thing, like the holographic thralls of Blade Runner 2049.

“Do You Love Me Now” starts in the same place but speeds in a different direction. A grungy, percussive guitar riff turns into a psychedelic Electric Light Orchestra jam of sorts, complete with wigged-out vocal harmonies, bluesy guitar lines, and disorienting synth washes. Again, the magic is as much in the groove as in the getting to it. Both songs feel like Song Exploder episodes about themselves. You see a brilliant finished product coming together piece by unruly piece. You come away wondering what Jai Paul can accomplish if left to work on his own timeline. But the internet has only burrowed further into the kind of conspiracy thinking that beleaguered the artist in 2013. Music fandom presently involves quite a lot of performative badgering of artists for new music. (Just ask Rihanna, whose every Fenty teaser and release is met with an inquisition about where R9 is, or Justin Vernon, who relates to the same treatment enough to have posted a meme about it to his new website.) Genius takes time. Are we still willing to wait?


Jai Paul Return Is a Lesson to Leave Creators the Hell Alone