When he first emerged from the depths of the internet, Jay Electronica seemed to be a project about ambition. The enigmatic New Orleans rapper’s origin story, as told in a little late-2000s sketch called “Departure,” takes place in the aftermath of a friend’s murder. He recounts:
“Last night, I was across the tracks
With Freddie and Black Teddy, just playing a crap game
Smoking on stank, sippin’ on drank
When Brian came flying up the block like Batman.”
Here, Jay starts panting like Brian, terrified and out of breath, and explains in Brian’s voice that their mutual friend Minnie had been killed in the Calliope housing projects. The four young men are stunned; Freddy faints. That’s when Minnie’s mother walks out into the yard and asks where her son is.
“I looked down at the ground: ‘I don’t know where he’s at, ma’am’
Lump in my throat, I just lost my best friend.”
Jay’s mind lurches from his friend’s East Coast accent (they called him “Connecticut Minnie”) to the crack charges hanging over his older cousin’s head. He tells his mother he’s had enough — he’s moving to New York to pursue rapping. He snatches up a few belongings, kisses his little sister, and promises to come back one day. He’s at the bus station, and then he’s:
“On I-10 Eastbound to Manhattan
N-Y-C, yes sir, that’s rap land
A one-way ticket, a trunk of clothes
I spent my last 25 cents on Pac-Man.”
The New York of Jay’s imagination is something like that, a mythical rap land where the Five Percenters will teach you how to count bars and you can stumble across Just Blaze’s iChat address and hound him to make you a star (the latter really happened and the former might have, too; he registered with the Nation of Islam some time around the turn of the century). He made the stick figures from old rap songs into aging gods with limps and bad teeth, and then he imagined them as his peers. From the earliest demos we’ve heard, Jay Electronica was insistent that he had been anointed for greatness, that the coincidences and strokes of luck that would soon come were the hand of God guiding him — which is what made it so curious when all that ambition seemed, for the near decade when he was nearly invisible, to dissolve into thin air.
By all accounts — “accounts” because most of Jay’s life story has been pieced together through anecdotes told by those who’ve encountered him — this is how Jay’s life really went until he was at least 30 years old: a web of crushing misfortunes and quasi-divine interventions, high hopes and missed deadlines. He left his native New Orleans in 1996 when he was 19 to bounce from couch to couch and basement to basement, trying to not only rap but to become the sort of rap messiah he believed in. New York, Philly, the DMV, out West to Colorado, down to Atlanta. He finally found his people in Detroit in 2002. If the timeline of this part of his life seems jumbled, it’s because his closest friends recall in that way: in a recent interview, Jay’s longtime engineer, Mike Chav, says that they met through a mutual friend who said he “‘met this guy Jay Electronica in Atlanta … I don’t know where he is, but once we find him, we’re good.’ And then one day, Jay was living in Philly. He was in a barbershop with some Nation of Islam people. This girl we knew from Detroit heard Jay, and she was like, ‘You sound like my friend Johnny from Detroit!’ Jay was like: “Johnny from Detroit? Does he have a brother named Jamal?”
Jay spent the first half of the 2000s honing an on-record presence that was at first clumsy, then aimlessly authoritative (made less aimless by dogged exercises over Dilla’s stuttering drums), and finally one that is wizened, wryly funny, skipping from the corporeal to a series of fugue states. He would disappear for months on end then call Chav from the Greyhound station, ready to rap. His music bubbled up on MySpace and file-sharing sites starting in 2007 (that’s the year he rapped for 15 minutes over different movements from the score for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). There were rumors about him and Erykah Badu. He became a kind of sensation to the kind of person who digs for slightly unmoored rap opuses with no drums.
At times his work tries to grab American racism by the throat — he’ll rap about the stench of slave blood, about robbing banks with Bill Clinton masks on, about the blunt, crushing weight of minimum sentencing laws. The levees loom, of course. FEMA flails. At other points his songs are joyous or whimsical. But the through line is that unchecked ambition. He borrowed, liberally and conspicuously, from songs by canonical greats: he would quote from Reasonable Doubt and Ready to Die, he would make songs that were nominally tributes to Nas but really attempted to position Jay as his successor.
When he announced his deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation in 2010, he did it through a song called, well, “The Announcement,” which begins with more than a minute of John F. Kennedy’s speech from Rice University in 1962, where Kennedy says:
“Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again.
But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the moon!
We choose to go to the moon…We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”
Comparing a record deal to the space race is silly; it’s also exactly in line with Jay’s writing at the time, which would frequently parallel his struggles (homelessness, a feeling as if he was shouting into a void) with Muhammad Ali’s. He would scrape American history for its icons and deploy them slyly — leaning alternately into and out of an earnest reading of their legacies, like if Lana Del Rey were trying to civilize 85ers. Even the meetings where his marketing plan was ironed out are treated as folklore:
“So when the leaves rustle and the cock crows winter
Just know that the Black gods mingled a bit
Then the fingers got pricked, then the single got picked
Man I’m living out my brain, I don’t dream about shit”
When Jay teamed up with his new label boss, Jay-Z, it was for a song called “Shiny Suit Theory.” In one of his strongest postretirement verses, the elder Jay is flexing his capital-as-salvation muscles, framing the whole thing as a session with a skeptical therapist who’s sure his tales of riches and magazine covers are delusions (“You must be off your rocker if you think you’ll make it off the Strip before they Pac ya”). But in Jay Elec’s verse, which comes first, he paints a quick picture of a holy man before recorded history, then cracks a joke at his expense (“look how far I go in time just to start a rhyme”) before slipping in what is probably the most telling anecdote in his entire catalog:
“Me and Puff, we was chilling in Miami
He said, ‘Nigga, fuck the underground, you need to win a Grammy
For your mama and your family — they need to see you shined up
We built a mighty high ladder, let me see you climb up’”
Then there’s the fan-favorite live-show staple that’s usually called “Google Eyes,” which is structured as an email from a fan who thinks that Jay has the spirit of a savior, but who shouldn’t subject himself to the tortures of the industry: “‘The game will swallow you if you ain’t strong enough to make it follow you,’” he raps, quoting her. “‘I’d pack my bags and head home if I was you.’” He doesn’t.
But “The Announcement” and “Shiny Suit Theory” came after the big bang that made them inevitable. At the very end of 2009, Jay and Just Blaze dropped “Exhibit C,” which was nominally a promo record meant for New York City radio host Angela Yee’s morning show on Shade 45. It was like firing a cannon in a library. The song is something like 82 beats per minute; it has no hook; it’s five and a half minutes long. It became a rap phenomenon. It was messianic to people who wanted someone who wasn’t jerking or wearing skinny jeans, but its appeal went far, far beyond the stylistic conservatives. It felt radical in its way.
Despite the momentum, the album, which was supposed to follow “Exhibit C” in short order, never materialized. The announced release dates came and went, then the rumored ones passed too. Fans tried to trace imaginary codes through Jay’s drunk tweets the way ancient civilizations charted the course of the sun. Meanwhile, Jay reportedly broke up the marriage of a Rothschild heiress and disappeared into castles in the English countryside. He made a bad song with Mobb Deep and named it after a video game. There were a couple of times he even headfaked at the album proper. Nothing stuck. He was featured on Big Sean’s “Control,” but nobody cares who was on “Control” aside from Kendrick.
“‘…my debut album featuring Hov man this is highway robbery’”
“Recorded over 40 days and 40 nights, starting from Dec 26”
“Releasing in 40 days”
“A Written Testimony”
The album, improbably, is here at last, on streaming services that didn’t exist when “Exhibit C” dropped. It’s essentially a joint record with Jay-Z (“Shiny Suit Theory” is included, along with six other Hov features across ten tracks). Few rappers have put out well-regarded albums in their mid-40s; none have put out a celebrated debut. The audacity of tapping the most famous living rapper to play sidekick in this way would be staggering if it were not precisely the sort of thing that Jay Electronica has claimed, for decades now, to be in the tea leaves.
In “Shiny Suit Theory,” after Puff tells Jay about the ladder he’s built, he asks his protégé: “what you scared of?”