Eternal Sunshine: The 10-Year Anniversary of Jay Electronica’s 'Act 1'
Eternal Sunshine: The 10-Year Anniversary of Jay Electronica’s 'Act 1'

Eternal Sunshine: The 10-Year Anniversary of Jay Electronica’s 'Act 1'

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY. Source: Richie Williamson

On Jay Electronica's Act 1 and why sometimes the question is more important than the answer

While Hip Hop fans around the world commemorate the ten-year anniversary of Jay Electronica’s debut release, Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge), we celebrate both one of the most enigmatic rappers of all time, and one of the most fearlessly experimental rap releases to ever dawn upon the digital age. Act 1 first hit the Internet via Myspace in 2007, back when Myspace was still cool, or cooler anyway, and the website slash social hub hybrid was the generally accepted way to flaunt personal profile pages, and premiere new music projects similar to the way SoundCloud works now.

The projectstarts off with a spoken word “Foreword By Erykah Badu & Just Blaze,” their voices slow, nostalgic and washing over the soft drift of piano keys plucked directly from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the 2004 Sci-Fi drama starring a downtrodden Jim Carrey, directed by visionary Michel Gondry

Theoriginal theme song and soundtrack at large was scored by prolific producer and multi-instrumentalist, Jon Brion and is characterized by feelings of dreamlike melancholy. Brion works within those intangible spaces that exist right before you fall asleep, or right after you wake up, providing the perfect soundscape for Jay Electronica to impose his own string of reverie, cascading out into perfectly concentric loops.

The foreword to Electronica’s debut immediately presents him as more question than answer; a man whose legacy is saturated with riddles and a perpetual ponderance of all things meta. After a few minutes of describing her first encounter with Electronica, Erykah Badu goes on to reflect on, “Jay Electronica the person. I wouldn’t even call him a person […] He looks kinda like he’s a alien from somewhere really. But in a rare beautiful way, like some kind of mythical creature who would have a bow and arrow on his back and wings under that bow and arrow.” And upon listening, it feels almost as if the myth already has more resonance than the man, or maybe that Electronica is some sort of a second-coming-synthesis of both.

"Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge)" clocks in at a perfectly round fifteen minutes, though we don’t actually hear Electronica’s voice until practically the seventh minute, when he finally launches in over the infinitely looped “Phone Call” riff, which again, is extracted directly from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. While major cinema inspiring spin-offs isn’t an entirely novel concept, digging into the depths of an obscure soundtrack to create a thematic mixtape that leverages piano keys and Willy Wonka sound bites over thumping bass or verse/chorus/verse structures was something simply unprecedented across the genre and remains so to this day.

When Just Blaze describes the project he says, “I can’t think of any other rapper that would even think to do something like this.” That description alone says it all. The far-flung approach to the debut itself, utilizing a sprawling film score devoid of practically any traditional percussive elements, showcased Jay Electronica as an artist far more dedicated to uprooting tradition than obeying it. In a genre that’s frequently saturated with material obsession, what could possibly be more disruptive than an artist who instead thrives in a whimsical landscape caught between mysticism and the unapologeticaly existential? Perhaps this sheds more light on why, despite having his guest features outweigh his actual solo-releases, we’re still following the Jay Electronica legacy so closely to this very day.

Even with the success of Act 1, Jay Electronica didn’t truly cement his legacy until the release of his single, “Exhibit C” in 2009. On this track, Electronica’s esoteric approach to mystic lyricism, coupled with familiar yet woozy production, led NME to declare the track as “the most accomplished piece of conscious rap this millennium” in a 2010 recap article. And for even a few years after the track was released, the Hip Hop community continued to reel from the sheer profundity of a track which had catapulted Electronica from the crowded homestead of the genre’s anonymous to Billboard’s Hot Hip Hop chart in the course of just a few months.

This standalone track, alongside an early Jay Z cosign to Roc Nation (where Electronica’s picture sits adjacent to Jay Z when scrolling the expansive artist roster) created a firestorm of sustained buzz which maintains his celebrated status today, despite the fact that no other releases from Jay Electronica have truly touched either the infamy of “Exhibit C” or the pioneering staying power of Act 1, which upon repeated listening, actually starts to play out like a movie within itself.

Over the years, Jay Electronica has led us deep down a rabbit hole of teased out tracklists and perpetually stalled album release dates, none of which have panned out, but all of which have fueled his status as rap music’s ultimate enigma. This, meanwhile, exists amidst a musical climate where it’s far more common to see rappers releasing an onslaught of mixtapes (see Lil B as our most industrious example) and albums while hardly differentiating the two. Then, there’s Electronica, who seems to use suspense and indecision as marketing tools akin to a standard advertising campaign. Whenever defending his emaciated discography, Electronica die-hards are quick to refer us to one of the most smoldering, self-referential rap verses of all time:

They call me Jay Electronica,

Fuck that, call me Jay ElecHannukah

Jay ElecYarmulke

Jay ElectraRamadan Muhammad Asalama’Aleykum Rasul’Allah subhana wa ta’Allah through your monitor

My Uzi still weigh a ton, check the barometer

I’m hotter than the muthafuckin’ sun, check the thermometer...

Maybe there’s something to be said for the quality over quantity equation after all. And while that verse can never read with quite the same impact that it induces while listening, Electronica’s ability to break apart words and twist them to indulge his every whim can only be paralleled with Young Thug’s ability to revive scat to invent his own language. And even while we have now hit an actual decade since the release of Act 1, and with his long-rumored follow up, Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn) still nowhere in sight, Electronica’s legacy has remained intact, if not grown, despite an utter lack of new releases.

Now, if Jay Electronica had gone entirely silent, the puzzle might make more sense. But all of this makes it even more perplexing when he, years later with hardly an annual release to his name, goes on a Periscope Livestream and extensively downplays the success of Kendrick Lamar while wearing gold grills and sunglasses at night (collective sigh). Then again, maybe it's precisely this juxtaposition that makes us so captivated with Jay Electronica in the first place.

When we look at Electronica as the modern man caught between the physical and spiritual realms, it makes it easier to forgive him for any faux pas he might commit along the way (like a bombastic rant or two, or even performing his song, “The Announcement” in an incredibly cheesy Mountain Dew commercial.) Admittedly, watching Jay Electronica indulge his ego is less enchanting than that reoccurring picture of him sitting humbly amidst a crowd in Nepal, but what is an artist really if not a product of his own multitudes?

On Mac Miller’s 2013 magnum opus, Watching Movies with the Sound Off, Electronica appears toward the end, on one of the albums most transcendental tracks, “Suplexes Inside of Complexes and Duplexes,” without actually having his name appear anywhere in the credits. He enters silently, embracing the cloak and dagger aesthetic and launches into one of the best verses across the project:

Miss me with the irrelevant, the God Body is heaven-sent,

The hard-body is reverence, since the son of Byford,

Brother of Fal, every rhyme’s halal

Every line is kosher, livin’ la vida loca…

Electronica lets his voice wind down to a hushed whisper and then leaves without a sound, disappearing from the album without a trace and making us wonder if he’d ever even been there to begin with.

So, ten years after the release of Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge), what makes us listen today with the same sense of captivation that we did on day one? It’s because it’s Jay Electronica, the silent, mythical, winged creature, that we’ve loved most all along; theenigma that actually is more myth than man and rap music’s humble reminder that sometimes the question is more important than the answer.