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Jay Electronica’s Career Is The Biggest “What If” Of The 2010s
Jay Electronica could have had one of the most memorable stories in rap history. But the story was never told. Jay’s sporadic output over the 2010s consists of flashes of brilliance that illicit frustrated intrigue of what could have been. Maybe he wanted things this way.
"Nas hit me up on the phone, said ‘what you waitin' on?’ Tip hit me up with a tweet, said ‘what you waitin' on?’ Diddy send a text every hour on the dot sayin':’when you gon drop that verse? Nigga, you takin’ long.’”
Jay Electronica rapped these lines on his 2008 classic “Exhibit C.” More than a decade later, the world is still waiting for the answer to those questions.
The 43-year-old artist had a red carpet laid out for him to be one of the most successful artists of the 2010s. His spiritually-tinged rhymes radiated an inquisitiveness and poetic flourish that Kendrick Lamar would later become renown for. As a Roc Nation signee, Jay Electronica had a direct line to industry titans with limitless resources like JAY-Z and Diddy. He was 33 at the time that “Exhibit C” became a phenomenon. But the stigma around “older” rappers faded this decade. In 2019, many of today’s most celebrated lyricists are over 35. He was poised to be chief among them.
The man, born Timothy Thedford, could have had one of the most memorable stories in rap history. But the story was never told. Jay Electronica’s self-imposed exile from hip-hop has made him the biggest what-if of the 2010s, if not rap history. While fans mourn the premature loss of rappers like Tupac, The Notorious B.I.G., Big Pun and others, at least they have catalogs that their fans can enjoy. But Jay’s output over the 2010s consists of flashes of brilliance that illicit frustrated intrigue of what could have been. Maybe he wanted things this way.
In 2007, Jay Electronica uploaded a project called Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) to his Myspace page. Drumless tracks are commonplace in today’s underground rap scene, but his choice to delve into stream-of-consciousness rhymes over Jon Brion’s score for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was refreshing. But it wasn’t just food for thought like “Eternal Sunshine’s” “being a mortal is the portal to the true nature of growth” that made people take notice.
The 15-minute project was mapped out in five segments, reflecting an intriguing level of craftsmanship. And the relatively unknown MC had vocal clips of Just Blaze and Erykah Badu — the mother of his child and one of the most mythic figures in all of music — speaking fondly of him. Just Blaze, one of the most beloved producers of all time, raved about his first impressions of Jay’s music, and memorably recalled that, “One day I was on (Instant Messenger) and he just IM'd me out of nowhere and we just started kickin' it...he would basically just ask you the craziest questions like, ‘what would be the best way to attack this or attack that?’ Cause he's so much of a planner and a tactician and I learned that later on.”
Other people began to have their own lofty opinions about Jay. In 2008, HipHopDX called him, "arguably...the most talked-about new [MC] last year” and “more like a myth or urban legend than an actual rapper." URB called him "some sort of hip-hop Jack Kerouac" after learning of his backstory. Born in New Orleans’ Magnolia Projects, Jay left the boot at 19 and spent time in New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Denver, Atlanta, and Detroit (where he met J. Dilla and producer Mr. Porter of D12).
From his skills to his connections, it was clear that Jay wasn’t the average upstart MC. Act I garnered over 50,000 downloads. As his demand grew, a collection of songs from his 2004 Detroit sessions was culled together and deemed the Style Wars EP. The 12-track project included standout tracks like "Dimethyltryptamine" and “Renaissance Man.” In 2008, he produced "Queens Get the Money," the intro for Nas’ Untitled album, a project Nas has said that he wanted Jay to produce entirely. It’s also worth noting that dream hampton later alleged that Jay had ghostwritten some of Untitled along with stic.man of dead prez. But Jay denied that in 2012, telling MTV that Nas “never has or never will need a ghostwriter. He's legendary, his pen game is unquestionable.”
So is Jay’s. He reached a new plateau of notoriety with “Exhibit C.” The 5-minute song — which followed the stellar “Exhibit A” — was regarded by fans and critics as a will-and-testament of a man who had lived out a nomadic penance and was sainted to be a ray of light for the rap game. Over a sentimental Billy Stewart sample, Jay reflected on “trying to find the meaning of life in a Corona / 'Til the Five Percenters rolled up on a nigga and informed him: ‘You either build or destroy, where you come from?’” By 2010, he was building toward a strong career. In November of that year, he had signed to JAY-Z’s Roc Nation. The signing seemingly paved the way for his debut studio album, to be entitled Act II: Patents of Nobility.
In July of 2011, he tweeted that the album was completed — but it never came. Since then, he’s dropped a slew of unofficial singles, including “Road To Perdition,” “Shiny Suit Theory,” a remix of Soulja Boy's “We Made It” with JAY-Z, and other songs such as “Better In Tune With The Infinite” and “Call Of Duty” with Prodigy of Mobb Deep. In 2013, Jay made an appearance on Big Sean’s “Control,” dropping a gem of a verse with reflections like the following:
I endured a lot of pain for everything that I got
The eyelashes like umbrellas when it rain from the heart
And the tissue is like an angel kissin' you in the dark
You go from blindsight to hindsight
But he didn’t steal the show. Kendrick Lamar’s fiery verse, where he called out nearly every relevant rap peer, was a self-coronation from a new king who had just released a classic in good kid, m.A.A.d city. It’s fitting that Jay Electronica was on the track. By 2013, many of his supporters began to feel like Kendrick took a mantle that was destined for Jay.
Their music is steeped in pro-Blackness, and both heavily explore themes of morality and spirituality (albeit with different approaches). But it’s highly unlikely that Jay would have fully ingratiated himself to the wide scope of rap consumers with appearances like Kendrick’s on A$AP Rocky's “Fuckin Problems” or Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.” And whereas Kendrick shies away from publicly talking politics after respectability politic-laden comments about Mike Brown, Jay has done multiple lectures and speaking engagements with members of the Nation of Islam, such as Wesley Muhammad. It’s safe to say affiliations like that would hinder his reach in white America. For Jay Electronica’s part, he said in 2016 that, "Kendrick would tell you himself he couldn't body me. Kendrick is my son. Kendrick is my baby. Kendrick wishes he could be me."
Kendrick later clapped back the with scathing, “I can never end a career if it never start” bar on "untitled 07 | 2014 - 2016" from his untitled unmastered project. Jay later apologized to Kendrick, noting “regardless to whom or what we are brothers fighting the same enemy.”
Jay has released enough music in the 2010s for a strong compilation, but that’s not what his fans thought they were in store for. Fans have an ownership complex over artists, but Jay had his own part in stirring demand by voicing aspirations to “take control of the game” at 2014’s Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival.
It was there where he also explained his meager output by divulging that he had been struggling with alcoholism. He told the crowd at the 2014 Brooklyn Hip-Hop Fest: “I got into drugging and drinking and smoking. But now I'm back reformed, all praises due to Allah. I just wanted to come out today — clean, sober and with my family, taking control of my life.”
Five years later and that takeover never came and it’s unclear if it ever will. In a 2019 DJBooth feature his engineer Mike Chav noted said, “You can only work on shit for so long before you get tired of it.“ He also expressed feeling like they “were right at the edge. But then it became this elusive thing—the closer you get the finish line, the farther it gets moved.” He didn’t elaborate on what circumstances may have pushed back that figurative finish line. Tellingly, he also noted, "What were we trying to accomplish? We never really set out to get No. 1 records,” before surmising that the “savior of hip-hop” tag was “put on [Jay].”
It was Jay who framed “Exhibit C” as the evolution of an artist who would be “eating wack rappers alive, shittin' out chains” for the next decade. It was also Jay who vied to “take control of the game” in 2014. So Chav’s assertion isn’t entirely accurate. That said, artists, like any other humans, have the free will to change their minds and goals over time. Perhaps the entity pushing back the finish line was Jay himself.
When Jay was developing his craft and seeking his big break in the ‘00s, the responsibilities of rap stardom were very different. A rapper could release an album, do a press run, tour, then fade into obscurity for the rest of the year — if not longer. But being a music star in 2019 means not just fighting with your peace of mind, but entitled fans who think you exist to create for them, stans who compulsively pit you against other artists, and a sensationalist rap media still full of too many white journalists who aren’t at all equipped to understand or contextualize his Five Percenter-referencing lyrics.
As an enigmatic artist who both staunchly supports Louis Farrakhan and dated a Rothschild, it would have been hard for him to navigate today’s minefield of stardom without feeling an urge to put out fires started by polarizing rap lines or interview quotes. It’s quite possible that he would have been one of the most polarizing artists of the decade, with a rigid moral code and an abstract rhyming style that could easily be perceived as “pretentious” as recent reviewers have expressed, despite even JAY-Z pushing for him to drop Act II. Perhaps Jay realized that he wanted no part in the beast of the music industry, especially after previously struggling with substance abuse.
In 2017, Adam Isaac Itkoff suggested for Okayplayer that when it comes to Jay Electronica, “Sometimes the question is more important than the answer.” We’re more confounded by the mystery of his reclusiveness than we’d feel fulfilled by any explanation he could give. “What if” stirs more discussion than actuality in today’s zeitgeist of instant gratification. He’s speculated, adored, and resented based on him not meeting expectations that are wholly arbitrary.
When Jay Electronica came onto the scene in 2007, many music writers attributed to him a mystique. But that mystique was just their urge to know his backstory. Coveting mystique is self-indulgent and bore from our inherent entitlement to learn everything about people we’re interested in. When an artist limits their access and sets boundaries, fans rack their brains wondering what could be on the other side of the figurative wall. They tantalize themselves by projecting lofty possibilities on someone who asked for no such thing, calling a mystique while simultaneously understanding that people are often disappointed by realities that can’t meet their fantasy.
Jay Electronica is hip-hop’s biggest example of that dynamic, and his career is an opportunity to ask of us as much as we have him. And, for his part, he wholly rejects the idea of carrying a mystique, telling the Red Bull Music Academy in 2018 that he’s always maintained an online presence and doesn’t know where the idea comes from. Maybe, from his perspective, he doesn’t understand that fans don’t believe that’s enough. Or maybe he just doesn’t care.
In 2018, Vulture asked Erykah Badu about the concept of “unfulfilled potential” in artists. She deftly answered, “when you say unfulfilled potential, wouldn’t that have to be determined by the person? Whose fulfillment are we talking about?” What if Jay is fulfilled and has done exactly what he wanted as an artist? Perhaps being able to speak at lectures all over the country means more to him than having a gold or platinum album or being solidified as one of the greatest rappers of all time.
In 2119, Jay Electronica’s story will be fully written, and music fans will then be able to appreciate his work without the qualifier of expectation. What if, as fans, we could do the same today?
Andre Gee is a New York-based freelance writer with work at Uproxx Music, Impose Magazine, and Cypher League. Feel free to follow his obvious Twitter musings that seemed brilliant at the moment @andrejgee.