We’re probably never getting a Jay Electronica album. Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn), which is his rumored album title and not a failed Will Arnett pilot on Fox, was supposed to come out in 2009 (and every year since). It hasn’t, and it likely won’t. Less than a week ago, some intrepid soul leaked “Road to Perdition,” a song that was included on a tracklist Elec himself posted a year or so back. There, the song was credited to Jay Electronica featuring Jay Z; on the master, Jay the Elder exists only in ad-libs cribbed from American Gangster. It’s not the Transcendent Song That Will Save Hip-Hop, the kind you were promised when the mysterious Bayou kid was pitched to you. But he has some of those. We made a list.
Attack of the Clones
Jay Electronica isn’t Action Bronson; when he tells you he’s been on the “global warming tour with Jigg[a] and Al Gore,” he wants you to believe it. There’s the righteous outrage at the invisible wack MCs, but Jay reacts by quoting scripture and stunting. Hip hop is an act of collage, but this is a step further, a snapshot of a New Orleans that stocked the first few Common records but still served plenty of gumbo.
“Departure” is the kind of narrative that becomes parable. It’s an origin story that starts in medias res: Jay is hanging on his homie’s front lawn (“just playin’ a crap game”) when he learns that his other friend (“Connecticut Minnie with the East coast accent”) was killed (“by some 10th Ward niggas that we barely know”). Minnie’s mother comes outside, curious about the commotion, and Jay can’t bring himself to tell her: “I looked down at the ground, ‘I don’t know where he’s at, ma’am.’” From there, he leaves New Orleans for New York City, spending the dregs of his laundry money on Pac-Man en route. It’s heartbreaking, it’s hopeful, it’s drenched in sweat and bummed cigarettes – all inside of 90 seconds.
“They built my city on top of a grave / Na die, na get high and watch the parade.” The self-serious audio clips would be goofy in any context; they’re particularly absurd when paired with “slave blood at Providence Hall” and meager FEMA checks. “Exhibit A” isn’t really an argument for Jay as the elusive magi he fashions himself as so much as it’s a platform for his alderman campaign. It’s also the best rap song made after 2000 that pays homage to Lil’ Elt.
There’s a moment at the end of “Exhibit C” where Just Blaze, the producer and reluctant master of ceremonies, suggests that Jay get Puff “to do this over.” “This,” of course, is the off-the-cuff, half-play-acting “As we proceed!” bit that recalls 1997 and decidedly shinier suits than the one Jay wore when he was sleeping on the train. It’s tongue-in-cheek, sure, but “Exhibit C” was released as a work in progress. Made as an exclusive for Angela Yee’s Shade 45 radio show at the end of 2009, it ended up one of the most enduring tracks of its era. How many rap songs under 90 BPM, with no hook, and at least a couple bars in Arabic crack the Clear Channel playlists? There were shots at New York rap conservatives, 85ers, and devils of all sorts. But he was still hopping out of U-Hauls in Baton Rouge. This was the synthesis.
The Ghost of Christopher Wallace feat. Diddy
This is a very good, even great Jay Electronica song – but it’s not a Jay Electronica song. It’s a Sean Combs fever dream, the one he lives out again and again, the one where he wakes up in a rented mink with all his plaques missing. Jay Electronica isn’t Biggie; he might not even be Total, if you’re looking closely at Billboard. But at his sharpest, he has the peculiar blend of wit and po-faced gravity that the late, titular rapper turned into yachts and $2,000 phone bills. Take his confrontation with the New Orleans police: “‘Let me see your ID’ / N*a, fuck an ID / You been getting head from crackheads in the lobby.” When Puff gets his toothpick on at the end, it feels earned. And that’s high praise.
“Girlfriend” doesn’t sound like a love song. Its brooding instrumental posits the track as the first act of a sad movie, Jay’s dreams of “the house on the hill and the baby” and the Benz and the daisies mere foreshadowing. But still, “Would it hurt you to try me? / Huh, mami?” is earnest. He laments that he’s 27 and hasn’t yet settled down, he’s genuinely hurt that there aren’t Tiffany’s catalogs strewn about his bedroom. “Girlfriend” is incomplete, which is less poetic than it is typical of Electronica’s output. But that doesn’t mean the abrupt end of a phone call to a would-be lover is any less affecting. Maybe it’s about a Rothschild.
A Prayer for Michael Vick and T.I.
Beyond being the best title for a rap song in the last 15 years, “A Prayer for Michael Vick and T.I.” catches Jay at his most measured. That’s not to say the prayer isn’t a pointed one (“I blast many a face / And leave n*as displaced like Katrina did / And gave them very little or nothing, like FEMA did”), but the line from “I never got shook up by talks of Illuminati” to the Cassius Clay name change is deliberate and incremental. The poise is chilling.
Speaking of Common, “Renaissance Man” is the only out-and-out mixtape cut that appears on this list, as it lifts J. Dilla’s beat for “Love Is…” from the Chicago rapper’s Be. Jay bests him, stitching together a latticework of musty basements and tirades against a pre-Hannibal Buress Bill Cosby. But even “I don’t give a fuck what Bill Cosby said / ‘Cause the problem gon’ exist when Bill Cosby dead” doesn’t pack the punch of the starker realities of Jay’s immediate surroundings. “My grandmother won’t leave the fucking projects,” he raps, “I’ve gotta raise the slum up.” That’s the rub – for all the trick locks and 90-gallon tanks, Timothy Thedford is trying to do right by his family.
Shiny Suit Theory feat. Jay Z
Halfway through his verse on “Shiny Suit Theory,” Jay Electronica raps, “I’m in touch with every shrine, from Japan to Oaxaca / The melanated, carbon-dated Phantom of the Chakras / Me and Puff, we was chillin’ in Miami / He said, ‘N*a, fuck the underground, you need to win a Grammy.’” That passage has no disconnect in Jay’s mind. A perpetually sunglassed Puff probably said it to him after three mojitos too many, and Electronica thought – knew, perhaps – that his only road in was by doubling down on his own mysticism. “I gotta shine, it’s in my blood, I’m a Harlem kid” is both untrue and anachronistic, but it feels so good. Jay Z’s verse is perhaps his finest since his pseudo-retirement.
Something to Hold Onto
It can be easy to forget where Jay Electronica is from. His career was stillborn at the end of hip-hop’s great culture wars; his cult following sprouted up when his scattered demos filled the vacuum that was the mid-2000s. The quote-unquote underground formalism that crops up in so many of his records pays enough lip service to the five boroughs that the uninitiated might mistake him for a New Yorker. Yet with “Something to Hold Onto,” he accomplishes something that not even his hometown’s favorite son, Lil Wayne, could do: he made a song about Katrina that feels like New Orleans. It’s not exactly a bounce record, and it’s not expressly about the hurricane. But it’s about overcoming – something that, for all his rhetoric, Jay has to circle around by way of AK-47 parables and today’s math. But he gets there. Nothing here surprises him.