Well over a decade after his rise, one of hip-hop’s mythic recluses releases his first full-length project — with some help from Jay Z
Until it arrived on Thursday night in the midst of a pandemic, almost no one could assert one way or another whether Jay Electronica‘s album was actually going to appear. He — and his label, Jay Z’s Roc Nation — had stoked the fires, and rumors abounded, including that this would be a joint project with Jay Z. But next to no confirmable details emerged until Electronica himself shared a tracklist. Even then, it was hard to be sure that the album was real, and for good reason: Everyone’s been waiting for a while.
Jay Electronica, a New York transplant from New Orleans, arrived online in 2007. Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) was his introduction, a 15-minute piece featuring Electronica rapping over Jon Brion’s score for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It was a weird, dense track — he doesn’t take control of it until 6 minutes in, happy to build mystique and atmosphere — but the rapping was so immediately, titanically good, that Electronica was quickly hailed as the genre’s next great hope. It would be the last project he’d release for nearly 15 years.
After Act I, Electronica would go on to release a series of one-off songs and guest verses, most notably partnering with the veteran producer Just Blaze on 2009’s “Exhibit A” and “Exhibit C.” True to their name, the songs sound like evidence in a case for Electronica as the answer to every rap traditionalist’s wildest dreams. Here was, finally, the next artist to take seriously as a contender for the best rapper alive. After a bidding war, he signed with Jay Z’s then-nascent Roc Nation, under one of the other perennial contenders for that same title.
After that, rumors about Jay Electronica’s personal life began to spike, and the music began to dry up. There are scattered songs and appearances — all of them range from good to dazzling — but he gradually receded from view. The debut album rap fans were waiting for never materialized. The game changed, over and over again, and the one-time savior of the art of rapping stubbornly refused to arrive.
Until 2020, that is, over 10 years since his last agreed-upon masterwork, “Exhibit C.” Late on Thursday night, Electronica appeared on Instagram Live; listening parties that were scheduled in New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans were cancelled due to the spreading coronavirus pandemic. He seemed unconcerned. Electronica held the phone himself and played “4:44” over the monitors as a large group crowded into a studio. “This is the safest room on earth right now,” Electronica said, after Big Sean requested that everyone wear gloves. “We’re going to blast from the top,” he said, as soon as he reached 4,000 viewers on his livestream. Then, he played the album.
After a brief, string-filled introduction, the first voice on the album — based on the order it was played on the livestream — wasn’t Jay Electronica’s, but Jay Z’s. He was also on the second, third, fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth, and 10th songs. The rumors that it was a joint album weren’t strictly correct — but it’s close. “The most patient man alive,” Electronica said, describing his mentor. “I’m serious,” he insisted, after the room began laughing.