“I got a lot of family, you got a lot of fans” – An Accidental Meeting with the Greatest Rapper Alive

The line outside the venue had been stagnant for nearly two hours. Finally, someone blurted out loud what everyone else was thinking, “Nas ain’t coming!” The line eventually began advancing, but even that silver lining proved counterfeit. We weren’t moving because doors opened, but because people were leaving altogether. The bouncer had reassured us so many times that Nas was “just running late,” but you could tell that even he didn’t believe it. An opportunity to see Nas live, for me, is like getting the chance to watch Picasso paint so, in the face of sound logic, I kept hope alive that Mr. “never on schedule, but always on time” would make it.

Nas, Let Down.

Finally, a rep notified us that tickets would be refunded to anyone who left. They were no longer confident Nas would show. Defeated, I had resolved to leave until I noticed someone peeking out from the venue, anxiously inspecting the dwindling line. Normally this wouldn’t be noteworthy, but the dude was literally carrying a five-foot scepter. Curious about what would compel a grown man to wield a Victorian-Era-style staff, I started in his direction before realizing who he was: Jay Electronica. At the time, his name had just started to buzz on indie blogs. This was long before he would sign the dotted line with Hov. It would still be half a decade before Kendrick name-checked him on “Control.”  So, understandably, he was genuinely surprised when I greeted him by name.

I gave him props for his newest project and asked what the catalyst to his recent rise was. Elec responded by giving me dap the way you do when unexpectedly running into your main homie at the mall. He was sincerely humbled by my familiarity with his work and appreciated what I was really asking. At his age, he was uniquely positioned to understand that the idealistic “great art brings great success” answer is naive. After more than a decade of making “great art” he’d just started to gain traction. Still, it wouldn’t be until age 33 that he’d finally make a name for himself.

Southern Inhospitality

After handing someone his phone to snap a pic of us, Jay invited me to the green room. There, he introduced me to DJ Green Lantern and gave me a bracelet good for complimentary refreshments. We talked about everything from how being homeless influenced him, to the full extent of his involvement in Nas’ “Untitled.” He confided in a low, hushed tone that Nas had been in Alaska celebrating his anniversary and missed his flight.

Eventually Jay hit the stage and, mildly put, things were rough. The crowd was heated that Nas was a no-show, booing and throwing whatever they could find at the relatively unknown southern rapper. Most would have abruptly left stage, but instead he did something the angry mob was entirely unprepared for. For the next half hour, Jay performed as if everyone in attendance was there solely for him. He scanned the audience of non-believers, seemingly making eye contact with each person, searching their souls to identify those with whom his gospel resonated while challenging his critics to deny him his moment of glory. Gone was the humble, hospitable MC I had met earlier; this was a man possessed. The booing eventually washed out like Lil’ Bow Wow’s career, his street sermon disarming even the most ardent of haters.

By his last song a few who initially booed were now leading the applause. Following his set, Jay came out to greet a small congregation hoping to meet him. He interacted with each of the 4-5 new converts individually, as if no one existed except the person in front of him–getting and repeating their names like he intended to remember them forever…asking them if they’d join him for a picture before they could ask him.

Exhibit C, Instant Classic

Sixteen months later Jay Elec released “Exhibit C” to unanimous critical acclaim. The track was heralded as “the most accomplished piece of ‘conscious rap’ this millennium — perhaps ever” by NME and named the most lyrical song of the last five years by Complex in 2013. Jay Electronica had graduated from blog darling to hip-hop’s next great hope.

He never directly answered my question about the secret to his success, but one line in Exhibit C provides insight: “I got a lot of family, you got a lot of fans/that’s why the people got my back like the Verizon man.” Jay Electronica almost never uses social media, and when he does it’s often cryptic. There are many rappers with larger fandoms, but there is no following more devout. Jay’s fans remain loyal despite his unpredictable, slow-drip output. Faithful, despite the growing chorus of doubting Thomases skeptical that “Act II” will ever drop.

While Jay Elect’s success may not be primarily owed to treating everyone like long-lost kin, his genuine devotion to his supporters manifests itself in the kind of artistic integrity that earns him a spot in the “greatest alive” conversation. This, all without so much as an album to his name.

In a time where much of the industry exploits fans, artists like Jay Electronica who see supporters as clan rather than capital are choosing legacy over short-term profit by building their foundations on rock rather than the sand of “churn and burn” strategies and copycat raps.

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