Few stories in Hip-Hop arouse more intrigue than that of Timothy Elpadaro Thedford, or his namesake, Jay Electronica. Born and raised in the Magnolia Projects of New Orleans, Thedford rose to prominence in 2007 through Myspace with the release of Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge), fifteen minutes of music putatively regarded as a modern classic by critics and fans alike. Whether or not one may have given up on the hope of him releasing new music, the status of Eternal Sunshine in the genre’s pantheon of truly great songs is not up for discussion.
It’s probably worth divulging some key details of Thedford’s personal life and career in order to provide some context. Jay left his native New Orleans in 1995 to pursue his musical career, but ended up on an anfractuous, nomadic journey, finding refuge in several Eastern American cities. Upon realising that it was indeed his Southern drawl rather than his actual music that eventuated booing and denial, Jay became ashamed of his heritage. That was, at least, until he took up refuge in New Orleans, where he met legendary producers J. Dilla and Mr. Porter. Using Dilla beats, Jay recorded a demo, and the rest is history…
…Except the story doesn’t quite end there. That Detroit phase happened in around 2006. Following up the release of Eternal Sunshine in 2007, Jay became an enigma of sorts, the subsequent hype building up to the release of his Style Wars EP. The release of Exhibit C in 2009, to-date only the third song Electronica has ever officially released ensured the fervour reached peak levels. Jay reportedly had his debut album, Act II, ready to go. Why then, as of 2015, have I never heard it?
According to Jay himself, life itself got in the way. His first child with then-girlfriend of five years Erykah Badu, arrived in 2009. In 2011, he began having an affair with Kate Rothschild, music producer and heiress to the Rothschild dynasty, who was at that point the wife of Ben Goldsmith, an English financier and environmentalist. This affair became public in 2012, prompting a divorce scandal. The last few years have also seen Thedford become increasingly involved in the Five Percent Nation and the Nation of Islam, in addition moving to the Wimbledon area of London. Seems like a lot, doesn’t it?
It also doesn’t seem like enough. Certainly not enough to prevent him from releasing an album that could potentially define his career and the genre at large. It is indeed possible to theorize on different reasons why Act II never happened. Jay-Z apparently held the project back, stating that it didn’t have enough singles, and that it wouldn’t yield a sufficient return on investment. We have Electronica’s excuse. However, have we considered the possibility that maybe he just doesn’t want the attention? Jay Electronica has family to look after, apparent spiritual pursuits to follow, and undoubtedly makes enough from live shows and his extant catalogue of music, which amounts to about four hours of notoriously evasive material. People rarely look at the potential impact an album can have from the artist’s perspective. Jay Electronica is 38. He releases a monumentally successful album. What’s the next step? He goes on tour, he makes TV appearances, becomes involved in all sorts of new circles. Finally, there’s an eventual demand for an Act III, with more zeal than ever before. It’s not as if he’s an independent artist, Electronica is signed to Roc Nation. He may well be friends with Jay-Z, but I doubt Hip-Hop’s most prominent businessman would hesitate to publicize such a talent, even if Electronica might not necessarily want it.
I’m sorry if that’s all a little pessimistic. However, it isn’t as convincingly bleak of a picture as I’ve painted it here. Jay has released three new songs in the last year. He’s still coming out with incredible live performances. He’s still providing his fans with entertainment in his fabled drunk Twitter rants. My advice is to let him be. If I had, in the space of less than a decade, gone from peripatetic penury to banging a Rothschild while signed to Roc Nation on a wave of perpetual, Detox-esque hype, I’d want to sit the fuck back and reflect too. I predict that someone will leak his album, to rapturous acclaim, and he will retreat even further behind the penumbra of his career, content with his legacy.
The case of Jay Electronica is reflected in our treatment of various other artists, and may be didactic in that very regard. Jai Paul had similar levels of expectation when his debut album (or a collection of rough B-sides, who truly knows) was stolen and made available on Bandcamp without his permission. We haven’t heard from him since, spare a few social media posts from supposed collaborators. Similarly, Dr. Dre’s Detox has apparently been finished for years. Starting production fourteen years ago, the length of time it has taken to record and mix garnered it international notoriety among the Hip-Hop fandom. In fact, it’s not even called Detox any more, only adding to the confusion. Several close collaborators have even hinted that the album will never be released, due to Dre losing musical motivation and the recording conflicting with other business interests of his. It is also entirely possible, and correct, to assume that overwhelming hype played its part. Just imagine being tasked with recording the greatest Hip-Hop album of all time. That’s a task bordering on Sisyphean levels of expectation, even for a man as illustrious and talented as Dr. Dre. Perhaps this is what has happened to Electronica. Excessive expectations to create something incredible, even if it’s entirely possible, is just too much. What is indeed a prevailing attitude in music must be calmed if we are to truly appreciate great works, and Jay Electronica serves as a modern example of this.
Check out some of Jay’s best-known tracks: