Burning Down the House

Moving, as I was reminded recently, is a process of renewal. Whether one moves by choice or against their will, with or without means, the mover invariably leaves something tangible behind. Quite often, what is left behind once formed the identity of the former home – understandably then, the act becomes traumatic. However, in aggregating, filtering, and finally disposing of our acquired flotsam, there is a reboot, a restart, a renewal that we are forced to undergo. The result is a feeling of coming out on the other side with a new outlook. Of course, one can only hope it is for the best. While packing to move to smaller quarters, I found myself ruminating on my music collection.

This was further prompted by a friend who asked familiar question the other day, “So, have you heard any good new music lately?” Although music is my bread and butter, both figuratively and to an extent literally, the question caught me off guard. Perhaps because I thought I had crossed that annual hurdle back in December, when seemingly every editor solicits every writer to opine on this rather mundane question. But truthfully, the question threw me off because I did not have a substantial answer besides, “Not really.” And then, like I normally do, I thought of a good comeback about five minutes later. “Oh yeah, there’s Jay Electronica…”

Full disclosure: unlike the growing consensus, I don’t think Jay Electronica is my best answer — at least not yet. The internet hip-hop world has been abuzz about this emcee and producer. Much of the excitement is understandable, because Jay conjures everything certifiably agreeable in hip-hop. Meaning: his voice has a baritone timbre and aggressive growl similar to his/our heroes Rakim or LL in their prime. His rhyme patterns are often heavily syncopated and off-beat, like Pos and Dave from De la Soul, but even his handful of tracks demonstrate many styles, many styles. His subject matter and references are or should be familiar to those standing left of hip-hop’s center: DMT, the PJs, Anthropologie dresses, Public Enemy and the Bible. Though he also produces, he has more often than not rhymed over familiar beats by J. Dilla or Madlib.

Given the above, praise for Jay Electronica also comes from expected sources, namely established artists who have made concessions to the mainstream, yet remain willing to push the boundaries (Erykah Badu, SA-RA Creative Partners) and/or take opportunities to express what is truly in their heart (Just Blaze, Denaun Porter). Such was this buzz that even when erstwhile headline-grabber Lil’ Wayne unexpectedly announced the release of a mysterious EP on Christmas 2007, the cognoscenti placed Jay Electronica’s Act II on their wish list.

Oh, and for those keeping score, his “debut” Act I was a 15-minute opus of celebrity phone testimonials (courtesy of Just and Badu, no less), Willie Wonka clips, the MGM lion, and Jay rhyming over loops of Jon Brion’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind score made available for free download on his MySpace page (the track is no longer up, as his MySpace page was self-hacked a while back, but that’s another story; you can still stream or download the track at his Last.fm page). So, his story became the familiar early-21st Century fairy tale: MySpace hopeful becomes internet sensation upon gaining the attention of curious listeners and becomes a superstar. Yet, that story is not entirely true, nor does it even begin to detail what has been a decade-long process of building, breaking down, and rebirth.

“He had this idea. It was kind of a virologist idea. He believed that you could cure racism and hate… literally cure it, by injecting music and love into people’s lives.” — Will Smith as Robert Neville on Bob Marley, I Am Legend.

I liked the first third of the movie’s exploration of that completely implausible yet constantly raised hypothetical of loneliness in the apocalypse. I did not like the rest because it was limp and predictable. How many times has this scenario been played out onscreen, even in the last five years? The idea is so overdone: Been There…

The appeal of Jay Electronica is what industry types call “the whole package”. His apparent genius is that he is both artistically talented and professionally savvy – kind of sounds like another Jay, eh? Of course artists entrenched in the industry recognize this, as they, too, have undergone or are undertaking the same journey. In one of many “celebrity testimonials” singing Jay Electronica’s praises on the Classic Drug References blog, longtime Roc-A-Fella engineer Young Guru contributed this telling story with Sweeney at Classic Drug References:

I called Jay a couple of times about a deal… and the response he gave me was kinda dope because he was like, I don’t necessarily want a deal right now, let me get so outrageous that there’s no way you won’t have a bidding war or fight over this material. And that is the kind of insight and understanding he has on where to take it… because most people presented with any deal would just sign a deal… He’s more like, ok, I’m going to take this to the point where the public is going to tell people they need to sign me. That’s what you’re seeing now, the recognition of people outside your circle. Because if I say something, but people know I know him personally, they might just see it as me championing my man and blahzay blahzay, but when you get the random kid from Ohio on the blog saying the shit is dope, it makes a bigger impact.

Certainly, the support of a name artist certifies a modicum of unsolicited fan support (see any of the comments boards stringing behind the various Jay Electronica blog postings littering your chosen search engine). However, Jay Electronica is also working towards establishing himself as a distinguished artist. Pardon: your distinguished artist. This is not the old model of winning over hearts by overwhelming them — I have simultaneous visions of the Bob poster, bumper sticker, tee, “herbal” tea, CD, ‘locks, Rasta books, etc. and Steve Urkel chirping his catchphrase “I’m wearing you down, babe. I’m wearing you doowwwnnn!!!” Instead, this is the more refined and decidedly modern approach of selectively choosing one’s boosters. Who has access to the fans I want? Whose word will count at which point in time? In order to gain this person’s support, whose support must I curry first?

No surprise, then, that since the late ’90s Jay has crossed the country (by his accounts, he has lived, worked or stayed in New Orleans, Detroit, Denver, Atlanta, New York and likely several other cities) cultivating connections and his craft. Only recently has this translated into the actual social network that tops everyone else’s — not because of sheer numbers, but because of who’s involved and how they’re connected. Hence, getting in good with producer Rashad “Tumblin’ Dice” Smith (Notorious B.I.G.’s “One More Chance”; LL Cool J’s “Doin’ It”; MC Lyte’s “Cold Rock a Party”; Busta Rhymes’ “Woo Hah! (Got You All in Check)”) ultimately begat a spot in Just Blaze and Erykah Badu’s Top 8. Meeting Michael Chavarria (a musician whose credits read like a West Coast who’s who, including Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and the Game) led to an introduction to Denaun “Kon Artis” Porter and J. Dilla. Who knows his height or weight, but know that Jay Electronica has a posse that counts.

Yet, anyone who has watched Amelie knows that even the dreamiest stratagem doesn’t get you anything. And what little music Jay Electronica has available now is not enough to grant him an EZ-Pass to the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame. That said there are encouraging signs. On “Act 1”, the novelty of rhymes over strings and pianos instead of boom and bap quickly fades to reveal a restless thinker: “The handling of a heart is a delicate art because it’s / Paper thin / Running relevant thought that started out as a spark / Could be a poisonous dart that leaves a permanent mark / That’s ice cold and in the day burns in the dark and makes you never want to see her / Face again.”

Though his reliance on established productions wears thin — rhyming over Dilla’s beats may cop famous cosigns, but it is not the same as one-upping the Techniques’ “Stalag” with “Bam Bam” — his lack of concern over traditional song form and verse structure, as well as a stream of conscious use of interstitial sound and tangential samples (such as the warped narration about Cheney and Rumsfeld that introduces the nightmarish “Dimethyltriptamine”) is surprisingly un-belabored or pedantic. Ultimately, the quality that stands out most is his ability to synthesize ideas, images and feelings. Again, it’s the totality that makes him so appealing.

Though a track like “Act I” runs longer than the original version of “Rapper’s Delight”, he intersperses found sound, verses, and (gasp!) pauses to collapse the sensation of passing time. In fact, the piece has the movement of five different songs. And that he identifies so strongly with hip-hop (as he did in his recent interview for Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide radio show, emphasizing that he identifies himself as an emcee first) makes him one of the culture’s most valuable artists today — call him the M.I.A. that hip-hop has been waiting for. Lung collapsing lyrics, vivid images and classic hip-hop nods: the question is not so much what more can he say, but how much can he say with what’s available? And isn’t this what hip-hop was about from the jump?

The move itself has happened, but it’s not over. A fair amount of stuff was designated as junk and subsequently chucked. My new home resembles the typical NYC shoebox, so of course my thoughts constantly revolve around disposing of the unnecessary. Looking at my remaining LPs, CDs and hard drives, I find myself oddly inspired: this year I will throw more of these joints out. Then, maybe all these pieces will start coming together.


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