It has been six long years since Jay Electronica’s breakout hit “Exhibit C” controlled radio waves, playing everywhere from car stereos to iPods. Never has one track defined an artist in such a way that not living up to expectations is a fear, grown beneath the surface of a cult fandom. Elect’s been playing fast and loose with the release of his debut album, Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn), dangling it before the Hip-Hop community like a mobile on a toddler’s crib. Then again, we have been the audience to a lengthy magic trick. Haven’t we?
Attempting to understand Jay Electronica is like taking Calculus when you’ve barely completed Algebra. It’s a difficult task. Fortunately Elect does offer insight into his psyche and his musical operations in the form of phrases, samples, and, yes, album titles. A secret it is not, the New Orleans emcee is fascinated by Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige”.
Elect’s artistry and propaganda-like messages in his music are often inspired by the film, which depicts the bloody rivalry between Robert Angier and Alfred Borden, magicians by trade, who duel to the death. By no means should it be inferred that Elect is in the midst of a lifelong duel with another rapper, but a look at the philosophies provided by the film and how they’re applicable to his career.
“Every magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird, or a man. He shows you the object. Perhaps, he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t.”
Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) is the first and only project to officially come from Elect. Released in 2007, it received acclaim for its subject matter, and most certainly gained attention, catching the ears of listeners with its fifteen minutes of continuous music. Jon Brion’s score for the 2004 Academy Award-winning “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” served as Elect’s choice for rhyming. As far as sampling goes, it was nothing that hadn’t been done before, but a part of the mixtape’s appeal was Elect’s rapping sans a drum track. With forewords from Just Blaze and Erykah Badu, praising his talent and his personable way of living, Elect was reaching the forefront of a new rap era, and certainly one to watch for. And in the crowded house of Hip-Hop, he found a way to get eyes on him.
In the time since, Jay has appeared on numerous tracks and the Internet is filled with material of his, whether it be unreleased or unmixed, and often you’ll come across that unofficial remix, you can’t determine as being real or fake. Frustrating to fans is the lack of a hard-hitting project to call his own. When he signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation way back in 2010, it was a sign of great things to come, with the label already housing a budding J. Cole and Jigga himself, the dynasty of the Roc was alive and well. Given the intense popularity of “Exhibit C”, the stakes in the rap game were inevitably raised and the pending Act II was poised to be the New Testament over production from Just Blaze. Hyperbole aside, it isn’t unjust to say that he was breathing a new life into the culture.
“The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician shows you something ordinary and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.”
It should come as no surprise that much of Elect’s allure has been his mystery. What does the man actually do when he isn’t dropping the music we’ve been patiently waiting for? He could be sitting at home, laughing at the web and their theories of him, but surely there are better things for him to do. And he doesn’t seem like the type to dwell on himself, necessarily.
However, days become weeks, weeks become months, and months obviously become years… and yet Patents of Nobility is nowhere to be found. The closest the project has been to our clutches was the surfacing of a track list back in 2012, and less than a handful have become available since. “Road to Perdition”, “Better in Tune with the Infinite”, and “Shiny Suit Theory”, are the cuts that have all seen the light of day and their place on the final release is subject to change. Still, the craving for Patents remains unsatisfied.
“They’ll beg you and they’ll flatter you for the secret but as soon as you give it up, you’ll be nothing to them,” the character Alfred Borden (portrayed by Christian Bale) remarks in “The Prestige”. Much like the emcee who bases his product output on the central rules of the film, Borden possesses a raw and natural gift; unmatched by anyone in his class. He is a man dedicated to his craft, and will die before he reveals the secret to his greatness. What Borden owns in knowledge and skill, he lacks in showmanship. He doesn’t care to put on a “show” no matter who you are, rather, he’s depends solely on his talent. Sound familiar?
Let’s be clear, Elect is not on trial for his lack of ability to put on an actual show or his being able to rock a crowd – they’re definitely not in question – but he trails in the race when placed alongside his peers due to his image and appeal.
Listeners love Elect because he’s not spoon-feeding his message and wisdom. If you get it, great, and if you don’t, that’s you’re loss. When he’s pitted against Kendrick Lamar (or when pits himself for that matter), his track record definitely comes into play. The Compton native has made the huge transition from being a street phenomenon with Section .80 to Grammy winner with To Pimp a Butterfly. Lamar knows how to put on a show, in the grand sense that Jay Electronica opts out of. Not every rapper has that ability or even the desire to reach heights of that capacity but in the case of Elect, having not done so already is what often removes him from the simple debate of “being the best emcee”. Anyone can be a dope rapper, but if a body of work is not available to back the claim, it makes their declaration unjust.
The similarities between Elect and the fictitious Borden don’t just boil down to their showmanship, it’s also their relentlessness at never revealing too much. Why Patents of Nobility is still a sought after album, is because of our intrigue with the Third Ward rapper and sometimes how much smarter we feel after listening to his verses. The album seeks to present something new instead of delivering the feeling of a been-there-done-that.
“But you wouldn’t clap yet, because making something disappear isn’t enough, you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.
Let’s fast forward to 2016. Over the Fourth of July weekend, the emcee took to Twitter to quote the three act trifecta to a magician’s trick. Been-there-done-that, right? He inexplicably chose not to recite a trick’s third act – the prestige – which is questionable as it is the magician’s grand finale. Though he made sure to suggest everyone subscribe to Tidal.
A hopeful fan, using the handle “el_compadre” decided to reach out to Elect, revealing that he only has 40 days left on his Tidal subscription, Elect chose to reply:
“Well you’re safe”
Is he? Are we? Will Patents of Nobility finally grace sound systems after a nine-year wait? With twenty-one days and counting (as of this writing) those tweets are now the closest the album has come to being real.
Surprising to no one, Jay Electronica later deleted his Twitter account.
As subtle as it may be, Jay Z’s streaming service seems to be rolling out the red carpet. As of July 7, the emcee’s name has been uniquely stylized under his artist page as J A Y E L E C T R O N I C A and his Eternal Sunshine mixtape is now available in all of its fifteen minute glory. None of this is confirmation of course and merely the observation of an invested listener.
More recently, Elect will celebrated his 40th birthday, and it is a milestone in any life but is it a coincidence that Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed film is celebrating its own tenth anniversary? Who knows? If the stars are truly aligning then 2016 may still be the year where Jay Electronica’s legacy will be recorded in Hip Hop’s history.
Should it be time for his album and the awaited debut and return of Jay Electronica, maybe Act II is his very own prestige. We’ll know only when we are supposed to. But there is a question that Jay Electronica tends to ask, as well as suggest we do, and it’s a line directly from the film. Often asked when Alfred Borden is performing a trick – should it be a coin from behind a child’s ear or the chaining of a prison guard for the amusement of self – it can serve as a taunt or a tease, but it’s worth paying attention to whenever said:
“Are you watching closely?”