Jay Electronica and the Problem with Perfectionism

Human beings are nothing if not impatient, and in the age of instant gratification we find even the most minor of delays to be just too long to wait. Development hell can afflict projects across all media, and is a constant source of frustration for just about anybody with more than a passing interest in the work at hand. Hip hop as a genre offers a number of examples, and with the possible exception of Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V there are none more notorious than the ostensibly forthcoming debut full-length from one of Roc Nation’s most intriguing signees.

Although the Style Wars EP had been around for a couple years already, it was the release of 2007’s Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) that really introduced listeners to Jay Electronica. Clocking in at a brisk 15 minutes, the tape features Electronica rapping over a reworking of the titular movie’s soundtrack, with a couple of interpolated samples from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory thrown in for good measure. Despite much of its brief runtime being a spoken word piece from Just Blaze and Erykah Badu, it was a work of great conceptual quality that brought a lot of attention to the fledgling MC.

The tape’s low-key release (it just kind of appeared on MySpace one day) combined with the curiosity of its thematic approach cast the artist himself in a very intriguing light, and left his new audience eager to see what would follow. What did follow, as it happened, was more of the same, as Electronica teamed up with Just Blaze to drop two singles in 2009: Exhibit A (Transformations) and Exhibit C. The latter – a lyrically-dense exploration of Electronica’s life to date – in particular drew high praise, with the quality of Just Blaze’s production exceeded only by the fire being spat over it.

Clearly, the buzz surrounding his initial work had begun to resonate across the industry: at the back end of 2010 Jay-Z announced that Jay Electronica would be signing with his Roc Nation imprint to deliver the second part of a planned trilogy of releases. With pen put to paper, the stage was perfectly set for the release of a full-length album and an ascension to the world of bigger audiences, bigger shows, and – of undoubtedly especial appeal to a man who had spent much of his early life living on the streets – bigger paychecks.

* * *

When we consider the quality of those first releases, it’s easy to understand why the fractured history of Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn) is the source of such considerable frustration: charting its as-yet incomplete journey from concept to completion paints a picture of broken promises and continued disappointment. As I write this now, I wonder if, when Jay Electronica tweeted back in July 2011 that the album was complete, he knew about the shitstorm that was looming on the horizon. In March 2012, he returned to Twitter to announce that he planned to turn the album in the following evening.

Around the same time, ?uestlove appeared on an episode of The Champs podcast with Neal Brennan and Moshe Kasher. During this interview, he relayed the fact that Jay-Z had listened to the album in its entirety and was certainly impressed, going so far as to call it his favourite record of the year. Now, it seemed, it was merely a question of when. In July 2012, the final piece of the pre-release puzzle hit Electronica’s Twitter in the form of an iTunes screenshot, showing an apparent tracklist for Act II. Its 15 songs boasted features from, among others, Kanye West, Sean Combs, and Hov himself and, taken alongside other recent developments, strongly suggested that Patents of Nobility was more or less ready to be heard.

Curiously though, even with all of these positive noises, that was the end of that. Despite having apparently been finished in summer 2011 and turned in the following spring, Act II was not released in 2012. Jay continued to work, contributing guest verses and performing shows as any other artist would, but the album remained his and his alone. Interviewed in the lead-up to the release of his 2013 album Watching Movies with the Sound Off, Mac Miller offered what seems a very cogent insight into Electronica’s creative process and the possible reasons for Act II’s delay:

 “He sent me the verse two hours before I went in to master it. The album was done, and I was like, ‘Bro, the album is done. Tell me now if you’re gonna do this. No hard feelings if you can’t, I completely understand.’ He was like, ‘I promise you.’ And he would be sending me texts just randomly throughout the whole album process, like, ‘Don’t turn your album in without me.’ The whole time, we’d been talking about doing this record.”

– Mac Miller, interviewed by Nahright.com

The nature of Jay’s contribution (on the track Suplexes Inside of Complexes and Duplexes) perhaps inadvertently posits the delay of his own album as the result of somebody to whom deadlines are little more than gentle suggestions of preferred timescale. It’s a big perhaps, though. It had by now been two years since the artist himself proclaimed the work complete: surely, surely, he couldn’t still be working on it?

* * *

Fast forward to the spring of 2014, and we hear some more rumblings about the state of what by now was one of the most keenly-anticipated projects in recent memory. After a pleasant SXSW experience and at the behest of an optimistic fan, Jay blessed listeners with the deeply moving Better in Tune with the Infinite, featuring LaTonya Givens, previously listed as track #8 on the iTunes screenshot from 2012. Further to this, Electronica appeared alongside filmmaker Jason Goldwatch in an interview with Mass Appeal, during which it was revealed that the two had been working on a documentary together, due out later that year.

The following month, during a brief Twitter Q&A, a fan asked Jay point blank whether the album was coming that year. “Yes,” came the decidedly unambiguous response. Around this time, Electronica also started a YouTube channel and was observed interacting with fans in the comments to some videos. Once again, the issue of Act II was put to him, and once again he was straight to the point. “It’s coming this year,” he began. “I’m about to heat the game up.” Uh-huh. A trailer for the Goldwatch documentary (titled Into the Light) landed in October (with its release date pushed back to 2015, I might add), before the year – perhaps by now unsurprisingly – closed out without any further signs of the album.

2015 was, by comparison, a much quieter year. No brash claims about the album’s completeness or apparent quality, no promises of an imminent drop: just the CDQ release, following a low-quality Reddit leak, of Road to Perdition, which the keen-eyed among you will remember as track #10 from the iTunes screenshot. If you’ve lost count, by now we had three of the promised 15: the two to be released following the posting of the track list plus Shiny Suit Theory, which had come out two years prior.

By the time 2016 rolled around, many were beginning to wonder if Patents of Nobility was ever actually going to arrive. It was hard to look at the ratio of promises made to promises delivered and see anything other than a perpetual cycle of disappointment, and indeed it wouldn’t surprise me if there were some fans who decided to just abandon him completely: I don’t think anyone could begrudge them that. And yet with all of that in mind, I couldn’t help but get hyped (as I’m sure a great many others did too) when an incredible guest verse on Chance the Rapper’s How Great closed with “this is the year that I come for the crown, bury my enemies under the ground.” We’d heard it all before, and yet…

The flames of hype were further fanned in July, with a flurry of tweets thanking fans for their patience and cryptically imploring them to subscribe to Jay-Z’s Tidal streaming service. Was this preparation for an incoming release, or just a bit of publicity for his label head? In support of the former hypothesis was the fact that Goldwatch simply tweeted “1.7.17”, appended with one of Electronica’s favoured hashtags: #AreYouWatchingClosely? Of course, given that Into the Light was also yet to materialise, it came as little surprise when (assuming that he was using US conventions for the date) January 7th passed by without fanfare.

* * *

And thus, we arrive in the present. I was inspired to write this piece largely due to Jays both Z and Electronica appearing in the news not too long ago to talk about – what else? – Patents of Nobility. In a reaffirmation of the album’s completed state, Hov made a public plea for the pair to “go put the album out”. Surely, you would think, the label head wanting to make it so would be enough, but if one thing above all else has become abundantly clear throughout this saga it’s that Jay the boss is perfectly fine with Jay the signee’s creative method and the repeated delays associated with it. For his part, Electronica spoke to Billboard and confirmed that “[he has] to be at a place where I’m pleased with the offering. So, it will come – it’s coming soon. Slowly but surely.” Any confidence this might have inspired, though, was swiftly blown away as he added that “an album is a false concept anyway.” Right. I see.

* * *

At the end of the day, it’s only the man himself who can say why we haven’t had the album yet, but what we know for certain is this: Jay Electronica signed to Roc Nation in 2010. It is now 2017, and although he has continued to perform live shows, contribute guest verses, and sporadically release tracks of his own, for all intents and purposes no closer to Patents of Nobility now than we have been before. What intrigues me most is the impact that this has had and will continue to have on the way that he is perceived.

There has to come a point where the promises are so numerous and so consistently unfulfilled that people just stop caring, and based on some discussions I’ve read I feel like we are nearing (or indeed may already be at) that point with Jay Electronica now. The longer the gap between Acts I and II, the more difficult it becomes to shake the idea of unfulfilled potential; that Jay Electronica will go down not as one of the greats but as the best there never was. The stronger that sentiment becomes, the more likely it is to negatively colour peoples’ perceptions of the album, if he ever deigns to release it. It would be a truly unfortunate blemish for a clearly talented artist.

In a way, though, I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t exactly what he wants. It’s clear from both his words and his actions surrounding this record that the man is a perfectionist in the most extreme sense of the word, a living embodiment of the adage that you are your own worst critic. The overwhelmingly positive response to his early work and the subsequent hype it generated would have placed on him the extreme pressure to deliver, and when one is already predisposed to that kind of perfectionism the result is a reluctance to release a product that could never hope to satisfy every expectation. It’s the same reason why I speculate we’re never going to see a Madvillainy 2.

Perhaps Jay Electronica is waiting for all but the most ardent fans to have lost interest, for expectations to be lowered to a point of near nonexistence, that he might surprise drop an album that would be more warmly received as a result. Or perhaps – and this is, of course, always a possibility – he never drops it at all. Perhaps he is content to go down as the best that never was rather than try his luck and end up just another also-ran.

Perhaps we’ll never know.

Author’s note: Although I drew this information from a number of different sources, I owe particular thanks to 1st Born Sun over on the KanyeToThe forums for posting such a detailed timeline of Jay Electronica’s career

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