May 5, 2010

mos-def-talib-kweli-jay-electronica-diddy.jpg

Jay Electronica is not the messiah, but he is messianic. His mission is to bring “the game back.”  I do not believe that the game needs to be saved. And even if Electronica was the savior, no one would ever believe that Puff Daddy would have anything to do with his return, unless the new chosen one really liked Ciroc Vodka, yachts, St. Bart’s, voting and/or dying. But even if he never drops an album, let alone revolutionizes the genre, Jay Elect will have already done hip-hop a great service by reminding rappers that there are other routes for stardom other than the Lil Wayne/Gucci Mane model of flooding the market with mixtapes.

While many of his peers think nothing of writing 100 tracks a year to stay in the limelight, Electronica has taken the exact opposite tack, causing each leaked song to be treated by his growing acolytes like Moses descending from Sinai. The fact that this post exists means that I’m equally guilty. Though I’m not naive enough to believe these are just random acts of providence randomly Tweeted via spontaneity and the magic of “Nobody Beats The” Biz Stone. Jay is too smart and backed by too many savvy and invested individuals to rely on such an uncalculated attack.

New York Magazine recently claimed that the latest hip-hop trend is “major label rappers staying independent,” but Electronica had Dilla beats on Style Wars, and Erykah Badu and Just Blaze on initial breakthrough “Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge). Clearly, the organic nature of his  ascent was at least partially prodded by a strategy involving major industry figures (not these guys). Or maybe I’m a conspiracy theorist and Sean Combs found his number in the New Orleans yellow pages under “electricians.”

 Puff Daddy Is Currently The Defendant in a Class-Action Suit Vs. The Family’s of Those Who Chose the Latter Option

28262-voteordie.jpg

Everyone’s waiting on the album, but at this point, expectations are so stratospheric that barring an Illmatic-level instant-classic, it’s unclear how much he’d even benefit from an official release. After all, “Exhibit C” earned radio play and enormous attention without the backing of Interscope, Universal, Warner, or Atlantic. Hell, even the trailer for the “Dear Moleskine” video received wide circulation within the usual circles. If the current paper money is blog posts and Tweets, all an album does is get people talking for a few weeks and then you get have to back in line trying to compete for homepage space with Drake’s cover artwork. While the Wale Theorem proves that all the New Music Cartel clogging in the world can’t compete with the exposure provided by a hit single, or opening up for Mos Def, or getting beats from Just Blaze, or the imprimatur of Puff Daddy, who as Doc Zeus pointed out, continues to prove that his “primary talent is surrounding himself with far more talented individuals and making it seem like he was doing THEM a favor by gracing them with his presence.”

It’s been widely documented that you can do just fine without releasing retail albums, but Electronica’s the first rapper in a long time to blow up off the strength a few great songs — earning bookings at Bonnaroo, appearances on everywhere from Shade 45 to Gilles Peterson, and selling out two nights at London’s famous Jazz Cafe. In fact, I suspect the only thing he really needs an album for is to firmly entrench his status as one of his generation’s greats. Which is where “The Ghost of Christopher Wallace” comes in, with its unsubtle attempt to place Jay squarely in the lineage of the Notorious Big.

Electronica has repeatedly indicated that the song isn’t a Biggie tribute, but rather an attempt to channel the spirit of ’94. But from its title to Puffy ad-libbing everything but “Bad Boy…Come Out and Play…”it’s clearly intended to usher in a new phase of Electronica’s career: from rising prospect to putative King of New York (even if he’s from New Orleans).  For all Puffy’s grating qualities, he’s always been a brilliant marketer and talent scout (G Dep aside) and judging from his declaration that “this is the start of something big,” one can assume that we’re about to be blitzed by a weird combination of ersatz grassroots and big business marketing tactics.

“I Only Work With the Great Ones”

 g-dep.jpg

In “Exhibit C,” Jay attacked New York rappers for calling Southern rappers lame, and then “jacking their slang,” and on “Ghost,” he shouts out Baton Rouge, but this is clearly a bid to win the 30-something crowd weaned on New York boom-bap, who tuned out when Rawkus decided to go the way of the Last Emperor. Consonant with the spirit of the nascent 90s revival, Electronica pitches his voice several octaves lower, mimicking Big like a pre-prison Shyne, and declaring “the game ain’t the same since B.I.G died and “Wu swarmed on New York from out that bee hive.” He even appropriates a few Christopher Wallace lines a la Jay-Z.

Strangely enough, his actual style bears little resemblance to Biggie — a rapper with a natural pop flair who had no qualms about boasting about his wealth. Of course, Biggie was multi-faceted and it’s likely that Electronica prefers “The Warning” to “Hypnotize”–  unless his ardor for having sex on rugs that’s Persian has yet to be evinced.  Thus far, he’s shown no desire to cross-over, taking ringtone rappers in his scope and dropping 5 percenter and lit-nerd references everywhere. On “The Ghost of Christopher Wallace,” his name-drops of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky feel slightly patronizing within their non-sequitur context –the sort of thing to convince those who have never read The Idiot to think you’re “mad deep.” If anything, Electronica comes off like more of a cross between MF Doom and Nas (who he’s also paid tribute to), lacking inherent commercial appeal, but gifted enough to sustain a large fanbase for a long time.

This lack of pop sensibility explains the mutually symbiotic B.F.F. relationship with Puffy. While Puffy’s co-sign might be worthless within the ever-dwindling purist circles, the world at large continues to see him as a viable tastemaker — of course, none of these people saw Da Band. On “Ghost of Christopher Wallace,” Puffy blathers that he only works with the great ones (obviously  forgetting Loon), which is his way of heralding Electronica’s arrival as one of the new greats —  even though Biggie was only four years older to Electronica. Conversely, a rapper with an ostensibly limited mainstream appeal is able to sidestep the underground labels that would otherwise dog him. It also finds him joining forces with maybe the only person with ambitions more grandiose and epic than his own (such turgid tendencies partially explain why Electronica finds a spiritual kinship with Russian novelists who write tomes thicker than tires).

Granted, “Ghost of Christopher Wallace,” won’t supplant “Over” on Hot 97 playlists anytime soon, but its blend of bombast and lyrical facility might be the sort of thing to strike a balance of commercial and underground appeal — one that satisfies the fanbases of both B.O.B. and Brother Lynch Hung’s. It’s not quite great, but it’s quite good, and Electronica seems to understand that in 2010, it’s more important to be inspired by Biggie’s ideas rather than his blueprint. Though it’s slightly troubling that he’s decided to use the same architect. –Weiss

Download:
MP3: Jay Electronica – “The Ghost of Christopher Wallace”
MP3: Jay Electronica – “A Million in the Morning”

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!