Revisiting… Jay Electronica’s ‘Act I: The Pledge’
While everyone wonders about Jay Electronica’s whereabouts, love life and what the status of his Roc Nation debut is The Boombox enlisted early adopter sweeney kovar to revisit Electronica’s breakthrough free release, ‘Act 1: The Pledge.’
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In early 2007, even the most studious of rap nerds were unfamiliar with Jay Electronica. Sure he was active on MySpace at the time and a few songs of his were hosted on RappersIKnow.com, but before the New Orleans native born Timothy Elpadaro Thedford was a hip-hop enigma, he was simply an unknown rapper trying to “get on.”
He’d left his native New Orleans and traveled around the U.S., chasing his dream, making connections and gaining the experiences that would be the fodder for later catalog songs like ‘Exhibit C.’ As determined as he was nomadic, the idea that catapulted him from obscurity into the hip-hop world’s collective consciousness came to him while he was watching a movie one fateful night in Brooklyn.
Electronica had just finished watching Michael Gondry’s 2004 film ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,’ the offbeat story of two ex-lovers who had their memories of one another erased only to fall in love all over again. The film left Jay Elec both affected and inspired. He liked the story and liked the film’s score by Jon Brion even more. (Coincidentally, this isn’t Brion’s only hip-hop connection — the multi-instrumentalist and Fiona Apple producer also co-produced Kanye West‘s ‘Late Registration’ album.)
That night, Electronica felt compelled to appropriate the film’s score, he looped Jon Brion’s music, recorded a 32-bar verse with his laptop’s built-in microphone and uploaded it to his MySpace page. Initially, Electronica didn’t think much of the original Garage Band demo of ‘Eternal Sunshine.’ The people thought otherwise. In the weeks that followed his upload of the song, Electronica was bombarded with messages reacting to the track and the play count skyrocketed.
In an interview I did with him in late 2007, Jay shared his initial skepticism towards the reception of the project. “Initially, I thought people would dismiss it because the feel of it was so foreign but it got such a great response, I recorded songs to all of the pieces of music that moved me from the score,” he said. “I went to Detroit, recorded it and put it up.”
And so ‘Act I: The Pledge’ was born, spur of the moment, a mini-album that was eccentric and wildly ambitious. He received over 50,000 downloads within the first 30 days it was posted with no formal promotion. His MySpace page buckled under the download demand while some of his older tracks had begun to surface and were piquing the curiosity of online music fans. All of a sudden he was buzzing on both the underground and mainstream scenes. A southern rapper with the outlandish name “Jay Electronica” had the internet going nuts and, of course, the music industry began courting him. Labels wanted meetings, URB magazine gave him a cover with his then girlfriend Erykah Badu, MTV offered him a spot on a reality show and even Gym Class Heroes wanted a verse.
But what was it about this project that earned it such a response? ‘Act I’ was a musical suite presented as a single unseparated track clocking in at over 15 minutes with no discernable beat or traditional song structure — even the subject matter was left field.
Over five sections of ‘Eternal Sunshine’s’ sentimental score, Jay Electronica crafted song-pieces that explored the personal and the esoteric through his own brand of rock-hard lyricism, dexterous flow and peculiar intelligence. Just Blaze and Erykah Badu provided opening monologues, introducing Jay the person and Jay the artist as wildly original while vocal snippets from ‘Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory‘ (1971) and sound bites from Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad appeared throughout. He created an unusual sonic collage, unlike anything else in hip-hop at the time.
‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’
As the first actual song-piece in ‘Act I,’ ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ frames the project and is our first demonstration of its unorthodox structure. In simply looping the first few seconds of Jon Brion’s sublime ‘Phone Call,’ Jay created room for himself, literally and figuratively. He gave his vocals the room to be heard and his lyrics space to impact listeners.
Electronica raps, “She said she never fell in love with a Superman / Christian, Muslim, Protestant, Lutheran / I told her that being immortal is the portal to the true nature of growth / The Christ-like Buddha man.” Before he turns the verse into his treatise on rap, Jay begins with an intensely personal exchange that foreshadows future song-pieces of ‘Act I’ and immediately frames the author as a metaphysician.
What follows is a dissection of society through a hip-hop lens. He renounces the “traditional garbage” while admitting that he gets “tempted by the rewards that all come along with making ‘n—a songs.’” He declares his brand of music “God-hop” and promises to intrude into the reluctant traditional structures of distribution like TV and radio before ending by using this very verse as evidence of his prowess and ability, “I took ‘Eternal Sunshine’ and I looped it, no drums, no hooks, just new s—.”
‘…Because He Broke the Rules’
Following Jay’s mission statement, we meet a livid Willy Wonka explaining that the film’s protagonist, a little boy named Charlie, won’t be receiving his prize because he broke the rules, stealing Fizzy Lifting Drinks. Wonka cites a myriad of Latin legal verbiage that is “clear as crystal,” as Jay begins another intensely personal scene.
This time, however, instead of using it as a departure point, Jay digs his heels into the scenario of a love lost. The rules Wonka spoke of now seem to reference relationship dynamics and the crime of stealing Fizzy Lifting Drinks becomes a metaphor for some of the absurd demands and roles relationships can reinforce. Drums are still absent and even looping is forgone completely; Jay’s declarative flow is the only element punctuating the sweeping strings in Jon Brion’s ‘Collecting Things.’
We find Jay broken emotionally, failed at “the delicate art of handling hearts.” He turns ordinary tribulations of relationships into poetry through lone frozen tears cracking, fantasies of himself sprawled out in the middle of the street with a bashed skull and a particularly poignant racetrack metaphor. We’re also introduced to two ideas that Jay will revisit consistently through his subsequent work — the concept of duality and the inherent good and evil within humanity (“The right brain says to the left just kill him”) and the notion of “hecklers,” a deeper and more nuanced take on the popular “haters” as aspects of society that thrive on the gratuitous glorification of self-destruction (“Make the headlines, make the front page, wild out in the courthouse man, thrill ‘em”).
This next piece is the most cryptic, esoteric demonstration on the project. After an opening snippet of children arguing in Kurdish, Jay allows himself to go deep into the wormhole over a loop of Brion’s solemn, ominous and short ‘Postcard.’
Jay introduces the “Voodoo Man,” a character that has three incarnations in this song-piece. The first is the Voodoo Man as an MC, adding another layer to the trope of the rapper as a modern marvel who can turn nothing into something, in this case turning a “light rain” into a “thunderstorm.” The ability doesn’t come from himself though, the Voodoo Man is just a conduit. He describes the creative process as beginning with “ear ringing,” “nose bleeds” and “pressure” on his brain before cutting to a metaphysical experience inside a light prism where he’s motioned by a Christ to enter the light, at which point he awakes in front of a microphone.
The second verse in the piece finds the Voodoo Man as a thinly veiled version of what’s called “Asiatic Black Man of East Asia” in Nation of Islam theology and parlance. It is Jay adding his own creativity and myth to the idea of the black man as God, descendant from the stars, communicator with other planets and original man of planet Earth. He begins at home in New Orleans and is able to teleport to Japan, where he’s built a wheel or “disc-shaped object” (a U.F.O.) before appearing in Tepoztlán, Mexico to meditate.
Lastly, the Voodoo Man appears as a continuation of the second iteration, but instead with his eye turned to humanity. Jay is somewhat detached, “sippin’ Pellegrino,” “chewing up and s–ting out rappers” while he observes the human condition battle itself through small-minded trickery and deceit. He connects colonialism to modern hip-hop minstrelsy, observing as we go from the church “spreading false doctrine” and “spread[ing] lies to paralyze the conscience,” to cats who sell their “soul to the highest buyer,” talking about “crack,” “gats” and “two-foot tires.”
It’s important to note that although the Voodoo Man Jay has some sense of right and wrong, he does not allow himself to become too invested. He “terrorizes” the clergy and mocks the dishonest, empty-headed rapper as having his “pants on fire.”
The final piece, my personal favorite, is introduced by Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam. He reminds us to keep a cosmic perspective on the relative infancy of man on Earth before Jay’s closing verse. This section stands apart musically. If the pieces that preceded it were Jay in turmoil or deliberation, this is Jay at his most comfortable and confident. The piano solo that is ‘Row’ is the only piece of Jon Brion’s music Jay touches that can be described as optimistic or otherwise cheerful.
He opens by contrasting a menial rapper’s quest for a bracelet with France’s CNES Agency de-classifying 30 years of UFO files, highlighting the difference his worldview and that of the general public’s. He’s a “nuclear Mayan,” “Quetzalcoatl letting off steam,” an expert rhyme scientist who attracts inquiries from scholars, cracks seals in Revelations and splits atoms through his rap demonstrations. He verbalizes his aim, artistically and personally, as “trying to kill Lucifer.” Based on the personal and metaphysical frame laid out in ‘Act I,’ we can be left to deduce that “Lucifer” is a real human condition as well as a personal battle.
With a “clear understanding of the minus and plus,” Jay leaves ‘Act’ I through another Willy Wonka sample. This time the chocolatier and his guests are speeding upward in an elevator, Wonka unsure if the group will survive the imminent collision with the glass ceiling above him. Jay is “not exactly sure” what will follow ‘Act I,’ if his intent and mission will “survive” or be “cut to ribbons.” The final words in ‘Act I’ are not Jay’s but Alfred Borden’s, a character from Chris Nolan’s film ‘The Prestige,’ asking if we are watching closely.
With ‘Act I,’ Jay was able to transfer his own earnestness, insecurities and charm over the music in a way that connected with people en masse. The same human attraction that Just Blaze and Erykah Badu express in the opening monologues is evident in the entire project. He took subject matter and structures that were “all the way to the left,” like Just Blaze says, and was able to make it something that had a natural appeal.
Though his releases have been few and far in between, his fans still have a stake in the drama of Jay Electronica. We still wait to see if he can deliver, knowing what he’s capable of. There is no other rapper that could be as relevant with as small a quantity of work over such a long period of time. I, for one, feel glad that in decades to come, when whatever is to become of the legend of Jay Electronica happens, I’ll be able to look back into the late 2000s, and vividly recall the fiery arrival of this New Orleans magician through the classic piece of music that is ‘Act I.’