When the novelist Harper Lee broke a 55 year vow of silence and published her second novel this July, entitled Go Set a Watchman, many observers were left in shock. The Alabama native has consistently affirmed in the years since the release of her first and only other novel To Kill a Mockingbird that she would never publish a follow-up book. Mockingbird - a Pulitzer Prize winning classic widely regarded as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century - had been followed by years of almost total silence from the reclusive author.
When Lee was asked in a 2011 interview why she had never published another novel, the writer replied:
“Two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again.”
For such a perfectionist, the publication of a second novel - which is in fact an early draft of Mockingbird itself - is out of character; it is well known that Lee shelved at least two finished projects because they did not meet the exacting standards set by her first novel. Whatever the motivation or behind-the-scenes events concerning the publication of Watchman, it is clear that even with the existence of an inferior second novel published during her lifetime, Lee will be remembered for one book alone. This is not an unheard of legacy in literature; Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, Plath’s The Bell Jar, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and Ellison’s Invisible Man were all one-off novels, while Franz Kafka became one of the most influential writers of the century by publishing only a few very short stories, and Marcel Proust spent thirteen years writing his monumental classic In Search of Lost Time, the only novel for which he is widely known.
Perfectionism is a psychological trait closely related to obsessive compulsive disorder. It is a mindset whereby the highest possible standard is the only acceptable one, and the highest quality outcome - impervious to criticism - is imperative in every endeavor. Perfectionists tend to base their own sense of self-worth on their perceived ability to meet such unrelenting and unrealistic standards. For instance, obsessive perfectionists may notice a blemish on a single leaf of a plant, and instead of clipping off just that individual leaf, the perfectionist will feel unable to do anything but uproot and discard the entire plant because it is imperfect. They will wear themselves into the ground in an endlessly repeating exponential cycle of high ambition, obsessive work ethic, and harsh self-criticism.
It is interesting to consider that there are creative entities in every field who fit this mindset. Just as works like Mockingbird are held by the creator as their ultimate achievement unable of equal through any future project, and works like In Search of Lost Time are obsessively worked on for decades, directors like Terrence Malick and Richard Linklater have consistently played with extremely long breaks between projects and extended developmental processes for their films. Over the years, many musicians have been through or are going through a similar process.
Portishead took eleven years to release their album Third, The Avalanches have never followed up their 2000 debut Since I Left You, and it has been nine years since Tool’s 10,000 Days record. Perhaps it is no coincidence that all of these artists are supremely talented creators, whose existing works have each been complex masterpieces; perhaps the perfectionistic mindset is after all an asset to producing such works. Over the last 20 years the actor Sir Daniel Day Lewis has only appeared in seven films; he is also perhaps the finest actor of our time.
Famed producer and rapper Dr. Dre spent sixteen years following the release of his second record, 1999’s 2001, working on a project that was originally intended to be released in 2005, then re-announced in 2011. Rumoured to have been completed, scrapped, and remade multiple times over the years, as of September 2014 Dre had composed as many as 300 beats for the album. The project’s working title Detox became a synonym for drawn-out, hugely-anticipated records that seem destined never to be released. Then, this August the good doctor announced that he would not be releasing Detox after all, and instead announced that his final studio album would be released almost immediately, entitled Compton. Via his Beats 1 radio show The Pharmacy, Dre said of the scrapped Detox:
“I didn’t like it. It wasn’t good. The record, it just wasn’t good. […] I worked my ass off on it. I don’t think I did a good enough job, and I couldn’t do that to my fans, and I couldn’t do that to myself, to be perfectly honest with you.”
Dre later added, in a cover story interview wth Rolling Stone:
"I had between 20 and 40 songs for Detox, and I just couldn't feel it. Usually I can hear the sequence of an album as I'm going, but I wasn't able to do that. I wasn't feeling it in my gut. So I really thought I was done being an artist."
2014 saw the similarly unlikely return of two famously reclusive, highly talented musicians: Aphex Twin’s album Syro and D’Angelo’s Black Messiah were the results of developmental processes totalling thirteen and fourteen years, respectively. Both records were - perhaps un-coincidentally - critically lauded, massively rewarding comebacks. Their Detox-level waits payed off.
In contemporary music, to my mind there currently exist two very similar, thoroughly un-prolific, supremely enigmatic, cult hero artists. Popular outliers who operate in self-imposed exile, they are not one hit wonders, but rather - since releasing highly acclaimed early singles - have chosen not to capitalise on their success, and have instead been working obsessively on full-length projects. Both have been releasing music since 2007.
These two artists are the London experimental R&B singer Jai Paul, whose eight year career has resulted in just over seven minutes of music, and the New Orleans rapper Jay Electronica, who has about nine minutes of officially released music to his name. Though musically and professionally unrelated, their careers nevertheless run in parallel and form the basis for a compelling insight into creativity, the modern demand for prolific output, and the duel between perfectionism and today’s decreasing attention spans.
Jai Paul hails from Rayners Lane, London, and he is signed to XL Recordings. His first demo BTSTU was a breakthrough success in 2007 that gained exposure through DJs like Zane Lowe. Hushed, half-whispered vocals open the track, and there is a marked juxtaposition between Paul’s plaintive falsetto and the lyrical threat: “Don’t fuck with me, don’t fuck with me…” As the song gains momentum, a sparse click-clack drumbeat and loud, distorted bass synths are introduced. Paul chants over the top, again and again: “I know I’ve been gone a long time/ But I’m back and I want what is mine.”
As BTSTU builds, Paul employs his considerable production talents to ramp up the intensity of the track's futuristic electro-soul. Woozy saxophones, backing harmonies, and electronic flourishes form a casually chaotic mix; elements of to-the-moment underground experimentalism and guaranteed pop hooks collide in spectacular fashion. BTSTU was the sort of debut single that marks the emergence of a unique, brilliant talent. It was later more widely released in edited form in 2011 and sampled by Drake and Beyoncé. At that point, Jai Paul’s career was looking very promising and very conventional.
In 2012, three years after his first single debuted, Paul released his second track, the demo version of a song called Jasmine. Even following the high bar set by BTSTU, Jasmine took everyone by surprise; on his second ever release, Paul embodied every inch the future-funk R&B swagger of decorated veterans like Prince. Seldom had we heard such an irrepressibly funky, groove-driven song. Opening with an ominous sub bass churn and swirling psychedelic noise, the song quickly settles into its rhythm, and it's pure magic.
Simple drums with tasteful percussive elements, throbbing bass notes, jazzy electric guitar chords and warped lead playing, syncopated bubbly synthetic melodies, and Paul’s barely-audible whisper vocals form the basis of the track. Jasmine has an ebb and flow unique to itself, growing in intensity much as BTSTU did before it, yet constantly receding into its quiet introverted dance refrain. Every now and then we catch a word of the lyrics, and the love-worn theme of the track is always unmistakable, yet Paul constantly sounds as though he is being smothered by the noise, fighting against his futuristic band. The synthesisers grow louder, more distorted as the track moves on, and Paul muses barely loud enough to hear: “When I see you, Jasmine/ What’s a boy to do?/ Please come back to me/ Make my dreams come true.”
Jasmine carries a completely indefinable element; it is recognisable as the work of the artist who brought us BTSTU, sure, but it has a life of its own. The words funk and understated don’t usually go together, nor do danceable and beautiful, and yet Jasmine is each of these and so much more. Retro futuristic alien humanist pop music made by a clear master of his craft, Jasmine (Demo) and BTSTU were unforgettable. Following back-to-back (no matter how far apart) releases of two tracks like these, Paul was set for the sort of alternative-but-still-huge international superstardom recently achieved by artists like Frank Ocean.
Then nothing happened. Paul has not released any more music, has sent only one tweet out via his official account, has not given any interviews, and has only occasionally been seen in pictures. He has been working though, allegedly with alternative R&B singer Miguel, who in late 2014 posted a rare Instagram picture of the two together.
The only other hint of other music from Paul’s secretive catalogue came in 2013. On 14 April 2013, an anonymous user uploaded a record to Bandcamp that they claimed to be Paul’s debut album. Several sources including Pitchfork Media reported that the release posted to Bandcamp was in fact Paul’s official first album, however the following day Paul used his singular official tweet to confirm the rumours of the music being an unofficial, illegal download. XL Recordings later confirmed that the songs were “a collection of various unfinished recordings from Jai’s past,” rumoured to have been stolen from the singer. PayPal issued refunds to all those who had purchased the fake album, though conspiracy theories continue to surround the release. Even so, several publications including Pitchfork, the Guardian, and Pretty Much Amazing, ranked the collection of randomly assembled unfinished recordings on their Best of 2013 lists.
The unfinished songs were technicolour masterpieces, kaleidoscopically borrowing varying genre elements, samples of world music, and highly unconventional electronic wizardry and blending them into Paul’s established, utterly singular pop music amalgam. Colourful, fun, and exciting tunes that - when developed - could potentially have comprised an album that delivered on Paul’s obvious promise. Nevertheless, as the songs included in the Bandcamp leak were at the time they were stolen, no tracks of the calibre of BTSTU or Jasmine were to be found. One suspects that Paul may have found the leak of such promising but very much unfinished music maddening.
We have yet to hear another word from Paul. He is undoubtedly talented, working hard, and yet taking his time. Paul appears to not be in any rush to release his music; content to let the hype generated by his two singles come and go without capitalising on it, content to let his name be forgotten by the unforgiving blogosphere - for the time being at least.
Only one other artist of modern times seems to exist within the same universe as Jai Paul. Jay Electronica first entered into the public consciousness with the release of his fifteen minute recording Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge). Essentially comprised of Electronica rapping over a looped section of Jon Brion’s classic soundtrack to the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the highly unconventional piece was released as a free download via MySpace in 2007, the same year Jai Paul released the BTSTU demo.
Act I was comprised of five distinct movements, raps by Electronica, snippets of sampled dialogue including scenes from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and spoken word pieces by producer Just Blaze and singer Erykah Badu, who describe their early encounters with the young Electronica. Above all else, the most striking element of Act I was undoubtedly Electronica’s unprecedentedly complex lyricism; seldom had we seen a rapper so cerebral, so rich in allusion, metaphor, and simile. Sites like the lyric annotation service Genius were founded for artists like Electronica; years of delving into the deep scriptural, scientific, and cultural references contained in his music have still to uncover every complexity hidden in his rhymes.
“Mayan, Aztec lion/ Asiatic Blackman from Zion/ Quetzalcoatl supreme, letting off steam/ Dimethyltryptamine make a man dream/ But y’all would much rather hear me rapping ’bout trash/ The size of Erykah’s ass, blunts and cash/ We need saving/ Minds are consumed with swine, we need bathing,” Electronica raps, and one peek into the multi-layered references in each of these lines gives us a peek into the overflowing higher-consciousness of this rapper. "Voodoo man, civilize the savage/ Criticize the parish/ Spreading false doctrine/ Terrorise the cleric for carrying on nonsense/ Specialized lies to paralyze the conscience."
Electronica was born in the Magnolia Projects of New Orleans, one of the most impoverished and dangerous neighbourhoods of America. He spent most of his years as a youth living as a nomad, travelling from his home to Philadelphia, Baltimore, Detroit, New York, and Atlanta. He is still actively making music, but has only ever appeared on a handful of guest features and released scattered online demos as free downloads, along with just two official singles, which both came in 2009 following Act I. Exhibit A and Exhibit C were stomping, Just Blaze-produced monsters; staggering displays of lyrical finesse that made Electronica a household name with old-school hip hop heads.
“When I was sleeping on the train, sleeping on Meserole Ave out in the rain/ Without even a single slice of pizza to my name/ Too proud to beg for change, mastering the pain,” he raps on the latter track, tracing the origins of his story. He even addresses the frustration of his peers and mentors with Electronica’s unconventional work ethic: “Nas hit me up on the phone, said ‘What you waitin’ on?‘/ Tip hit me up with a tweet, said ‘What you waitin’ on?’/ Diddy send a text every hour on the dot saying/ ‘When you gon drop that verse nigga you taking long?’/ So now I’m back spitting that ‘he could pass a polygraph’/That Reverend Run rocking Adidas out on Hollis Ave/ That FOI, Marcus Garvey, Niki Tesla/ I shock you like an eel, electric feel, Jay Electra.”
Yet Electronica’s promises have largely gone unanswered. In July 2011, the rapper tweeted that his debut album Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn) was complete, and yet no singles have eventuated. Little to no concrete detail of the album has emerged, and aside from Electronica's scattered singles and one-offs, we have yet to hear a complete project from him.
Electronica is a gifted producer besides his talents as a performer. He has crafted the beats for many of his own songs and for others, even creating the incredible musical backing of Nas’s 2008 song Queens Get the Money. He has a knack for using looped samples to devastating effect, and an obvious distaste for introducing unnecessary drums. Few have the confidence to rap over beat-less tracks, yet Electronica delves headfirst into musically intricate, melody-focused surrounds.
His deep voice carries a southern drawl that tells of hard knocks and a tough life lived. Guest features on tracks by artists like Common, Big Sean, and Mac Miller are instantly recognisable by not only Electronica’s rough growl, but by the immediate juxtaposition of any subject matter chosen by his peers to that Electronica explores. Fathoms-deep metaphor and intricate imagery paint pictures like ancient religious paintings that must be picked apart in order to be understood. What at times seems simple, even obvious, is almost always deceptively so; Electronica’s lyrics are intelligently crafted forays into advanced wordplay and dense street poetry.
On Mac Miller’s Suplexes Inside of Complexes & Duplexes, Electronica’s verse is absurdly contrasted with Miller’s simplistic rhymes. It’s one of Electronica's best ever moments, spiralling from Wizard of Oz references, which - along with The Prestige and Willy Wonka - is one of the rapper’s favourite sources for cultural association, into a meditation on his own place within the rap industry. “Mr. Candyman, the parables parabolic/ The poetry’s like the poems and psalms of Ecclesiastes/ Lightning should strike the stone and then Moses should make a tablet/ The Judge will bang the wood up in parliament with the mallet/ And yell ‘Hear, Hear,’ finally some order to this rap shit/ Finally some sort of water to soil these cracked lips,” Electronica raps during some of the standout lines from his verse. It’s delightfully complex, knowingly deep stuff, and every guest verse from Electronica has the knack of lifting the tone of whatever song he’s featured on.
Despite his intermittent and extended absences, we have no reason to think that the quality of Electronica’s work has been decreasing. On March 15, 2014, the rapper released the song Better in Tune With the Infinite via SoundCloud, and the stunning piano-and-string-based track (rumoured to be intended for inclusion on Act II) is perhaps Electronica’s finest work to date.
“It’s frustratin’ when you just can’t express yourself/ And it’s hard to trust enough to undress yourself/ To stand exposed and naked, in a world full of hatred/ Where the sick thoughts of mankind control all the sacred/ I pause, take a step back, record all the setbacks/ Fast forward towards the stars and the jetpacks/ My feet might fail me, my heart might ail me/ The synagogues of Satan might accuse and jail me/ Strip, crown, nail me, brimstone hail me/ They might defeat the flesh but they could never ever kill me,” Electronica muses at his poetic best, to devastating effect. Every word on Better in Tune With the Infinite is precisely chosen, and utterly compelling. It is a song that should be required listening for anybody with even a passing interest in truly visionary, inventive modern music. “That name on that birth certificate, that ain’t the real me/ The lies can’t conceal me/ The sun rise and the moon tides and the sky’s gon’ reveal me/ My brain pours water out my tear ducts to heal me/ My Lord’s too beneficent/ The message grab a hold to every ear it get whispered in/ The waters in the bayous of New Orleans still glistening/ The universe is listening, be careful what you say in it/ My grandma told me every bed a nigga make, he lay in it/ The church you go to pray in it, the work is on the outside/ Staring out the window is for love songs and house flies.”
Better in Tune With the Infinite opens with a sample from an interview with controversial Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, and the scripturally rich sentiment is undoubtedly Electronica’s unique way of indirectly addressing his mysterious, unpredictable withdrawal from popular conventionalism. He could not speak to his confused critics in a more subtle, charismatic way, as through Elijah Muhammad's voice:
“If one would open up truth, such as the truth of God to the people, I do think that He’s within his rights to stay out of the sight of the people until He has won everything to Himself; as the Bible refers to it like this: He’s something like a king looking for a kingdom. And that He goes and he visits the people, then He leaves the people, goes away and waits until the time when that He can secure the kingdom. Then He returns to the people that He had made Himself manifest to.”
Here, Electronica uses a civil rights reference to allude to scripture, and at the same time he effortlessly captures the mindset of a perfectionistic recluse. These talented artists Jai Paul and Jay Electronica exist on the periphery of their industry, perhaps unsure, but certainly intent. They have made themselves manifest to us, and as their talent crystallises within themselves, they focus on the long game; they plot for the day when they will “secure the kingdom”, when they decide their music is ready for the world and the world is ready for their music.
Perhaps the clearest peek into Electronica’s - in fact into any artist's - perfectionism comes during the closing moments of Better in Tune With the Infinite, with the beautiful outro sung by LaTonya Givens. It is here that we see and understand the reason for the enigmatic Electronica’s many delays, for his creative indecision and perfectionistic overworking. Electronica lets the devastatingly powerful end of his song to delve deep into his mind and plainly exorcise the creative process behind constructing a classic. “Yesterday is gone/Tomorrow is on the way/ You don’t have time to waste,” go the closing words, sung as they are with intense, overwhelming earnestness: “Gotta get it right.”
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