The Curious Case of Jai Paul with Detectives Porter and Treske

PORTER: J.D. Salinger. Dave Chappelle. Freaks and Geeks. All three received critical acclaim in their early runs, but then things got in the way of their continued success. After Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was published, he became reclusive and never had a book reach that magnitude of popularity again. The first two seasons of Chappelle’s Show were beloved by any person with cognitive capacity, but the pressures of fame and a $50M contract to continue the show caused Dave to leave the project. We didn’t hear from him for about ten years. And Freaks and Geeks didn’t last after its first season because executives are stupid. All of this potential and it was never fully realized. To quote my New York amigo Robert De Niro “the saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”

Treske and I don’t always see eye to eye on music. He is an avid ILoveMakonnen supporter; I can’t stand him. I love later Red Hot Chili Peppers; he thinks they’ve been trash post-Californiacation. But one artist we both are crazy about is Jai Paul. We both agree he is beaming with potential, but at the same time we're nervous about the direction his career will go.

In this feature, we will try to break down just who Jai Paul is, why he is a big deal, and ask if he will ever produce sustained genius that he has consistently hinted at.

TRESKE: One of the most notable things about Jai Paul is how closely he has controlled information about himself. We simply don’t know that much. In an age when you get can ALL up in someone’s business with a mere Google dalliance he stands as a complete and utter mystery. His Wikipedia bio section reads, “Jai Paul, (born June 1988) is a British singer, songwriter and recording artist from Rayners Lane, United Kingdom. He is signed to XL Recordings.” There isn’t even a date that we know he was born! Even if I wanted to send him a happy birthday tweet, I can't (GIVE ME SOCIAL MEDIA AFFIRMATION JAI… PRETTY PLEASE). He is a virtual ghost.

But let’s get back to the Wiki, because the following quote is perhaps the most revelatory thing I read on the page; naturally, it is not a quote from the possibly existing Jai Paul. Richard Russell, the founder of XL Recordings said this:

 “Jai is a wizard… the way he is going about things is, I think for many, baffling. But… he’s going about things in the most Jai Paul way you could go about things.”

So wait, does that mean Jai is actually a wizard? Or does he just have a wand from Harry Potter World and proclaim, “EXPELLIARMUS” at odd times? How am I supposed to make sense of a “Jai Paul way” when I know nothing about him?

So after all that biographical research, we pretty much know as much as you do about Jai Paul. That was about as productive as Helen Keller playing darts…

So what’s his sound like anyways, Porter?

PORTER: Jai Paul has created a signature sound that I haven’t heard before. His production is deliberately lo-fi--usually created by some sort of distorted synth sound--as if he was creating it from GarageBand in his mother’s basement (which is a possibility seeing as how we know so little about him). At the same time, its scratchy low quality sound is matched by elaborated layering. He creates these drum machine beats to cut through the static-synth void. He then adds simple layer of live instrumentation of vocals to give it a human touch.

Over said production is his voice, mostly done in a whispery falsetto but also in modal tone when necessary (singers jargon, sorry bout it). And while Paul’s voice not rangy, it has a nice tone. That is, it sounds nice from what can be heard through the lo-fi production.

He has released two songs officially, and the third got leaked and blew up, so we are going to go ahead and profile each for you.

TRESKE: Let’s start where it all began. "BTSTU" was released in 2011 and is an absolutely gobsmacking statement. Imagine if your first public lyrics as an artist were, “Don’t fuck with me/Don’t fuck with me”. Are you kidding me?! That is the most OG thing since Babe Ruth called his shots. It is what follows that is truly extraordinary though. The drum strikes, the slinky, dark, funk synth takes over, and we are taken to an inordinately cool, distorted, and whispered land of musical wonder. This is an assured statement if there ever was one. This is an artist that dropped the proverbial mic as soon as he picked it up. The sound was, and remains, singular and cooler than the other side of the pillow… a pillow that happens to be in Siberia (RIP Stu, We love you).

PORTER: I knew “BTSTU” as the sample that Drake covered in “Dreams Money Can Buy” before I heard it on How to Make it in America (a criminally underrated show btw, maybe I should’ve included that in our intro). But the first conscious listen I had of Jai Paul was “Jasmine”.

The opening heartbeat synth and drum kick paradoxically works with the electric guitar riff. Throw in some toms and the song is great for feeling like a badass as you walk down the street or drive your car. Paul pleads for Jasmine to take him back in a whispery falsetto:

When I see her, Jasmine
What’s a guy to do?
Please come back to me,
Make my dream come true.

The song was a hit: Pitchfork named it Best New Music, BBC Radio One DJ Zane Lowe named it his Next Hype Track, and DJ Annie Mac named it Record of the Week. It made its way into Grand Theft Auto V and got rave reviews from The New York Times and The Guardian. The legend of Jai Paul grew larger...

TRESKE: With this song, the legend was cemented. "BTSTU" and "Jasmine" showed that Jai can do the whole badass, slow-simmering tune in his sleep; this banger showed his range. It is pure pop splendor in the most innovative way imaginable. A 21st Century ode to the positive side of globalization and cultural fusion. It is a tornado of sonic pleasure. An absolute thrill backed with South Asian drums, swirling synths, distorted guitar jabs, horns that appear out of thin air, claps, shouts, and with a GORGEOUS Hindi vocal loop to tie it all together. It is breathless and endlessly invigorating. It is also low-key a beautiful song about unrequited love:

But you know I’ll do anything for you
I’ll do anything for you
You’re so willing to let me
But you’re not going to do anything for me.

“Hi, my name is Jai Paul and I am going to wile' out on y'all by sampling this little ditty. How trill am I? Too trill.”

PORTER: Not only has he made all of this good music alone, but he also collaborated with Big Boi and Little Dragon on “Higher Res”. This song is further proof that it’s not just music bloggers and musicheads that were vibing to his sound. Oh, and his recent Instagram appearance with Miguel doesn’t hurt either (he's on the right).

So Treske, we’ve discussed his work and it seems like he has worthy potential. What else is it about Jai that makes him so intriguing and mysterious?

TRESKE: I think there a couple of factors that play into the intrigue surrounding Jai. The first (and most important) being that his product is fantastic. It is like if you went to an ice cream shop and had a sample of the best shit you have ever had and then weren’t allowed to get a couple scoops of it. It just isn’t right. Two, I think it speaks to the age in which we are in. Nowadays it takes more work to remain out of the public eye than in it and fame-seeking is completely intuitive. Jai is clearly doing all that he can to eschew the attention that his music produces.

Why is that? What is his deal? We are a culture that demands instantaneous sharing and gratification. We want to be immersed in something, chew it up, and spit it out. We post pictures the second after the actual moments occur, we tweet, we blog, we binge-watch, we torrent discographies, we chop funny videos into six hilarious seconds on Vine… Jai withholding anything from the public is completely contrary to post-Internet norms. Just like anything different, this naturally creates intrigue and mystery.

So speaking of withholding stuff, just what is the deal with that leaked album, Porter?

PORTER: On April 14, 2013 a Bandcamp user under Jai's name released sixteen songs that were for sale for £7. The songs matched his sound and included “BTSTU”, “Jasmine”, and “Str8 Outta Mumbai”. Pitchfork reported that it was indeed his album and the music blogosphere exploded. The album was taken down by XL Recordings (his label) the next day and Jai issued this statement a few days later. It is the only public statement he's ever made:

To confirm: demos on bandcamp were not uploaded by me, this is not my debut album. Please don’t buy. Statement to follow later. Thanks, Jai.

A few days later, XL released a official press release stated that the album was a leak consisting of “various unfinished recordings from Jai’s past” lifted from a stolen laptop. Others believe that this was a publicity stunt put on by XL to draw positive publicity to Jai’s upcoming album. No matter what the actual story is, one thing became apparent: Jai Paul’s hype had reached critical mass.

Twenty-two months later we have yet to hear any new music from Jai Paul but the hype on him remains sky high. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this matter, Treske: in Jai Paul’s case, are we celebrating an artist’s mystique or his potential body of work?

TRESKE: I think that this is a case of mystique being entirely created by the limitless potential that his works hints at. Suppose Jai Paul’s work was akin to How to Dress Well; excellent, yes, but not potentially genre-defining. Would we care nearly as much? Would it be as significant that he controls his music and image so closely? I think that any listener can say that Jai’s sound is singular and most would say it is brilliant. He is more interested in synthesis than he is redux. His potential to create new soundscapes and persists with his adventurous tendencies is what creates his mystique.

So with that said, why do you think that we are so fascinated with potential?

PORTER: There’s both a shallow way and a deep way to answer this question. The shallow answer is because we as listeners love to be the first to lay claim to a new artist. We believe that siding with an artist before anyone else gives us “hipster cred”, a form of social currency to gain credibility amongst our peers. It’s similar to being that kid in elementary school who had light up shoes before anyone else: we all thought it was cool, copied them, and gave them credit until that fad ended with the introduction to yo-yos or Pokémon cards.

The deeper answer is that humanity celebrates greatness. We spend hours having these trivial arguments about Top 5 rappers and the like because we admire them and are jealous of their accomplishments. We have a terrible habit of speaking in hyperbole about things we admire because we want to say that we’ve recognized their talent, even if said talent isn't worthy of such praise. By seeing and recognizing a potential prodigy before they reach greatness gives us a chance to feel like we played a role in person’s greatness, no matter how negligible (or nonexistent) of a role we really play. In most cases, the greats are the King Lear or Hamlet to our Tree #2.

(Ed. Note: Those facial markings are Hindu symbols most commonly used as a charm to bring good fortune)

Treske, is there an artist that would make a good comparison to the current stature of Jai Paul?

TRESKE: Musically, it is difficult to find a talent that is analogous because many artists that exhibited such potential and never persisted (like The Stone Roses, The Velvet Underground, etc.) released full-length albums. In searching for the right comparison, I am going to the world of sports.

I would compare Jai Paul’s current stature directly to post-Kentucky Anthony Davis: an anointed and undeniably talented individual who has not yet proved it at a level of depth. Jai’s album is akin to Anthony’s first three NBA seasons… His time to prove it’s real. Either way we have the highs of "Jasmine", "BTSTU", and "Str8 Outta Mumbai", but the thought of a full-length is mouth-watering.

PORTER: With all that being said, can we come to a conclusion on Jai Paul? Do we buy into the hype?

TRESKE: I am ALL IN. I think we have a genius on our hands. Within three releases, Jai Paul has created a sound that other artists are directly emulating. That is the result of prodigious talent and vision… All the makings of a genius. Listen to Ben Khan or the song “Fiction” by Harriet Brown and the Astronauts etc. and tell me you don’t hear Jai’s fingerprints ALL over their music. I think Jai can, and will, drive and shape music as we know it. The only potential album I am more excited for in 2015 is Frank Ocean’s, AKA, a genius.

PORTER: I think that Jai Paul is a prototypical talent, and that he has the potential to be a groundbreaking artist. We haven’t seen many (if any) artists like him, which makes his story all the more exciting. But I think it’s too early to call him a “genius”. We call Frank Ocean a genius because he has an album and two mixtapes rather than a few songs. D’Angelo disappeared too, but he had Brown Sugar and Voodoo to earn his genius label. It’s difficult to make a rational judgement off of only two songs and I think that his hype is heavily influenced by his potential. Rather than seeing him as an Anthony Davis, my best comparison for him is Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo: he’s a relatively obscure talent (outside of those who follow things like that) who has shown flashes of brilliance, but I’d like to see more work out of him before we crown him.

Hopefully we hear that work from him this year, or at all. The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.