Demystifying the rise, disappearance, and return of the enigmatic producer.
The mythology surrounding London experimental R&B artist Jai Paul continues to blossom.
The elusive R&B producer returned on June 1st to share two new songs––"Do You Love Her Now" and "He"––marking his first new music in six years. Along with the double b-side, Paul also officially released the 2013 demos that leaked six years ago in a new collection, dubbed Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones), as well as a lengthy text document that demystifies the controversy and the emotional toll he suffered as a result.
Jai Paul's demo of his first single, "BTSTU," made waves on Myspace in 2010, a time when people still looked to the site as the premier place to find and share music. Part of the thrill of listening was the enigma behind its creator; Paul doesn't appear in many photos, and to this day has only done one interview ever. The song was a revelation; it seemed to appear out of thin air, and soon it was everywhere. XL signed Paul and gave the song an official release in 2011, and it continued to make the digital rounds through niche music exchanges and music blogs.
"BTSTU" sounded (and still sounds) like nothing else and everything else. The influences were detectable enough––Prince, namely––but Paul's distinct production style reshaped the contours, rendering it into something else entirely. His ability to paint a visceral mood through modulations and intricate fades was enough to turn the ears of the online music community.
Here was this densely-produced, spacey, sensual track softly confronting you with rumbling bass and a synth that snaked in and out of the mix. There's Paul's arresting falsetto––"So don't try and fuck me about /You're waste and you're on your way out, yes"—that feels intimate and aloof at the same time, like making eye contact with a stranger on the subway right before it whooshes away. It's the kind of intoxicating sound that only comes around every so often, but when it does, it's unmistakable.
The songs were passed around the digital underground en masse; online tastemakers and blogs caught on, and pretty soon the hype machine was in full whirl. Paul signed to XL, followed up with another woozy, pulsating track called "Jasmine," cementing his status as an ingenue, and then he geared up to put out a debut album. Fans anxiously waited. On April 14th, 2013, a collection of 16 untitled tracks mysteriously appeared on Bandcamp but almost as soon as they went up, the material was taken down.
Speculation and confusion surrounding the already-shrouded figure spread: some wondered whether this was Paul's way of self-releasing his songs despite his XL contract, or if someone had stolen his work and was trying to profit from it. It turned out to be the latter. Paul released a statement "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." But the damage was done and the songs were already out in the ether (to many eager fan's satisfaction), and there was no way to stop the snowball effect. The money was refunded, and the songs were pulled, but Paul left the music scene without a trace.
The leak caused Jai Paul to withdraw from the public eye, but it wasn't clear at the time just how much of an emotional toll the entire ordeal took on his career and creative process. In the document he just released, Paul explains that he still doesn't know how the music was stolen but he suspects a burned CD. He goes on to clear up the timeline of events, which included an investigation by the London Police. Paul lost his trust in the music community after fans did not believe him, and now he's found a way to return to making music through going to therapy and founding the Paul Institute with his brother. Among other things, he discusses his decision to release the leaked tape, Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones), officially in its still unfinished state. The full statement is available to read over on Pitchfork.
Now that Bait Ones and the double B-side sequel are here, it's hard to predict how fan's perception will shift. Fans no longer have to listen to poorly mixed versions from the Reddit Black Market, but somewhere in that searching, sharing, and speculation, the mythology around Paul's legacy took shape.
The story of Jai Paul reads as both cautionary and emblematic. Born out of the proto-streaming age, rising during the end of the wave of Indie Rock, disappearing through the tyranny of social media, and returning when the Spotify algorithm reigns supreme, his music now exists in a kind of vacuum. Going forward, it will be interesting to see how and if Paul's music will mold to the current pop paradigm or if he will forever exist as an outlier whose presence is eclipsed by his absence.
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As Black Lives Matter protests have rightfully taken the world by storm over the past couple of months, we're long overdue for thorough evaluations of just how often aspects of Black heritage have been co-opted by white audiences.
It should be obvious that much of fashion and music as we know it today was invented by Black people. We (hopefully) all know by now that we can no longer accept Blackface and use of the n-word by non-Black people as the norm—and Internet users have tried "canceling" offenders in the public eye, with varying degrees of success.