Back to Save the Universe

August 23, 2019

In April of 2013, a collection of demos from British artist Jai Paul appeared on Bandcamp. Via his otherwise dormant Twitter, Paul stated, “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.” That was the last we heard from him until this June.

Over those six years, Paul became an underground legend with a catalogue just 16 tracks deep, almost all of which were unfinished. Between then and 2018, Jai was so reclusive that we only had two real pieces of confirmation that he was still alive: a sighting by a reporter at XL Records headquarters and an Instagram post by singer Miguel. Yet Paul accrued a loyal following including soon-to-be higher profile artists like Anderson .Paak and Lorde. Meanwhile, on his own subreddit, half of Paul’s fans can’t point him out in group photos. Those photos, by the way, are of members of the Paul Institute, a label Paul started with his brother, AK, that began releasing music produced by the two at the end of 2017. But now Paul is releasing music again, dropping two new singles “Do You Love Her Now” and “He” and, interestingly, releasing the leaked Bandcamp album under the name “Leak 4-13 (Bait Ones),” the album that helped Paul earn his reputation.

The mystique of Paul and the leak is only amplified by the nocturnal ballads that appeared on that album. Tracks like “BTSTU,” “Jasmine,” “Zion Wolf” and “Vibin’” portrayed Paul as a shadowy, almost mystical figure. There were prophetic lyrics about returning after being gone for a long time. There were lyrics on learning wisdom from kings. The ship narrative of “BTSTU” was fitting because there were many points on the album where it felt like you were slowly being whisked out to sea. Then on tracks like Desert River, Paul would go up-tempo and proclaim himself “the face of the Earth itself.”

It all bled together to create an incredible volatility between and within the tracks. For each mysterious ballad, there was an explosive song like “Genevieve,” where Paul came off as confident, with an attitude. The abrupt and absurd way samples were interpolated is something I hadn’t heard again until JPEGMAFIA’s “Veteran.” And then there was just a cover of Jennifer Paige’s “Crush.” The mix was abrasive in a way that an official release may not be able to be. Even in 2019, the album still seems ahead of its time. Released in 2013, it was like finding something from the future that a time traveler had left behind in a dusty old barn. 

But instead of giving us some “finished” version of that album in June, Paul gave us a twist. The album is almost entirely unchanged from the April 2013 version. The biggest difference is that samples that couldn’t be cleared (like a Harry Potter scene) are replaced with silence. I can’t emphasize this enough: even the cover, a photoshopped image of Paul with an assortment of animals and footballers backing him, is the same. Any image they couldn’t get the rights to, they just pixelated.

In a message to fans, Paul described the decision to leave the album as it was “surreal.” And that’s understandable. An artist expends so much energy into their pieces and, in Paul’s case, he is now resigning himself to releasing the equivalent of a sketch. In this same message, he details that the leak caused him so much trauma that he “withdrew from life in general,” and his hiatus coming to an end was only possible through therapy. His ultimate rationale to leaving the album unaltered was that “there is no way to put that shit back in a box.” And he’s right, as “Leak 4-13” has taken on a life of its own. That year it appeared on many best of the year lists (and one of the decade list). The story of Paul and the leak became something like folklore, with r/JaiPaul adherent to the legend. Rereleasing the album as it was does that legend service, leaving all of the album’s mythos and added meanings intact. 

For instance, beyond being a fantastic piece of music, it opens a debate about how we should deal with leaked/stolen art or when art leaves the artist’s hands and its value or quality are determined by the audience. Paul being denied the opportunity to finish his album is wrong. But I think at some point (that should hopefully be under the artist’s control) art belongs to the present and the consumer. It’s hard to say what the finished album would’ve been, but I think at this point that question is better left unanswered. Paul released his first finished tracks in years that same day, but even those are apparently recordings that were in-progress from the time of the leak. What present day Jai Paul will give us is almost anyone’s guess. 

On his new website, Paul also posted a version of his old single “Jasmine” that has been augmented with a technology called Bronze. With it, artificial intelligence generates different iterations of the song, with one iteration blending seamlessly into the next. The song goes on forever, independently of Paul or anyone else. Maybe its pure coincidence that Paul would be one of the first people to try this. But what’s more interesting is the possibility that this is evidence of Paul having a totally different perspective on the artistic process now. And maybe the way Paul will reshape music next isn’t sonic but by reconceptualizing the artist’s role in its creation.

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