Sometimes my mind gets stuck on things. For the last five years or so, it’s been stuck on a person: Jai Paul.
Paul is a critically acclaimed, influential, talented musician. He’s won awards, been on numerous “best of” lists, and his music has been sampled by the likes of Drake and Beyoncé.
But here’s the odd part. He’s only released two songs.
You can listen to Jai Paul’s discography during breakfast. I know this because I’ve done it many, many times. I can’t stop thinking about him because these two songs are better than good. They are breathtaking, wholly original, and they sound just as fresh today as when they came out.
But there’s only two of them, and we’ve barely heard a peep from him in the last five years. Tracing his history with the music industry feels like browsing a news article about a missing person.
In 2007, Paul, then an unknown nineteen-year-old, records a demo called “BTSTU” and uploads it to his MySpace page. Three years later, the song suddenly lights up the music blog landscape, with UK radio airplay and accolades across the board. XL Recordings outbids the competition and signs him on the strength of that single alone. In 2011, Paul remasters the single and releases it through XL. This is when I first heard the track. Listen here. (Caution: language)
BTSTU opens with whispering, haunting falsetto that floats into a driving bassline. Before you can settle in, undulating, jarring synths tear into the beat, and Paul’s chest voice ripples over the distortion. The lyrics weave seamlessly into the fabric of the music, as layered saxophones and guitar accents play around the melody. The true genius of the song, though, is in the offbeats. Paul intermittently introduces these muted rests, where the music seems to hiccup or breathe in. Each of these moments feels both unexpected and fitting. It’s seductively unsettling, uncomfortably catchy, and really, really good.
One year later, he releases a second single, “Jasmine,” in support of an upcoming debut album. Like “BTSTU,” Paul’s characteristic muted rests punctuate a pulsing bass, but this time, the beat is held together by an electric guitar. The overall feel of the song is smooth, clean, and tight.
After the track is released, he gives an an odd, cryptic press interview, but other than that, all we’ve heard from the guy is two songs and that an album is coming.
One year later, a set of songs bearing his name appears online. The songs are rough, unmixed, unfinished, and noticeably lacking the precision of his two singles. Eventually, it’s revealed these tracks were taken off Paul’s stolen laptop, just a mishmash of the things he had been working on. But even this hodgepodge is brilliant, blending genres and introducing new sounds. The “album” receiving critical praise and widespread recognition. Paul tweets out a statement that the album has been stolen, and it (mostly) disappears from the internet. I admit (with some guilt) that I downloaded and loved the record. I still listen to it regularly.
After the leak, once the smoke clears and the dust settles, Jai vanishes. Besides a few b-side features, a couple of odd photographs of him in the studio, and a mysteriously released single from his brother, Paul has not been seen or heard from since. No interviews, no press releases, no public plans to finish his debut album.
His label confirmed a year or so later that he is still working on the record. And this is why I can’t seem to unstick him from my mind. Because he’s not some incredible talent whose career was cut short. He’s an incredible talent that has chosen, at least for now, to stop putting out his work.
I don’t think Jai Paul owes the world anything. He’s got no responsibility to release a record. That being said, I can’t stop thinking about the idea of him, out there, making music for nobody but himself and maybe a few close friends.
Sometimes I try to picture it. He’s in some studio, maybe just a basement with a keyboard, and he’s writing some of the best songs that I’ll never hear. Someone with a gift, choosing not to share it.
I’m not sure if the vision is comforting or disturbing. But I can’t let it go.
Studied psychology and writing, works at a design firm. Film junkie, amateur photographer. (’16)