The first time I heard Jai Paul, I thought my speakers were broken. My friend had just sent me a YouTube link to the British singer’s 2011 single “BTSTU”– about which this friend had been talking breathlessly, ecstatically, and seemingly hyperbolically– and I was ready to be knocked out by obvious brilliance. What I heard instead was… disorienting. Undulating waves of distortion and digital interference, and buried somewhere beneath it all a distant, oddly confrontational falsetto (“don’t fuck with me, don’t fuck with me…”) that seemed like it was coming out of only one channel. I jiggled the input cable. I unplugged and replugged my speakers. I started the song over. Nothing had changed. “Is it supposed to sound like this?” I typed into my Gchat box, but hesitated before hitting send. (On the internet, even your hesitation is visible: “Lindsay has entered text…”) I let it sink in for a minute; the first time you hear something that is good in a new, unfamiliar way, it takes time for the particles to rearrange into some sort of discernible grammar. By the time the second chorus hit, I had deleted the question. Yes, it was supposed to sound like that.
This past weekend, Jai Paul’s music was once again responsible for confusion and disorientation, though this time it was a little more widespread. Last Saturday night, a collection of 16 untitled tracks claiming to be Jai Paul’s mythically-delayed debut album appeared on a Bandcamp page, where you could download them for £7. The internet collectively freaked; inevitable comparisons to My Bloody Valentine’s recent out-of-nowhere release mbv were tweeted and retweeted. But the joyful moment was short-lived. By Monday morning, the files had been pulled from Bandcamp, and journalist Owen Myers tweeted that he’d received an email from Jai calling the leak “illegal” and stating, “I have not released a new record. This is an unofficial release. Official releases are handled by XL.” By the afternoon, conspiracy theories were flying. Had someone stolen Jai’s laptop and thought they could make a quick buck charging album-price for some unfinished demos? Fearing that Jai’s alleged perfectionism would stand in the way of him ever releasing any more material, had a close acquaintance shared the tracks without their creator’s consent? Was this all an XL publicity stunt? Had Jai uploaded the songs himself to spite his record company?
Listening to a Jai Paul song sounds like a tuning into a pirate
radio station being broadcast directly from someone’s brain.
Jai Paul is about as secretive and enigmatic as Burial and as press-averse and slow-working as Terrence Malick. His story has always been a magnet for words like “allegedly” and “apparently,” and conducive to conspiracy theories because so little is known about him for sure. XL signed him in 2010 on the strength of the “BTSTU” demo alone, and since then he’s officially released only one other song, the gorgeous, hiccuping slow jam “Jasmine” (which came out, rabid fans are quick to note, in mid-April 2012– very nearly the same day “BTSTU” was released in 2011 and those 16 tracks were uploaded last week.) Snippets of other songs have been passed covertly on message boards; journalists humble-brag about private listening parties where they’ve supposedly heard finished tracks (last December, XL sent out a Christmas card to a lucky few with a photo of Jai on the cover; it played a clip of a song known as “Str8 Outta Mumbai” when you opened it). “BTSTU”‘s life has been much more public than Jai’s– it’s been sampled by such high-profile names as Beyoncé (“End of Time”) and Drake (“Dreams Money Can Buy”). Its elusive creator, on the other hand, only just made a public Twitter account on Monday, and at the time of this writing has only issued one message: “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.” It’s since been retweeted nearly 2,000 times.