A few weeks ago, hip-hop’s greatest illusionist Jay Electronica did a show for CMJ at Santos Party House in New York City. All was going well until a fan in the audience asked about Jay’s permanently delayed mythical album Act II: Patents of Nobility. “I was just backstage talking about that with [Jason] Goldwatch. We were talking about the delete button,” he responded. The news that Jay Electronica might delete his magnum opus was not that surprising. 2015 was the sixth consecutive year that all signs pointed to an album release, only for nothing to surface. Despite cosigns from the upper echelons of hip-hop, and the project allegedly already completed, we’re no closer to seeing Act II than we were a year ago. So news that album might never come out didn’t exactly catch anyone off guard.
What was surprising about the news of Jay’s comment was the casual hip-hop fan’s reaction to it. The tide has seemingly turned, and casual Jay Electronica fans, who once celebrated his Jay-Z cosign, hung on every word of Act I, his breakout EP, and tracked every piece of information they could on the follow-up are tired of waiting. Comments on the articles announcing what Jay had said at the concert were almost universally negative. The wait for Act II has seemingly overstayed its welcome in hip-hop fan circles. But while accusations of pump faking and wasting potential abounded in comment sections, the upper echelons of the Jay Electronica fan community had a different interpretation.
I asked my friend Jordan, who’s a member of an elite group of Jay Electronica fans on the Kanyetothe forums who get exclusives leaks and occasional contact with the man himself, about the news. He explained that the “delete button” comment was just a joke taken out of context. More importantly, though, he told me that the comment “goes to show he really doesn't care when/if the project drops because he doesn't believe the world is ‘ready’ yet.” When I asked him if it would only come out when people no longer wanted it, he told me that Jay was waiting for “some feeling, some cultural movement” most likely related to Black empowerment but that it probably wouldn’t come out in 2016. “I don't want it to. We're very clearly not in the right mindset,” he said. However, he did predict the album would eventually come out. He noted that too many people allegedly had the album, and at some point, a leak would be inevitable.
Act II is a perfect example of the unreleased masterpiece. An unreleased masterpiece is an album with several distinct qualities: 1) the artist who has made it is both immensely talented and relatively reclusive with a small ratio of solo material to time spent in the public eye. They tend to shy away from normal music industry politics and appearances. 2) The album has been hinted at/teased by the artist and industry insiders, its existence is confirmed to some extent. 3) The album’s release has been announced/hinted at and subsequently pushed back, often multiple times. 4) The fans of the artist believe the album is worth the wait and therefore sustain a high level of hype for the album even in the absence of new information or in the face of discouraging information. The result is an album of mythic proportions. As the amount of time since previous releases grows, not only does appreciation for the artist’s back catalogue grow, predictions for the quality of the unreleased masterpiece grow too. The longer the wait, the higher the expectations.
Dr. Dre’s mythical Detox is the most famous hip-hop unreleased masterpiece, although the timeline and story arc, eventually concluding in Compton released this past summer, don’t follow the model exactly. Dre announced the album in 2002 as a follow up to 1999’s The Chronic 2001. It slowly gained hype and was scheduled for a late 2004 release, but when the release date came and went, things started to take off and gain mythical status. In mid-2005, The Game’s song “Higher” warned fans to “look out for Detox.” In 2006, Scratch Magazine ran a piece on Detox calling it an unreleased masterpiece. Eventually, the rap community elevated the album to mythical status with rumors that it would be Dre’s final and best work featuring, according to Rolling Stone, “two dozen rappers, producers and vocalists, from Aftermath stars like Em, 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes and Kendrick Lamar, to T.I., Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, Skylar Grey and Mary J. Blige.” In 2010, the hype was still strong, with Kendrick Lamar releasing “Lookout For Detox.” Conspiracy theories, another key feature of the unreleased masterpiece anticipation cycle, abounded that Kendrick Lamar himself was Detox incarnate, that Dr. Dre wasn’t working on an album but rather an artist’s career.
Eventually, around 10-12 years after the album was announced, hype started to erode. Those close to Dre expressed doubts the album would ever come to fruition and by the time Compton was announced, fans had come to accept that Detox was a lost cause. Detox/waiting for Detox became a rap meme, something people joked about more often than believed seriously. Dre was able to escape the major pitfalls of the unreleased masterpiece by staying semi-public to keep fans interested, but eventually scrapping the original project to replace it with a new one.
Theories for ditching Detox for Compton vary from Dre realizing Detox wouldn’t live up to expectations to wanting to push a new sound and feature new artists to an opportunity to align his album with the release of the movie Straight Outta Compton. In a way, Dre took a page out of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson’s playbook for unreleased masterpieces. In short, The Beach Boys’ follow-up to Pet Sounds, Smile, was a mythical unreleased masterpiece that never came to completion. Regarded as a legendary lost album, tracks from Smile eventually ended up on later Beach Boys albums and compilations, just as alleged Detox tracks like “The Recipe” have been released on other albums and as singles.
Outside of hip-hop, Jai Paul’s album looms as a unreleased pop masterpiece. After releasing two demos that launched him into levels of fame that garner Beyonce and Drake remixes, demos of Paul’s album leaked on Bandcamp in the spring of 2013. Since then, very little has been heard from the reclusive London-based producer and vocalist. But collaborations with Miguel and his brother (who is also his co-producer) songwriting for Sam Smith, Jessie Ware, and more indicate that Paul isn’t done with music. Plus, he ostensibly has a contract with XL he needs to fulfill.
Jay Electronica, Dr. Dre, and Jai Paul all suffer from the various challenges of existing as an artist with the unreleased masterpiece looming over their career. Jay Electronica is suffering from fan apathy, Dr. Dre (most likely) suffered from the challenges of coordinating a masterpiece-level sound, Jai Paul suffers from imitators in his absence. One problem with the unreleased masterpiece is the reclusiveness required by the artist to build hype also leads to a vacuum that can be easily filled by artists more than willing to put out similar sounding material on a frequent basis. In Jai Paul’s case, the talent varies, ranging from shameless imitators (Ben Khan) to fresh takes in a similar lane (Majid Jordan). But more artists are filling in the void left in his absence, which will inevitably create fan apathy.
The lack of information needed to sustain hype for the unreleased masterpiece also works to the artist’s detriment. In Jay Electronica’s case, this is what fueled confusion over what the “delete button” really meant. Jay’s career depends in part on maintaining an air of mystery surrounding the behind-the-scenes creative processes. Mentioning the delete button serves to increase the mystery and uncertainty at the cost of angering fans and making supporters a little uneasy.
So why do we care about the unreleased masterpiece? There’s a real possibility that for all the millions of SoundCloud plays and album announcements and delays and leaks and insiders saying “it’s coming,” we won’t get the album we want. So why keep up the hype in the face of uncertainty? There’s something to be said for the argument that Act II will only come out when people no longer want it. Jay Electronica’s “The Prestige” narrative is based on audience expectations as well as deceptions. It’s also worth noting that XL Recordings founder and owner Richard Russell has described Jai Paul as “a wizard.” The problem is that the magic show has lasted the better part of a decade. It’s possible that when Jay thinks the world is ready, rap fans will have given up. The same can be said for Jai Paul.
But above that, there’s so much other music to care about. Artists are now dropping multiple albums a year. Everything is accessible, streamable, instantly downloadable. Tours are reaching more people than ever, almost every artist is online tweeting, posting pictures and new tracks, and doing Reddit AMAs. It’s a better time than ever to be a fan of a musician. Gone are the days when album cycles dictated when we would hear from an artist. Why reward behavior that subverts this, that denies music to fans? After all, the fans are supposed to have the power.
Except the unreleased masterpiece takes that power away. It reminds music fans that they’re not in control. For all the millions of soundcloud plays and album sales and tour tickets, fans exist as consumers. And as consumers, they must wait for the product to hit the shelves. The unreleased masterpiece is therefore created not by the artists but by fan expectations. The same mechanisms that make music and artists so accessible and ever-present foster a sense of entitlement and expectation that create an unreleased masterpiece.
The problem is that as fans, we want it both ways. We want Act II to drop tomorrow, but we also love participating in the hype for it. Obsession over what’s inaccessible creates a fun communal suffering that comes along with waiting for the unreleased masterpiece. It’s masochistic for the fans. Every time the album gets pushed back, or a new snippet of information comes out, the collective outcry of simultaneous excitement, anticipation, and disappointment is cathartic. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether Jay Electronica deletes his album or not. What he’s done is provide his fans, and the hip-hop community in general, with an experience, an experience of first being captivated by talent, then interested in what’s next, then agonized by waiting while still remaining interested and excited. Those who feel like they are owed an album as a result of this experience are setting themselves up for disappointment with its eventual release. Act II, like the magic tricks it’s based off of is an exercise in control. Perhaps Act II will come out not when fans feel like they deserve it, but when Jay feels like they deserve it.
Words by Grant Fox