This song has been specially selected for you to listen to as you read this article. Press play.
Jai Paul has been an enigmatic figure ever since 2011, when his simmering, supple bubble of a song named “BTSTU” came out, lighting up the blogosphere. The elusive Rayner’s Lane, London resident was signed to eminent UK record label XL on the strength of that one song ALONE, and followed it up one year later, on almost the same day, with the slow-burner “Jasmine”. No one heard from Jai for more than a year after Jasmine was released, despite considerable praise, and all Jai’s rabid new fans began losing hope of ever seeing a debut album from their new favorite producer. However, in April 2013, a supposed debut album was uploaded onto Bandcamp, with a price tag of ₤7.00. People were in shock, and began downloading the 16-track zip file without hesitation. This was just like Jai, they said. He had always released new material silently, without any fanfare. However, it was not to be. Very soon, the album had been pulled from Bandcamp, and Jai composed his first (and last) tweet, saying the album had been a collection of demos, and that his laptop was stolen. People were disheartened, and very unsure if the long-awaited debut album would ever surface. However, as Bandcamp began the refunding process, listeners of the “album” began to, for lack of a better phrase, freak the fuck out: for the demos and unfinished tracks they had bought were, amazingly, the most exciting group of sounds they had heard that year.
The sounds that Jai utilizes in these demos are mostly samples, taken from a wide variety of influences and sources. The album opens with the slight whine of an engine, and a voice, unmistakably sampled from “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”, says “Well come on then… Lets go—“. And from there, Jai hits the ground running. Thumping beats, honking synth, and a repeated cry of “OH NO!” wrap around your eardrums, filling them with a multitude of disparate yet parallel sounds. This track, only 25 seconds long, slowly dissolves into Track 2, better known as “Str8 Outta Mumbai”. When I first listened to this song, it was a crappy, 280p video, in which a man opened a Christmas card from XL Records, and the song began to play. Even from this less-than-ideal cut, I could tell the song was something special. And with its shimmering synths, raucous Bollywood samples, and almost milky coos, it was entirely addicting, and possibly the best thing I heard in 2013. Jai follows this tremendous effort with the quiet, brooding Tracks 3 and 4, also known as “Zion Wolf” and “Garden of Paradise”.
From there, Jai takes a complete left turn, leaving behind his brooding synths for the bouncy, beat-driven Track 5; “Genevieve.” Jai is able to communicate his obsession and lust through barely-audible double entendres and warbling punches of guitar-like wooziness. “Genevieve” could be called the dance-iest song on the album, if a “Rite of Spring” type party is what you’re into. The sheer tribal-ness of the song is undercut by the clanking beats, which almost make your ears overflow. This percussion almost leaks over, with some electronic editing, into Track 6, “Raw”. This song, more of a sample than a full-fledged number, a woman speaks of her experience with eating human skin over a bouncy-ball-beat, and minimal, if honey-coated, oohs. From there, Jai Paul slips back, albeit momentarily, into a funky brooding electro-landscape with Track 7, a cover of Jennifer Paige’s “Crush”. He then, electrifyingly, steps back onto the dance floor with the all-too-short Track 8, “Good Time”, which, at 54 seconds, electrifyingly melds a snippet from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (when Professor Lupin transforms into a werewolf) with a groovy, 90’s influenced honking synth, as well as Jai’s falsetto musings of “just wanna have a good time…”
Track 9, Jasmine, had already been released a year before the album leaked. But in its context, it gains a sort of sonic depth, a clarity that the first release (which had been labeled “demo”) showed inklings of, but did not inhabit completely. This is stereotypical Jai Paul: cool, slithering synths, slick, carefully instituted white noise, and a throbbing, almost, menacing boom, overlaid with graceful, bruised vocals and muted hand clapping. For many, such as myself, this song would have been their first or second introduction to Jai’s style, and is, to this day, one of his most prevalent and influential songs. Tracks 11 and 12, titled “100,000” and “Baby Beats”, both infuse bouncy, club beats, but while “100,000” is much mellower, like its predecessor “Jasmine”, “Baby Beats” is much harder, and shorter, using both a Gossip Girl sample and repeating cries of “baby baby baby baby baby baby…” to great effect. Track 13, “Merman”, utilizes a beat that sounds almost like a slap, which opens the track along with computer clicks to great effect. Track 14, “Chix”, is one of the most melodic songs on the album, but also, arguably, it’s most subdued, and almost serves as a very beautiful, blue intro to the best, and last, tracks on the LP.
One of the unique things about Jai Paul is that he is able to take samples of human voice, from any context, and, combined with music, creates something completely emotional. Nowhere is this more apparent than Track 15, “All Night”. It opens with the rush of the tide, and the sound of a woman gasping for air. It then cuts to a sound byte from a “Laura Croft” video game, in which the eponymous heroine states, “the water’s absolutely perfect… I’ve missed Ghana.” From that byte, Jai Paul is able to extract a range of emotions, from longing to hopelessness to love to sadness. His lyrics, though different in delivery and style from the sound byte, harken back to it, and make you wonder what it meant, and why Jai included it in his song. The song itself is, by far, his most aurally beautiful, with groovy guitars, and synths that mimic the sound of the tide heard at the beginning. It is best heard through headphones. The way the synths bounce and flow is almost a religious experience. The last track on the album is also its most famous. BTSTU is why most people know, and love, Jai Paul. Its unearthly groove, its inhuman yet emotional vocals, and its jittering mastery of the sphere of electronic music confounds and amazes even on its 335th listen.
As a listener, when I finish this album the whole way through, my mind always stops on a single second in the whole work. On Track 5, the electronic landscape of “Genevieve” is broken by a single, almost sexual, gasp, at the 2:39 mark. It seems to be a moment of ecstasy, but could also be a sob, or the last breaths of a drowning woman. This moment is the pure essence of Jai Paul’s work as a musician: an electronic void broken through by pure human emotion, whether positive or negative. In short, it is almost a portrait of the human world in the 21st century, completely surrounded, indeed almost overcome, by electronic reality, or unreality, but still centered around a beating, human heart.