Jai Paul’s Demo Album Leak Still Matters
A mysterious leak threw a wrench in the career of a pop visionary. But four years later, Jai Paul’s demos still have a lot to tell us.
"What is Jai Paul up to?" is a question that bound the internet together in the early '10s. Fans asked it, journalists asked it, music biz people asked it. Nobody really ever had any answers.
In the three-year span from 2010-2013, we got two official singles, one interview, and that leak. Afterwards, nothing, save for a short statement confirming that the tracks uploaded to Bandcamp on April 13, 2013, did not in fact constitute an album, but stolen demos. In the years since, Jai Paul has remained as elusive as his music — but that question still comes up.
What is Jai Paul up to? As part of Leak Week, The FADER asked a selection of artists, fans, and writers about what they remember about the leak, how the music stands up today, and why it still matters.
It was something where there was nothing
I’ve only got one Google Alert and it’s for “Jai Paul.” I set it up the morning after his album of demos leaked in April 2013, not because I was late to the sudden, unsanctioned drop — a bootleg of the bootleg hit my DMs lightning fast — but because I’d decided that, from then on, I was willing to commit to stanning in absentia. Jai Paul had always been an enigma. The demos leak was essentially a violation of his privacy, but after just two brilliant stray singles (“BTSTU” and “Jasmine”) it was proof he wasn’t just a phantom, bungled industry plant. The leak was pocket lint in a deep pocket, or a stray fiver found scrunched up behind your credit cards. It was something where there was nothing. Creating a Google Alert for Jai Paul was, and is, my way of keeping digital vigil. Like Paro watching over the diya she keeps lit for Devdas.
Speaking of Bollywood, part of what makes the demos so brilliant is that the film genre’s music isn’t central to Paul’s narrative, but is just one of many pieces comprising his magpie-like scaffolding of found sounds and samples. “Track 2 (Str8 Outta Mumbai)” chops vocal and instrumental from a 1979 historical-religious drama scored by Ravi Shankar. It’s a curious choice for a Desi kid in the West because it’s not an obvious one (this point feels even more relevant in 2017 where bad identity politics are a commodity). The leak features more warped nostalgia: a cover of Jennifer Page’s “Crush,” the babbling loop built using K-Ci and Jojo’s “All My Life,” a fucking random snip of dialogue from Gossip Girl. The point of making demos is to experiment, I know, and yet four years on there has been no end result of that experimentation, no ultimate actual album. Even Frank Ocean eventually resurfaced. But this leak perhaps exacerbated Jai Paul’s absence, and that’s why it matters: so rarely, if ever, are artists this ascetically committed to saying “fuck you” to the fame — and to us. —ANUPA MISTRY
It's a mystery that was never fully solved
The morning of the leak I was working at Dazed in London — we’d published Jai Paul’s only interview a couple of years before — and the whole office was freaking out. We weren’t talking about the record’s electric combination of clashing samples, warm vocals, and eclectic global rhythms at first though, but mainly the mystery surrounding its surprise appearance on Bandcamp. I took a shot in the dark and fired off a message to an email addresses that I’d found linked to one of Paul’s online platforms. Pretty much immediately, I got a brief response from him, not much more than what I tweeted at the time: "I will be releasing a statement later today about the illegal leak. I have not released a new record.” It was the first time we knew for sure that the album was obtained without his permission. And while a statement from XL Recordings confirmed this soon after, Paul was mad that I’d made our conversation public. Maybe I should have resisted temptation to contribute to the hubbub, but the music was too good to ignore. And even though the noise has died down, that’s what remains. Distanced from the hype, his demos sound even better today: a prototype for a fresh take on pop which, sadly, Paul has still not yet fully fleshed out. I think I’m the only journalist that had contact with Paul after the leak, but I’m still no closer to unpacking what really happened. And though I've tried, he hasn’t got back to any emails since. —OWEN MYERS
It was everything that Jai Paul promised to be
Jai Paul is a mystery to this day. Almost like a mythical outlaw. He's the Jack Reacher of music. I'm sure I'll get to a better analogy by the end of this. I don't remember exactly how it all happened but I remembered how much it pissed my wife off when I cut off us making Sunday plans to go download the Jai Paul album. She didn't get it. Sure, "BTSTU" and "Jasmine" were certified bangers, but come on, we're in our mid-30s, you're supposed to lose any interest in new music by now. I'd seen a tweet, while researching Sunday runnings, about how Jai Paul had upstaged Frank Ocean (or Tupac's hologram, my memory is hazy) at Coachella. My immediate thought was, a Jai Paul live set? No, it turns out the album had dropped.
I'd paid Bandcamp my money quicker than Jack Reacher punched a crooked cop. And the album was good; messy, lo-fi, but so him. The stab of neo-funk guitars, the barely there falsettos, the lovelorn aggression — it was everything I wanted Jai Paul to be. When I found out it wasn't the album he'd intended, I stopped listening to it. He was such a powerful figure in my mind, in my diaspora, representing everything I needed — bass, funk, Indian percussion — from music, that I couldn't listen to the album unless he intended me to. Leaks are a funny thing. I remember when Wolverine leaked, unfinished. How desperate are we to witness something unfinished, just to say we witnessed it. If Jai didn't feel the music was ready, then it wasn't ready. But that just cemented his genius, his integrity, his honesty. He became the Howard Hawks of music. Or that Charlie guy with the Angels. Oh I don't know. Jai Paul is just Jai Paul. A singular, mythical beast of a beatmaker. Come back. We need you. I've got my Paul Institute password memorized. —NIKESH SHUKLA
It raised a question about how pop should sound
Jai Paul is the king of the aside. “Don’t fuck with me/ Don’t fuck with me,” he whispered in the faintest falsetto on the intro of his debut song “BTSTU,” which got an official release in 2011. The whole of “Jasmine,” his second single in 2012, comes off like a silent plea: the listener can just about hear Paul’s under-his-breath yearning, but the object of his affection is none the wiser. And then there was the “album” in April 2013, which, on my first listen, moments after I paid my seven quid for it on Bandcamp, made me wonder if he’d fully committed to the aside as an aesthetic. While Paul had already established a patchwork, lo-fi approach to his sound, this bunch of untitled tracks sounded like they were being played through a wall. Maybe it was a comment on the over-compression of contemporary pop music, I thought. The tracks were — are — a joy to listen to, the feeling that Paul conjures up potent enough to sustain an uneven soundbed. But I was overthinking it: within a couple of days, Paul and his label XL confirmed the album was in fact an illegal leak of old, unfinished tracks. The quality wasn't a statement; these were literally just demos.
Later that week, I wrote about “Track 7,” Paul’s cover of Jennifer Paige’s “Crush,” for DUMMY’s song of the week column, and my attention turned to the way Paul’s vocal delivery and production style cast him as the-boy-two-doors-down, more out of reach than the boy-next-door and forever longed for. Whatever he intended, the leak confirmed Jai Paul as an antidote to the obviousness with which sex was presented in the pop charts at the time. In his world, sexuality was always more stolen glance than breathy come-on, which, of course, made him all the sexier. Listening back to the sketches of songs today gives me the same feeling as driving through a city in summertime, catching snatches of other people’s playlists, conversations, and flirty looks — all the while savoring the taste of possibility. Jai Paul's been gone a long time, but I still hope that he'll come back one day, because the world's still his for the taking. —RUTH SAXELBY
It crystallized a moment in underground music
During the leak, I remember freaking out over music I figured people were gonna hear a lot of very soon. I don’t care too much about how the songs leaked; maybe music isn’t about sharing for him? (I can’t relate!)
I think people responded to him strongly because it felt like he could make anything next. Jai’s sound was a mix of a lot of sounds that were really exciting me at the time: the post-Dilla moment when Flying Lotus was playing Plastic People with Kode9, and Venus X was touring with M.I.A. It still sounds fun today. I imagine people have a fascination with the idea — and image, ol’ boy had some looks — of a Brown man singing over these wild beats. I also think people love having a solitary genius to look up to.
I’m a little salty that many innovative Black women whose music preceded his — Muhsinah, for example — never got such a reception. They weren’t being as elusive and they were influencing and working with people all over the board (in Muhsinah’s case, everyone from Thom Yorke to Common to FlyLo). —LAWD KNOWS (SCRAAATCH)
It foreshadowed the way albums are released today
Crack in the Road was the first place to post about the album, which they’d supposedly discovered trawling Bandcamp for new releases. I saw their news post and, from the couch in my apartment on a Saturday morning, quickly posted it to The FADER with the headline “Download Jai Paul’s Self-Titled Debut LP.”
This was five months before Beyoncé pulled the first Beyoncé, and the surprise drop was a move seemingly in line with the Jai Paul mythos. As I noted in my post at the time, XL’s Richard Russell had previously said the way Jai Paul operates is “baffling,” and to self-release a long-rumored project on a Saturday morning without any announcement from your record label just seemed like a badass Jai Paul thing to do.
Someone at XL tweeted an opaque “Surprise!” and someone else pointed out that a week earlier Noisey had published a speculative post entitled “Is Jai Paul's Debut Album Coming Out Later This Month?” The email address associated with the leak Bandcamp was unfamiliar, but the secondary address linked to the Jai Paul account was the same one that had registered his website a few years earlier on the same day that the album leaked.
And then Owen spoiled the fun. It made me uneasy to know this had been released without Jai Paul’s consent. At the same time, I remember agreeing when someone said, “Is he gonna ask us to stop listening to this? Because I can’t.” Sure, there were some major red flags with the music itself. There was the presumably unclearable sample from Harry Potter. The bitrates varied widely, the compression was absuuuurd, and the mix favored bass past the point of detriment on any respectable set of speakers. But, like, fuck, wouldn’t it be cool if that was all intentional and final, done because pop’s secret-best producer cared more about other stuff?
To this day, I haven’t resolved my feelings about the leak. Partially that’s because I don’t really know what happened. It’s odd that it took XL three days to release a statement, and it’s odd that Jai Paul never released any solo tracks after this. Part of me believes that the story about a stolen laptop is untrue, and the leak was intentional but botched; a bigger part of me hopes that Jai Paul cashed in somehow, maybe getting paid out by XL, whether he was more at fault or whether it was down to them. Not every genius is meant to be a star, and maybe this was his way out.
Demos and rough drafts always fascinate me. In the errors, you learn more about why the thing was made. As I’m typing this, I’m listening to Jai Paul’s leak for the first time in a few years, and there hasn’t been much better since. —DUNCAN COOPER
It's a reminder to listen harder
Jai Paul has never indulged in publicity, but I associate the leak of this album with the moment we really lost him. In May 2017, The New Yorker published an in-depth profile of XL Recordings boss Richard Russell. After the piece dropped, its author Matthew Trammell tweeted, “Jai Paul did walk by me at one point and confirmed exists on earth.” The tweet inspired frenzied, hopeful replies, and even made its way to a Jai Paul-devoted subreddit, where a commenter noted, “Big if true.” These days, evidence of Paul’s continued existence is the kind of scrap we seize on.
For many journalists like me, who got our training in the 2010s age of music blogging, the leak of this album was a pretty defining moment. What makes something news: artistic intent, or public reaction? When the facts are shifting so quickly, how do you cut through the noise? At DUMMY, the site I edited at the time, we went with the headline: “‘Jai Paul’ just ‘uploaded’ an ‘album’ to Bandcamp.” It was the kind of Kanye shrug of a headline that felt possible then, like a wink from writer to reader that we were just trying to figure this shit out, too. When I hear these (still brilliant, still futuristic) demos, though, I always feel a little guilty, for in some way contributing to a media storm that drove away a radical artist. I wonder if we can use Jai Paul’s ongoing silence to reflect on how we contribute to the narrative, and learn something from the man who knows the power of saying very little. If anything, I reckon the lesson is this: When you don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s OK to just shut up and listen. —AIMEE CLIFF