Live Review: Jay Electronica at London Jazz Cafe (18th Feb)

Whether or not New Orleans born rapper Jay Electronica will eventually be known as Hip Hop’s last great hope or merely Hip Hop’s latest great hype is a question which has agitated and befuddled the underground Rap community since at least his 2007 release Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge), in which Jay rhymes over snippets of Jon Brion‘s immaculate score for the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The answer to the question is, of course, what hundreds of Hip Hop fans left their homes for and why they turned up in droves last Thursday night at Camden’s Jazz Café – where Jay was to stage his debut headline performances.

After filling the crowd with more anticipation than the air in 600 balloons by emerging on stage over an hour later then expected, Jay goes straight into a short tribute to the late J Dilla and then asks the crowd to raise their fingers up in a moment of commemoration. The surprising thing here is how quickly the audience obeys and how strangely at ease this man is on stage. Jay is so at ease, in fact, that he starts drinking a bottle of Jack Daniels, invites a fan up to have his picture taken and eventually starts discussing his favorite football team.

After several more of these comfortable interludes it occurs to me that these people aren’t here to find out if Jay is pure hype or true hope. These people already believe that Jay Electronica is the greatest rapper alive and are here just to tell him. And Jay is, of course, here to milk the admiration. Which he does with style, charisma and finesse.

Whilst DJ TJ the King spins Dilla’s classic instrumental ‘Gobstopper’, Jay tells us that “air can manipulate matter with the usage of words” and later he adds: ‘They over the hill like Wyclef and Praswell. I’m over the hill like UFOs at Roswell’. His wit, however, is never merely reserved for the short poetic outbursts. He gets into numerous tests of banter with the audience throughout the night. At some point a man in the crowd screams, “I f****d your wife!”, to which Jay replies: “I don’t even have a wife, so how about I swap my imaginary one for your real one?”

Moreover, this was one of those rare shows in which the audience performed just as well as the artist. Not only does the crowd respond with cheers and glee to every assertion the rapper makes (including his belief that the levees in New Orleans were purposefully blown up to create flooding) but they also stand in total silence while he recites his raps accapella.

Admittedly most of his rhymes deserved the quiet. At some moments Jay displays brilliant breath control, swiftly spilling out flows in a typical Southern style, while at others he increases the pauses in-between his words, slows his tempo and tells us about ‘splitting atoms’ and giving ‘mushrooms to civilians’ in a way which is reminiscent East Coast Indie Rap and the notion of ‘dropping science’.

Despite the awesome display of stylistic diversity evident in the above, during Jay’s apt emceeing over a Rick James sample and whilst reconstructing Nas’s ‘Whose World is This?’, it is inevitably the performance of his iTunes hit and future classic ‘Exhibit C’ which steals the show and ends the night. A significant number of nanoseconds before the first bar is even capable of leaving the rapper’s mouth and traveling through the speakers and the crowd is already reciting the words like a national anthem. Perhaps to some degree it is. Either that or a sort of jovial Hip Hop hymn.

However one wishes to categorize the outstanding reception of ‘Exhibit C,’ it seems that Jay Electronica is just as in love with the track as the fans are. As he performs it for a second time he seems almost overwhelmed by its emotional currency and jumps into the crowd to finish off his last verse.

Jay Electronica, mobbed by crowd outside Jazz Cafe, London (c) David Mensah

Afterwards, it’s at least forty five minutes before the mob finally leave him to get back to his dressing room and stop asking for their photo moments and autographs. Record label owner and partner Erykah Badu once referred to Jay as looking like an alien and for a moment the sensationalism the crowd created made it seem like he was one. Not so much a performance, more like a quaint spectacle from another planet.

–David Mensah

B&W photos courtesy of Danny Wood

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