Why the world never got over Jai Paul
The enigmatic musician is emerging from the shadows to perform at this year’s Coachella. Despite his lack of self-promotion, his music has stayed fresh in the memories of a generation.
When Jai Paul emailed me, I thought it might be a hoax. It was April 2013 and I was working at Dazed, the magazine that had published the first and, to this date, only interview with him two years earlier. On the strength of two demos, the jagged future-soul of BTSTU and Jasmine, he was an enigmatic legend, anointed by Pitchfork and The Guardian as a prodigy. The reason for our correspondence – an album’s worth of untitled songs that had suddenly appeared on Bandcamp – was suspicious. I wondered if I was speaking to the real Jai Paul.
BTSTU, initially uploaded on Jai Paul’s Myspace page, caused ripples among the blogosphere in 2010. The North West London musician became the target of a label bidding war between Polydor, Warp and XL Recordings, with the latter becoming his eventual home later that year. After the track was re-released in 2011, Zane Lowe declared BTSTU the Hottest Record In the World, playing it three times in a row on BBC Radio 1.
Jai Paul’s songs cast a strange and delicate spell, with craggy basslines, shapeshifting dynamics and wisps of soulful melodies that critics compared to Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall. His music gives you the tantalising sense that you’re listening to it through misted glass veined with hairline cracks that could fissure at any moment.
BTSTU and Jasmine felt like a particular talisman of the way the wind was blowing in the early ’10s. It ushered in a moment in which artists like Miguel, Frank Ocean and Trilogy-era The Weeknd were finding new musical forms by welding indie-rock, art-pop and electronica with the Y2K R&B and neo-soul they grew up with. The gap between leftfield and mainstream music was closing, a movement epitomised by Kanye West recruiting the likes of Arca and Evian Christ to produce his 2013 album Yeezus.
BTSTU penetrated the highest echelons of the pop A‑list, too. The track was sampled on Drake’s 2011 loosie Dreams Money Can Buy and Beyoncé’s track End of Time, taken from her 2011 album 4. It was reported that BTSTU was an acronym for “Back To Save The Universe”. For a moment in the MP3 era, it felt like Jai Paul was.
So when the new collection of untitled tracks surfaced on Bandcamp on 14th April 2013, I took a punt and emailed a contact from Paul’s Facebook page, asking if the music was genuinely his work. I quickly received a reply: “I will be releasing a statement later today about the illegal leak. I have not released a new record.”
I tweeted out Paul’s response. This was the salad days of the blogosphere and the digital media boom, so it was picked up as news by countless sites around the world. But Paul wasn’t happy. And I felt bad for making our private conversation public without giving him a heads-up first, particularly as he’d made it known that Being Online didn’t suit him. “I don’t actually own an iPod and I don’t know what iTunes is,” he told Dazed in 2011, adding that he turned down deals with major record labels because, “as much as I don’t want to admit it, I’m kind of a hippie.”
Despite Jai Paul’s reluctance to promote himself, his asymmetric pop stands the test of time more than the early 2010’s wave of gauzy R&B‑inspired electronic ballads that came in its wake. In 2019, Paul’s leaked material was officially released by XL Recordings with the title Leak 04 – 13 (Bait Ones) alongside Do You Love Her and He, which Paul presented as a “double B‑side.” Testament to how ahead of his time he was, the Bollywood-sampling future-funk of Straight Outta Mumbai and the audacious beat-switching on Genevieve would still sound fresh if Bait Ones dropped tomorrow.
As his influence continued to snake through 2010s pop, Paul remained quiet, focusing on production gigs and collaborating with artists such as Little Dragon, Nao and Outkast’s Big Boi. In 2017, Paul appeared in the London trade magazine Property Week to announce a new venture named The Paul Institute. The project’s home would be a West London building named the Rotunda, a space that had previously held a nightclub for BBC workers. The article, for which Paul was photographed in a hi-vis vest alongside his musicians A. K. Paul (his brother) and Muz Azar, said that the location was to serve as a hub for a “growing collective of musicians, artists and technologists.” To date, The Paul Institute has worked with five artists (Fabiana Palladino, Ruthven, HIRA, REINEN and Pen Pals) and has put out thirteen songs, most recently an EP in 2020, simply titled Paul Institute – Summer 2020.
In 2019, Jai Paul released a statement alongside the streaming release of Bait Ones, which detailed the personal effects of the album leak. “Things gradually went south and I had a breakdown of sorts,” he wrote. “I was in quite a bad place for some time. I was unable to work and withdrew from life in general.” To make sense of it all, he turned to therapy. “Through this, I’ve been able to acknowledge some of the trauma and grief,” he said.
A decade on, it’s worth wondering whether the leak of a beloved artist’s album would have triggered quite the same feeding frenzy as Bait Ones did in 2013. When the music of major musicians such as Harry Styles or Lana Del Rey leaks these days, fans are quick to mobilise against the piraters, reporting illegal links and calling out those that share them in solidarity with artists. On the flip side, there’s increasing awareness that the instability of being a working musician can have an acute effect on a person’s mental health.
In a 2022 Pitchfork essay, the writer Jenn Pelly described the modern music industry as an “entangled crises of mental health and economic sustainability that are increasingly conspicuous and, if not new, then no longer possible to ignore.” Pelly also noted how, since 2019, “an uptick of non-profit and research-based initiatives have emerged to address the mental health dimension of this sobering reality.” It’s bittersweet to think that Paul could have benefitted from a music ecosystem that is taking long overdue steps to put the welfare of artists first.
Since the official release of Bait Ones, Paul has slowly edged back into public life. Last year, he cropped up in the final season of Atlanta as part of a scene about institutional prejudice and capitalism. (”Anywhere you can buy a can of Coke, some type of racism’s going down,” he says in the role.) Then January 10th brought his biggest news yet: Coachella revealed that Jai Paul would be playing at the behemothic California festival in April this year, which is mind-blowing considering that he’s never performed a live show.
On the Coachella line-up, Paul shares line-two billing with massive names such as Burna Boy, Blondie and Kaytranada who, like a generation of music fans, never lost faith in the West London artist. “Forget about me performing,” Kaytranada tweeted. “I’m going to see Jai Paul.”