You’re not supposed to see Halley’s Comet twice in a lifetime—most don’t even see it once. But at the dawn of the decade, Jai Paul burst into our orbit, fully formed. His humble demo posted to his MySpace page in 2010 turned the music world on its head and still, nine years later, nobody has even sniffed the brilliance he exuded from day one. That demo, “BTSTU,” was written and recorded in 2007, which is fucking insane considering what was on the radio at that time. The only music being made then that could be considered equivalent was M.I.A.’s KALA, which while undeniably brilliant, is far more indebted and tethered to its time than Jai Paul’s work, which sounds both inscrutable and immediately accessible, tapping into corners of our brain we’d never accessed. All it took was a lone single to start a record label bidding war practically unheard of post-9/11. After signing with XL Recordings, Paul released “Jasmine (demo),” cementing him as your favorite artist’s favorite artist. Every bit of the track was undeniable genius, from the submerged vocals popping for air every so often to the Prince-esque guitar licks to the unpredictable, extraterrestrial flashes that dove through the mix at every turn. And now, with just two supposedly unfinished tracks, Jai Paul had, in the span of the year, become one of the most hyped artists on the planet. Every music forum was clamoring for the next release from this mysterious prodigy. They didn’t have to wait much longer.
April 14th, 2013 was not supposed to happen. In the dead of night, Jai Paul’s “debut album” was uploaded to Bandcamp. Within an hour, it was the most talked about record online, garnering front page headlines from every music publication. The 39 minutes spread across 16 tracks, all of which untitled, were unlike anything we’d ever heard. Starting with “Track 2,” which would later be named “Str8 Outta Mumbai,” it was clear Paul was operating on a level no other artist could even dream to reach. Constructed around a sample of “Bala Main Bairagan Hoongi” by Ravi Shankar, “Mumbai” sounds like the Tasmanian Devil trying to extinguish a grease fire. It’s utterly relentless, even when Paul suddenly pulls back the mix to leave split seconds of serenity, the anxious energy comes roaring back with more force than ever before. The 14 songs left in its wake were a grab bag of demos, interludes, and scratchy wonders of art. Be it “Genevieve,” “100,000,” or his cover of Jennifer Paige’s “Crush,” Paul’s spectacular talent shone through despite the subpar audio fidelity and scatterbrained track sequencing. The next day, we learned why.
Keeping with his mysterious nature, Paul tweeted “To confirm: demos on bandcamp were not uploaded by me, this is not my debut album. Please don’t buy. Statement to follow later. Thanks, Jai.” That’s it. Most publications took this to confirm their suspicion that the entire thing was a publicity stunt meant to grease the skids of his runaway hype train. With no other information to work from, this became the popular school of thought and guided the narrative of the decade’s most compelling story in music. As years passed, the prospects of Jai Paul’s return grew less and less likely as neither he nor his label elaborated on the details of the leak or if Paul planned to put out more music. The leaked record’s lore grew in the silence and became widely regarded as one of the decade’s most essential albums. Hype for his return grew to a level on which a picture of him in a studio or he and his brother decked out in hard hats and hi-vis jackets outside a real estate development were enough to make the front page of any website with a music section. A glimmer of hope broke through in March 2016 when Jai’s brother, A.K. released “Landcruisin’” through the Paul Institute, a label the Paul brothers launched together to recruit exciting young talent with a shared vision for the future of pop music. “Landcruisin’,” like Jai’s work, is indebted to Prince, but this corvette rides like it’s got squares for wheels. While clunky, the Paul flare was undeniably there, adding fuel to an already raging wildfire of anticipation for something, anything new from Jai himself.
Over six years since the leak, seven since his last proper release, Jai Paul returned. Not with just a remastered version of the leaked album, now given a title, LEAK 04-13 (BAIT ONES), but with genuinely new music. The double B-side, “Do You Love Her Now / He” is the most pristine music he’s ever released and two of the few tracks in his catalogue not affixed with a (Demo) or (Unfinished) tag in the title. “Do You Love Her Now” stands in stark contrast to much of 04-13, opting for crystal-clear guitar licks with plenty of room to breathe in the mix. As the guitars swell, Paul’s voice is heard for the first time in the better part of a decade, “Time for one more jam, yeah?” The signature explosions and comets of sonic artifacts slide with ease and Paul’s voice sounds more resolute than ever. The truth is that this is seemingly much more in line with Paul’s true artistic vision. The enthralling, bombastic psychedelia of 04-13 draws so much power from the chaotic, messy mix, a decision that was entirely out of his control.
Take “Desert River,” for example, a track that seems impossible to be contained within an mp3 file. The chugging synths and drums overpower the soundscape and are only outdone by the literal cracking of whips that sporadically maim the mix. Had Paul had the final say, the track would no doubt sound cleaner and less cluttered, but that’s the confounding magic of 04-13, an artistic creation that derives a bulk of its beauty from its incompletion and begs the question, how much fucking better could it have been? We catch a glimpse of this alternative reality on “He,” a track that, while comparatively reserved to some of the more raucous 04-13 reels, truly shreds. It’s what Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” would sound like if it had been beamed in from a planet that was not content with turning in a lackluster, boring song known only for its novelty drop. The vocal takes are sublime and the James Brown-esque swagger with which he drops the line “Let me shake this up, uh” as the instrumental outro bursts through is absolutely phenomenal.
It’s hard to know how much of the track was written around the time of the leak and how much was added now, but the third verse reads like Paul finally coming to terms with the leak: “Just as time has its way of becoming healing / Now I found some way to forget everything / No one can fuck with me, I believe him.” In a corresponding statement with the singles, Paul confessed it took him years to recover from having his life’s work stolen and published without his consent. Beneath the untold joy 04-13 has brought myself and others over the past seven years, has been the untold tragedy of the decade’s most singular artist left so emotionally drained that he was unable to create much of anything during what should’ve been the artistic prime of his life. And while it may not be what Paul envisioned, the truth of the matter is that 04-13 is the best album of the 2010s. This is the record that will define its decade; not for what it was, but for what it could have been.