Hip-hop’s man from the mountains, made of lightning and chicken bones, proved to be exceedingly mortal in the best possible way Saturday in Brooklyn. At first, it was hard to tell: Jay Electronica marched out on stage with a group of young men dressed in classic tuxes with red bowties, looking like some serious, southern 5 Percenters. Next came the proclamation many have mentioned: “I am Jay Electronica, and I am hip-hop.” Coming after (and before) droves of rappers claiming to be “real” “lyrical” hip-hop, Jay Elect’s statement was as good an answer to their false (except for Raekwon) throne-claiming as anything could have been. In a hip-hop world where everyone is looking for where the “real” music went, Jay felt both the “realest” and the realest; not only did he come with songs packed with more poetry and philosophy than any other non-Raekwon act could fathom, he performed them like a real person.
Jay Electronica has been criticized and pondered over as one of the more nervous rappers in the industry. While he was in complete, icy control for a few moments at the start there, a different side of Jay Elect opened up as the show went on. He left the initial marching behind for occasionally frantic pacing. He laughed. He stumbled over his words. He yelled “Brooklyn!” and “louder!” with a bellow so Schwarzenegger-like that it had to be part-joke. He swayed side to side like it was his first time hearing each beat. He was giddy, if maybe a little anxious.Letting that anxiousness show, though, was no weakness. Whereas many artists grow forgettable and stale because of always-cool, bulletproof demeanors, Jay Electronica’s music and performances remain impactful first and foremost because of their earnest ache. This man has written about crying time and again. Though it can often get lost in the voodoo fog and UFO highbeams of his other lyrics, he’s a soul-baring artist. His passion for connecting shows tenfold from the stage: not half of the first song had finished before he leapt onto the speakers to be closer to the crowd. It only took another song or so before he all but pleaded for someone, be it fan or security, to find a way to get him down off the stage through the photo pit and over the barrier so he could be “with the people.” He repeated this several times during his set, notably ending it all screaming “Exhibit C” in a center of folks who knew every word.Because Jay Elect was celebrating Ramadan, he was thirsty, he told us, before asking the crowd’s permission to have just a sip of water. Later in the show: just another sip, if you don’t mind. Jay was a southern gentleman through and through, and was spotted after the show taking pictures with fans for roughly an hour before leaving.
Jay Elect had bumped his set up for some “special surprises,” which, after seeing Mac Miller back stage, we figured meant Mac Miller. A kind of chunky looking Mac strutted out on stage to the opening organ from “Suplexes Inside Of Complexes Inside Of Duplexes,” began to spit, sort of missed the drop in of the drums, laughed it off while rapping, and then about 3 bars later, completely forgot his verse. So he freestyled. Jay Elect, proving a master at keeping the party rolling, didn’t try to right the ship by coming in with his own incredibly intricate verse he freestyled back to Mac. Sure, both were mostly terrible at rhyming off the top of the head (and neither have been known to) but it was a fun and funny gear-shift from pondering the mysteries of the phantom of the chakra. Laughing and hugging each other, Jay convinced Mac to stay on stage and hang out.
Next came the sweet pitter-patter of the drums for “Just Begun,” and sure enough, there was Talib Kweli, spitting with downright incredible breath control and percussiveness. He was only up there for one verse, but he might have been the most technically on point rapper of the whole festival. Additionally, it was dope to see that Mac jumped in for some words of Kweli’s verse because 1) When did you ever think their names would wind up together? 2) That’s a reminder that they made this song 3) Mac clearly didn’t know he’d be up there for “Just Begun,” so he was just jumping in spontaneously.Though it would have been more than enough to just see Kweli, Mac, and Jay Elect on the stage together, J. Cole came out too. Hilariously, Mac had to run off stage to hand Cole the mic because there were only 3 to go around. Cole also came extremely correct, nailing his verse and moving with poised athleticism. The show rolled on with Jay Elect ripping up renditions of “The Ghost Of Christopher Wallace” and his version of “Kick In The Door,” which served as a good Biggie tribute, though one that was less passionate than his Dilla tribute earlier in the show. Jay performed “Dimethyltryptamine” and “Abracadabra” and ended by having the entire crowd scream as loud as they could for Dilla, perhaps with the intention that he hear us from heaven, but the roar was so chillingly passionate that it sounded more like one of pain or anger at the universe for his loss.
“The Ghost Of Christopher Wallace” tripped Jay up a bit because of how quiet the music was, which was actually a problem for the whole day; perhaps the festival’s intense focus on bars made them forget that the rhymes should be in synergy with the music, rather than on top of it.Jay Elect grew more jittery and eager than ever as he implored the crowd to throw their diamonds in the sky. “Broooooklyn,” he Schwarzenegger-screamed again and again. Suspiciously, a few extra bodyguards entered the stage. A voice came on the PA: “I need the music in my, uh, ear.” Everyone knows that voice. Just like that, there was Jay Z. Hov jumped right to the front of the stage and rocked his stellar verse from “Young Gifted & Black,” a deep cut that few could recognize in the instant. This had a few effects: for one, a sort of re-introduction combined with a flashback–Jay as if we’ve never seen him before, sounding like himself in his prime. Secondly, this showed Jay’s respect for the festival, opting to perform a lyric-centric cut so as to fit the day’s mission statement. Jay Z is a truly great performer. It’s hard to imagine someone else being more confident. He hit nearly every syllable on the head, and every flick of his wrist, every shout to the crowd (“It feels good to be home!”) felt, however small, like a master stroke. Jay Elect held his own, of course, but also clearly grew excited to have Hov on stage. He spent much of Jigga’s set watching him, and when Electronica spat his verse on “We Made It” he seemingly was so excited that he sped up just a hair past the beat.
The two were an electrifying, unexpected combination: the mystic who speaks from the heart, and the business man who couldn’t be slicker. We have no idea what the handing over of the Islamic medallion at the end of the show means going forward, but if it has anything to do with Jay Electronica continuing to appear, we are absolutely game.
Check out our pics and review of Raekwon‘s set here.
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