From Noname to Jay Electronica, the Curious Case of Hip-Hop’s Hermits

By | Posted April 10, 2017
It takes a special artist to be out of sight but not out of mind.

Rap the genre and hip-hop the culture attract more good men and women than the Army, but only a chosen few make you feel as if you’re witnessing something great; a true anomaly to the standard. I vividly recall the excitement that bubbled deep in the bowels of my hip-hop soul the first time I pressed play on “Exhibit C.” For almost six minutes, Jay sounded like a mage as if Merlin were reincarnated as a black Magnolia Projects native and discovered how to cast incantations through rapping. 

Just Blaze's production has the soul of a holy ghost, but there's something about Just’s monologues at the beginning and end; you can hear the triumph in his tone as he praises Jay. He’s like a man who acquired all the Dragon Balls and knew better days were a wish away. In his confidence, I saw the future. Many did. The blogosphere reacted like royalty had just arrived to take the hip-hop kingdom into a new era. Nas declared her dead three years prior, and there was a desire for a top-tier rapper to bring upon a renaissance.

Jay Electronica was the latest to shepherd a sense of hope to hip-hop, and “Exhibit C” was that hope personified. In the eight years that followed “Exhibit C,” hope slowly turned into disappointment, and all the promise surrounding his name has been replaced with skepticism and doubt―it's as if he proposed to hip-hop and left her standing at the altar with no explanation. With each passing year, I wonder how Jay will be remembered, for what he contributed or for what he didn’t? 

Jay wasn't the first and he is far from the only hip-hop artist to leave or linger before living up to his potential. Two years prior to Electronica’s most notable single, Kanye rapped on “Champion,” “Lauryn Hill said her heart was in Zion, I wish her heart still was in rhymin’,” a selfish lyric but one that resonated with fans who wished for Lauryn’s return like Jay fans stay wishing for an album. I wouldn’t compare Lauryn to Jay, they live on two different planets of cultural impact, but both are mythical in a sense―unicorns who refuse to run the race of horses. Lesser artists would have been forgotten, unmentioned, left alone in their silence, but these two weren’t ordinary, and that created a yearning that doesn’t dwindle. 

Hip-hop’s infatuation with the quiet, reclusive genius is a common relationship between artist and audience. There’s a natural attraction to mystery, an allure to those that make us wonder, and it’s only heightened when the individual is gifted. The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill may be turning 20 next year but the music has yet to turn wrinkled or feel worn—in its second decade the ‘98 debut is still being uncovered and treasured by music lovers. 

Lauryn left her lasting print on hip-hop with only one album. She changed the climate. Imagine if Nas only released Illmatic? If his career started and ended with his most heralded and culturally significant release―how would he be perceived? Nas is admired, praised and adored, but if all he offered the world was one of the greatest rap albums ever created, and then walked away from the microphone, he would be in a different class of acclaim. Nasir Jones wouldn’t just be seen as another rapper staying relevant in his advancing age. They would kiss the ground he walks upon for his sole contribution to the culture. The yearning for more would be seen from both fans and peers. 

Nas would become more than a genius, but a symbol of excellence that walked away too soon. That’s Lauryn in a modern sense. Fans will wait for hours only to see Ms. Hill show up late for a concert and perform music older than Jaden Smith. She’s no longer in her prime, but tickets are bought and people still arrive hoping to get a glimpse of the magic. Hoping to be re-educated.  

When Chicago’s own Noname tweeted, “I’m not dropping music for a long time so enjoy this verse from me,” it was a sign that we could be witnessing another reclusive genius that’s slowly backing away from the brightening spotlight. She’s always been reluctant to be thrust into center stage. Her initial arrival was a quiet one, creeping into earbuds through feature placements―she didn’t have an album and there was no project to dissect―but her guest appearances had a touch of magnetism to each of them. 

The way Noname puts words together is spellbinding; she's the Hermione Granger of Hip-Hop Hogwarts. For some time it seemed that her long-awaited debut album Telefone would be another myth to be placed alongside Jay Electronica's Act II and Dr. Dre's Detox, but last year she kept her promise and gave the world a body of work to admire. The acclaim rolled in, it felt as if she was here to stay, and soon as the idea seemed plausible, she crushed dreams with a tweet of an exit just as she was truly arriving. It's poetic how an artist with no name is planning an extended hiatus just as she begins to make one for herself. 

Rappers come and rappers go, but I always thought Noname was special. A few weeks ago I tweeted, “Noname is the best rapper since Jay Electronica,” a thought that was both honest and a bit hyperbolic. It mostly stems from the fact that her arrival gave me the same electricity of excitement like Electronica, and both, coincidentally left me wanting more. 

And I know the money don't really make me whole,” is the first line heard on Noname’s “Yesterday,” the intro to Telefone. She declares from the beginning that she understands money won’t leave her fulfilled, a message most rappers won’t admit. Money tends to be the root of motivation, but not for her. What she desires doesn’t fit in a bank account and cannot be folded into a wallet. The line takes me back to André 3000’s apology to Big Boi on T.I.’s “Sorry,” where OutKast's hermit rapped, “I'm sorry I'm awkward / my fault for fuckin' up the tours / I hated all the attention so I ran from it / Fuck it if we did, but I hope we ain't lose no fans from it / I'm a grown-ass kid, you know ain't never cared about no damn money." A poignant confession from of rap’s most mystifying figures.

André left millions of dollars on the table. He pretty much pulled a Chappelle without the trip to Africa. Things got too big; OutKast was the biggest rap group in the world, and he couldn’t take what was becoming of his celebrity. Money and fame weren't what Dre wanted. The world called for him and he didn’t answer. We had nothing to offer but dead men on green paper, and that wasn’t enticing enough. He's one of the most renowned lyricists of all time, a wordsmith with few equals. All we wanted was an album, and all he wanted was peace.

There’s an interesting link between Lauryn, Noname, Jay Elect and André―four impressive poets who would rather live outside the spectrum of celebrity to maintain their lives. I see them as a lineage of hermits, all cut from a reclusive cloth that makes them step away instead of being the apples of our eye. You can only see Lauryn on tour, otherwise, she is separated from the world. Jay pops up on social media occasionally and might be seen at a show or festival, but he’s mostly in some fortress of solitude. The only way to follow André is to search Instagram for sightings; people see him and they take pictures, but very little is revealed by finding his whereabouts, and no one knows what he’s thinking. We can only hope he’s still considering a solo album, but only a fool would wait with bated breath. Noname is on tour, she’s becoming more visible on social media, but intuition tells me it won’t last, that soon she will retreat into the shadows. What if she pulls a Lauryn? What if she never returns with new music? I get the same feeling from SZA; that she will give us one album that will be met with glowing approval and that will be it, a project that says hello and goodbye. It's a sad possibility.

Then you have Frank Ocean, the hermit who lives on the margins of society. It’s impossible to know when he will return. For four years he gave the industry a Carmen Sandiego level of elusiveness. Where he was, what he was doing and what he was making was known by only a chosen few and they kept their lips tight. Tumblr was the only medium to prove he was still in the world; aware of all, but still hidden in some castle of his making. Blonde came with little warning, it was a grand return and simultaneous disappearance. After four years of being away, he didn’t care to answer questions but to remain secluded and cryptic. Frank doesn’t care to be our American idol, he is more Mos Def than Drake, more Prince than Justin Beiber. He could drop an album tomorrow or never again, the waiting is what drives us crazy and keeps us enamored.

It takes a special artist to be out of sight but not out of mind. We crave their presence because the void left behind isn’t easily filled, like trying to replace a favorite food that’s been removed from the menu. We hope for their return, to give us that feeling again. I understand the craving, the longing, but it's necessary to treasure what we have instead of asking for what we don’t. As listeners, we can’t force artists to sing when we say sing and to dance when we say dance. The hermit creators belong to no man and live by no rules.

The beauty of it all is knowing the artist is out there, somewhere, possibly crafting another song or body of work that will hit your spirit. We wait for them because they are worth waiting for. Let the genius roam, allow them to live their life, and hopefully, it inspires what they do next. If all they do is roam, if they never return to us, a wise man once said, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."

Love the artist, love the art, but the artists who truly mean the world to us are better off in the shadows than the spotlight. The true magic happens in places we can’t see. Our only job is to wait and wait we shall for you never know when the next piece of great art or great artist will appear just to vanish before our eyes. 

By Yoh, aka Turtle Hermit Yoh, aka @Yoh31

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