I first heard Jay Electronica after the most famous rap verse of this decade.
Kendrick Lamar had just signed off his warmongering verse on 2013’s “Control.” I was about to close the browser when a weathered voice beamed in from the parting clouds: “You could check my name on the books / I earth, wind, and fired the verse, then rained on the hook…”
My ears perked up. The rapper continued: “The eyelashes like umbrellas when it rains from the heart / and the tissue is like an angel kissing you in the dark.”
I was captivated. Somehow, in a rap song, this artist by the name Jay Electronica had managed to sound both fearless and vulnerable in a line about crying. He concluded: “In a lofty place tangling with Satan over history / you can’t say shit to me, Alhamdulillah / It’s strictly by faith that we made it this far.” I had heard gangsta rap, I had heard Christian rap, I had heard conscious rap, but this was something else—this was mystical rap.
I was only fourteen in 2007 when Jay Electronica made his introduction to the world in the form of a fifteen-minute piece of music called Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge). Over the soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jay deftly rapped about topics such as the Bible, Buddha, voodoo, atoms, UFOs, meditation, and psychedelics, with a characteristically Southern unpretentiousness. Gucci Mane once rapped “Don’t talk to me ‘bout lyrical, I prophesize, I’m biblical.” Jay Electronica embodied that ethos.
Rap blogs went crazy. In the last days of crunk, Jay Electronica was hailed as hip-hop’s savior. Rumors spread of an album on the way: Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn). With each new story, Jay’s mythology swelled: He had a baby with Erykah Badu. He walked across a pile of burning bodies in Nepal. He dated a Rothschild in England. He signed to JAY-Z and Roc Nation. And on March 8, 2012, Jay Electronica tweeted: “Dear Believers and Patient Supporters. Thank you for your patience and support. The Album will be turned in Tomorrow evening. The wait ends.”
And then, when the world seemingly needed him most, Jay Electronica vanished.
At least, that's the popular narrative.
Over a decade has passed since Act I emerged, and apart from an annual single or feature, its follow-up has failed to materialize. In recent years, Jay has been clowned, mocked, derided, and dissed. The cultural conversation went from “Jay Electronica is the hip-hop messiah” to “Where the hell is Act II?” to “I’m quitting Jay Electronica.”
For a long time, I was one of the faithless. After discovering Jay Electronica, I Googled his name or checked his KanyeToThe thread every day. Many smoke-filled nights would inevitably end on YouTube, scrounging for loosies or leaks I hadn’t heard before. My initial hope turned to disappointment, to bitterness and anger.
But sometimes it’s worth taking a closer look at things.
Until recently, my understanding of Jay Electronica was informed solely by a cross-reference between Genius and Wikipedia. I assumed his turns of phrase, esoteric knowledge, and the worldview I enjoyed so much were completely unique to him. But, similar to how some scientists speculate there exists a “shadow biosphere” on Earth—that another microbial biosphere evolved independently of the last common ancestor of all known life, but is undetectable to us, because of our preconceived notions on what constitutes life—so, too, there is a hidden world of knowledge suggested by Jay Electronica’s music. Perhaps we’re just not looking in the right places.
To understand Jay Electronica you have to understand his mentor Dr. Wesley Muhammad. Jay credits Dr. Muhammad (and Wakeel Allah) with bringing him to Islam, and the pair have made multiple public appearances together, including at Oxford Union in 2014.
Dr. Muhammad is an Islamic scholar and aide to Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Muhammad’s work includes studying world history and producing assertions that often refute the mainstream Eurocentric narrative. For example, in “Black Arabia & The African Origin of Islam,” he explains the origin of the “Black God.” The Black God isn’t some self-aggrandizing neologism created by the Nation of Islam. Muhammad’s research demonstrates that a Black God was worshipped in ancient Near Indic civilizations, the result of a supreme Sun God taking the Black body as his immanent form on Earth. A variation of this myth is repeated across many ancient cultures, from India to Egypt to Central America—which is why Jay calls himself “Quetzalcoatl Supreme” in Act I.
In the appendix of the same book, Muhammad weaves together a dazzling narrative that links atoms, ancient mysteries, the Big Bang, mathematics, and of course, the Black God. Sound familiar? Dr. Muhammad’s writings are the literary equivalent of a Jay Electronica verse. They provoke the same feeling of awe and wonder when listening to Jay’s music.
But Dr. Muhammad is merely one step in tracing the philosophical lineage of Jay Electronica. Enter Five Percent Nation and the Nation of Islam.
Five Percent Nation, or the Nation of Gods and Earths, has been more influential in hip-hop than nearly any other movement. They’ve been linked to everyone from JAY-Z, Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, Rakim, Queen Latifah, and others. Five Percenters believe there are three groups of people: those who “know” and willingly share (five percent), those who “know” and manipulate for gain (10 percent), and the masses who don’t “know” (85 percent). Although related to the Nation of Islam, they disdain religious hegemony—each member is a God or Earth in their own right.
Like Dr. Muhammad, Five Percenters strive to use actual facts, instead of faith, to justify their assertions. This is a culture that binds together mathematics, physics, world history, nature, and societal observation to discover, in their terms, “the science of everything in life”—which, by no coincidence, was the former name of Jay Electronica’s official YouTube channel.
This is where the idea of a “cipher” comes from. One definition of “cipher” is something (people, place, or thing) understood completely. Decades ago, Five Percenters were instructed to teach ciphers on the streets, in the center of a standing audience, speaking loudly for passersby to hear. Sound familiar? That’s the origin of the freestyle cypher in hip-hop.
I’m no Five Percenter, even though there are Asian Five Percenters. But as a Taiwanese-American borne from an original culture, my lack of knowledge of self-growing up in the American Midwest led to a terrible, inarticulable sense of loss. It was hip-hop—listening, making, and writing about it—that helped give me a voice, and much of my early hip-hop work was done with Five Percenters: playing chess with GZA, spending a day with Tragedy Khadafi, interviewing Ghostface Killah.
The only way to actually learn Five Percent ideology is from a Five Percenter themselves. But for anyone interested in understanding Jay Electronica, the soul of hip-hop, or simply expanding their consciousness, their books are available for all. This also applies to the writings of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. When a moderator once told Jay that his music belonged in the works of literature, he remarked: “It’s already in literature—the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.”
Jay Electronica spits lines that are exactly that—“lines” for the listener to color in with their own knowledge or experience. For example, in last year’s compact guest verse on Pooh Bear and Justin Bieber’s “Hard 2 Face Reality,” Jay’s lyric that “the bigger picture and the smaller picture / exactly the same, it’s macro, micro” makes more sense when you learn the relevant insights, such as those compiled in “The Collected Wisdom of the Science of Everything in Life” by Supreme Understanding and other Five Percenters: that the structure of a brain cell mirrors the structure of the universe; that a cell, the human body, and the Earth are all two-thirds water; that a day, beginning in light and ending in dreams, simulates the journey of a life’s consciousness.
When Jay says “You could check my name on the books” in “Control,” you could learn that he really did ride a Harley to the House of Parliament and signed his name on the books. When he says “Call me Jay Dogon, I’m on some Sirius shit” in Act I, you could learn that the Dogon tribe in Africa inexplicably knew about the invisible second star of Sirius thousands of years before Westerners did, and pointed to it as their cosmic origin. When he says “the sovereign nature of France been opening their files on the UFO phenomenon” in Act I, you could learn that countries around the world have been documenting UFOs for decades, and even as this recent New York Times article demonstrates, there are still strange things, beyond comprehension, magical and awe-inspiring, that happen daily on our rock in this universe.
This isn’t to justify the lack of an album. Jay hasn’t lived up to initial expectations, at least in fans’ eyes, and collaborators such as Just Blaze and Jason Goldwatch have seemed to express their frustration. In retrospect, Jay has been releasing music on a consistent basis—in fact, his verses of the past five years on “Garden,” “How Great,” Suplexes in, and “Better in Tune with the Infinite,” are better than anything he put out in the prior decade—but there is a sense of incompleteness that surrounds him. This can’t be the way his story ends.
Jay, public setbacks and all, still has a trick up his sleeve. Act I was named after the magic trick sequence as explained in the film “The Prestige”: first, you show the audience something ordinary. Then you make it do something extraordinary. But “making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call ‘The Prestige.’” Act III is the true masterwork, and whatever form it takes is hard to say. Maybe it will be the long-awaited album. Maybe it will be a collaboration album with JAY-Z. Time will tell.
But I think we’ve been so caught up in waiting for Act II—or whatever your Act II is, whether it’s Kanye or Kendrick or Frank Ocean or J. Cole’s next album, whether it’s waiting for your politician of choice to be elected, whether it’s to get married, to retire, to move away—that we never really go and seek the answers to life's great mysteries ourselves.
Ironically, in the age of unlimited information, much of our political ideology is drawn from Tumblr or Twitter, our knowledge is gathered from Wikipedia, our aspirations are shaped by Instagram. The purest form of knowledge is found in books, and the only way to transform knowledge into understanding is through courageous action. Mysticism, the source from which Jay Electronica draws his essence, is a fount available in every culture, whether it’s accessed through Gnosticism, Kabbalah, Sufism, Taoism, Five Percent Nation, or simple meditation.
The nature of humanity is to wait for the savior. It’s why we put our trust in false messiahs, why we campaign for outdated political systems that have killed hundreds of millions of people, why we become infatuated and are inevitably heartbroken. So often we elevate the artist as a God figure, without realizing that we ourselves are God—or at least created in his or her image.
Whatever wisdom that Act II would bring already exists. It exists in the writings of Elijah Muhammad, Dr. Wesley Muhammad, and the Five Percent Nation. It exists in love, hope, struggle, sacred texts, chord progressions, a bond with an animal, at the top of a mountain, at the end of a long road, on the road itself, in discovering the meaning of your name, or the name you’ve lost, in learning about your people, in discovering your purpose, in activating ancestral memories, and connecting to the infinite consciousness that binds every organism in the universe.
Whenever Jay Electronica releases his next monumental piece of music, it surely will be inspirational. But what is the definition of “inspire”? It means “to fill someone with the urge to feel or do something.” Jay Electronica’s album is not going to save the world. It’s not going to save hip-hop. It’s not going to save you.
But it may inspire you to save yourself.