It’s Hard Being a Rap Legend

“When someone appears as otherworldly, it’s easy to forget they aren’t.”
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Andre 3000, Jay Electronica, 2020

1. Life’s Funny Ironies

I thought of James Baldwin as the seatbelts unclipped. He stayed on my mind as I entered my Uber, a Honda CR-V, driven by a Cuban woman named Mercedes. She spoke about her relocation from Cuba to Miami while I reread portions of Baldwin’s “The Fight: Patterson vs. Liston.” She dropped me off in front of my hotel, the Hyde Midtown Miami.

The following day, while attending the outdoor record fair at Gramps, I spotted a vinyl-selling vendor with several books on display. Two caught my eye: James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name and Amiri Baraka’s Funk Lore. I asked to see them, and the vendor said of Baraka in a thick British accent, “He used to go by LeRoi Jones.”

Together, the books were six dollars. I paid with a smile.

On my flight back to Atlanta, I chose Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name over Funk Lore. “These essays were written over the last six years, in various places and in many states of mind,” begins the introduction. The opening paragraph continues with the late author and activist reflecting on Europe, the end of his “first” youth, and this realization:

“I had, indeed, become a writer; so far; so good: now I would have to go the distance.”

Going the distance is a dilemma a writer may face as they transition from aspiring scribe to notarized wordsmith. It’s like a musician who signs a major-label record contract. The deal allows music to become their business, but now they have to make the music, perform the shows, be the brand, and sell the albums. Now they have to do the work. With that comes attention and fame, a tricky reward. Enough of it will make the artist rich and renowned, but they’ll also be living underneath the microscope of a million different eyes.

2. What’s Cooler Than Being Cool?

A rapper, creatively, exists between writer and musician, poet and entertainer. They’re also the purveyors of cool. Often, rappers who introduce a new “cool” go the distance in one way or another, but what happens when they get to the other side?

Three weeks after the 1998 release of OutKast’s third studio album, Aquemini, André 3000 told Rolling Stone, “We never want to be just straight local. When we started making music, we wanted to get everybody on the planet to hear it.” This desire came into fruition by 2003, when the Atlanta-born rap duo released their double-disc, fifth studio album, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. The GRAMMY-Award winning album sold over 10 million copies, certified Diamond by the RIAA, making André Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton a special kind of celebrity—living legends.

Getting what you wished for is a double-edged sword. On one side is everything you want, and on the other is everything you don’t expect. Celebrities, especially musicians, often struggle with fame because attention does not come to anyone who doesn’t ask for it, but they can’t control how much they’ll receive.

I told the girl I’m ‘bout to sell the Porsche, I’m tired of it, she go and told these folks I’m goin’ broke,” André 3000 opens his 2014 guest verse on Future’s “Benz Friendz (Whatchutola).” Three Stacks sounds disappointed as if he’s surprised a private conversation about his car became a public conversation about his wealth. That’s a part of being a celebrity: having your privacy invaded based on half-truths and make-believe rumors.

Years prior, in 2009, André was arrested for speeding in his 2007 Porsche Carrera. Atlanta police pulled him over for going 109 MPH in a 65. “Traveling that fast along 75, you’re passing people as if they’re standing still,” Henry County Police Captain Jason Bolton told Atlanta’s WSB-TV the morning of André’s arrest. That’s what fame must feel like—you’re moving faster than the people around you; racing to a destination hoping they don’t see you.

Speeding and the Porsche are both referenced in André’s 2012 guest verse on T.I.’s “Sorry:”

I learned that apartments way more exciting than a big-ass house on a hill / I used to be a way better writer and a rapper when I used to want a black Karmann Ghia (Woo!) / Now a nigga speeding in a Porsche (Ahh) / Feeling like I’m going off a course (Ahh)” –André 3000, “Sorry”

Lyrically, “Sorry” is André confronting his legend. The verse showcases, very candidly, how the world-renown recording artist felt about the attention, fame, and fortune. In merging vignettes of his personal and private life, the listener receives the most honest portrayal of André Benjamin, the rap genius who never cared about the money or accolades. Now, after all, he’s accomplished, he’s able to reflect on the choices that led him here.

André 3000’s verse on “Sorry” speaks to the struggle of being a writer, going the distance, and having the world at your fingertips. Sure, extreme fame grants you a nice car, a house on the hill, an abundance of money and freedom, but you have to make choices. Serious, life-changing decisions that will cause drastic changes once you become a legend; things cannot simply go back to how they were.

3. The Insecurities of a God Emcee

When Jay Electronica’s Just Blaze-produced single “Exhibit C” dropped December 22, 2009, gatekeepers championed the release from the underground rapper with their glowing approval. DJ Enuff brought the song to commercial radio while bloggers wrote of the song on their sites. The excitement around this song and artist created a bidding war between record labels to sign a 33-year-old emcee from New Orleans, a Southern legend in the making.

Everything about Jay Electronica was naturally mysterious; he was like some character out of a comic book. No one seemed to know where he came from or what he would do next. How could one begin to guess? This is the same rapper who looped separate pieces of Jon Brion’s original score from the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to make a 15-minute rap tour de force called Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge), his debut project. Act 1 was like a demo tape, one that said: I am here, I will save you.

The radio stations’ll never put a nigga on / Just Mims, just 50, just Wayne, just Jeezy / Dem Franchize Boyz, and Jimmy Jones / Fuck that, fuck rap this god-hop / Kingdom music for the hard rocks / I’mma spit it 'til TRL get it and Hot 97 hit a nigga with a bomb drop / Ask Flex, ask Slay, ask Whoo Kid / Just Blaze said Jay is the new kid.” –Jay Electronica (2007)

The pride of a God emcee fills every lyric of Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge). Jay Electronica was sure of himself, a confidence that was on par with his potential. For the first time, hip-hop saw a savior in a new rapper from the South. All he had to do was deliver on the promise to save the game.

Jay Electronica released his debut album, A Written Testimony, on March 13, 2020. Eight of the 10 songs feature JAY-Z. Although Jay and JAY have a robust collaborative rapport, when Electronica signed to Roc Nation in 2010, a full-length collaboration with his label head wasn’t the album he promised to put out. He promised Act II: Patents of Nobility (the Turn).

Why change the album? What happened to the original Act II: Patents of Nobility (the Turn)? Until Jay hits the interview circuit—if he hits the interview circuit—both questions will remain unanswered. It’s not abnormal for a rapper to hoard unreleased records, but some of the lyrics on A Written Testimony allude to a paralyzing pressure. On track three, “The Blinding,” produced by Swizz Beatz, AraabMuzik and HIT-BOY, the “Exhibit C” rapper gets candid about his private thoughts:

When I lay down in my bed it’s like my head in the vice / When I look inside the mirror all I see is flaws / When I look inside the mirror all I see is Mars / In the wee hours of night, tryna squeeze out bars / Bismillah, just so y’all could pick me apart?” –Jay Electronica, “The Blinding”

Throughout the 10 years leading up to A Written Testimony, Jay Electronica’s life changed. Drastically. Before signing to Roc Nation, there were no insecurities found in his music. Go back and listen to “Uzi Weighs A Ton,” or “My World (Nas Salute),” or “Swagger Jackson’s Revenge,” or “Annakin’s Prayer,” or “Dimethyltryptamine,” all records that represent the confident rapper who Diddy called, “The future” on a song titled “The Ghost of Christopher Wallace.” Imagine that, being heralded as Biggie’s ghost? As the one who could return hip-hop to the essence of rap.

On his long-awaited debut, Jay Electronica is still a mythical emcee, but his perspective is no longer that of a rapper with something to prove or with promises to make. He doesn’t rap over any movie scores or switch into any of Biggie’s flows. There’s nothing as world-stopping as “Exhibit C” or breathtaking as “Dear Moleskine,” but his famous wizardry is present. Jay, 43, didn’t miss a step, per se, but there’s something different about him as if he decided to move in a different formation.

Eyes fiery, cry tears to my diary, sometimes a Xanny bar cant help you fight back the anxiety,” Jay begins gently on “A.P.I.D.T.A.,” a reference to his mental health and the beginning of one of the most touching verses of 2020. The following lyrics are confessional, leading up to the heartbreaking revelation that his mother passed away. As the album ends, for the first time, the listener feels the weight of Jay Electronica’s real life—the life he never lets the listener see.

After 10 years of waiting for a savior, Jay used A Written Testimony to remind the listener that he’s human. When someone appears as otherworldly, it’s easy to forget they aren’t. Songs like “A.P.I.D.T.A” and André 3000’s “Me&My (To Bury Your Parents)” exchange the wizardry of their language for flesh and blood. You can’t view them as legends of rap; you have to see them as men—men with heavy hearts.

Becoming a legend and facing your legend are subjects the late James Baldwin discussed in his November 1987 interview with Quincy Troupe. He was 63 years old, fighting cancer, discussing his life with a friend and journalist for the last time. When asked about his relationship with Miles Davis, Baldwin explained how the jazz trumpeter saw him as a brother, not a writer, and the reason why was simple:

“In many ways I have the same difficulty as he has, in terms of the private and public life. In terms of legend. It’s difficult to be a legend. It’s hard for me to recognize me. You spend a lot of time trying to avoid it. A lot of the time I’ve been through so many of the same experiences Miles has gone through. It’s really something, to be a legend, unbearable. I could see it had happened to Miles. Again, it’s unbearable, the way the world treats you is unbearable, and especially if you’re black.”

Be kind to the legends going the distance; you never know what they’re going through. 

By Yoh, aka Yohmosis Jones, aka @Yoh31

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