I’m going to practise having a conversation with you, so that we’re both prepared in a few years’ time. Ok, me first:
Jesal: “Damn, Jay Electronica was actually really dope. What happened to him?”
You: “Who the fuck is Jay Elect-ohhhhhhh.. Yeah!! Shit, what happened was Roc motherfuckin’ Nation happened to him, is what happened.”
Best to be prepared, hurts less that way. Whilst there is no cast-iron guarantee that Jay-Z and his cohorts are going to royally fuck up Jay Electronica’s career, one need only look at the type of artists that Jay-Z has signed, not to mention his stint as Def Jam President.
There was a supremely talented English football player called Glenn Hoddle, with such natural talent that many considered him an all-time great in certain respects. Following his playing career, he moved into a relatively successful career as a coach (culminating in taking over the English national team – also known as “The Impossible Job”). But one problem followed him into every role – he was SO much better than pretty much every player he actually managed. And he couldn’t deal with it, he couldn’t hide his contempt and frustration that these players just weren’t as good as him. In other words, he couldn’t let go. That, more than anything, is the reason why he hasn’t had a working job for almost 5 years.
It reminds me of Jay-Z. Many consider him THE greatest rapper of all time, in terms of all-round accomplishments. His time at Def Jam, however, wreaked of failure when considering how little he took care of fellow rappers (sure, launching Rihanna and Ne-Yo were major successes, but they don’t count in this discussion). How did it go so wrong? Well, the head honcho’s at major labels never achieve success as artists. Their talents lie in identifying what will make them good money, who will create great art and, subsequently, taking care of them. They understand that artists are not robots. Jay never got that, simply because he himself was like an award-winning juggernaut, with relatively few failures. When an artist came and presented their album, he would sit there and try to comprehend why it was so bad, compared to his own work. Or he would promise to work hard on the promotion, but then provide virtually no marketing budget. He created a climate of instability; he would even call out his own roster in the press. More than that, Def Jam albums from his era were the most soulless and formulaic offerings, save for a couple of cattle that made it through.
Yes, Willow Smith will be a star over the next decade. Yes, publishing deals will rake money into the Roc Nation coffers. But how will an artist such as Jay Electronica even survive on a label such as this? A label where J.Cole finally drops a mixtape full of genial off-cuts from his highly-anticipated album, and 10 minutes later, Electronica is announced as a signee, thus dominating the whole weekend? Artistically, Jay Elect is the guy who, it was rumoured, may never even release an album; the guy who makes 15 minute songs; the guys who has probably never even rapped over a wack beat; the guy who I actually started this year on stage with (bizarrely enough); the people really love him, and his almost Kerouac-esque tale is being threatened by complete derailment.
People aren’t worried about Jay E signing with a label, or releasing an album. No. They are concerned that he aligned himself with Diddy, a serial wrecker of careers, and now with Carter, who seemingly doesn’t know how to handle other rappers (aside from Kanye West, it must be said). Realistically, we aren’t expecting to find Electronica on the “Whip My Hair (Remix)” but his esoteric, almost unique style will surely be ironed out. At the very least, he will be forced to make countless concessions, and the genial soundtrack music we’ve heard thus far from him, culminating in “Exhibit C” and co, will soon seem like distant memories.
Let’s sincerely hope that the good folk at Roc Nation have the common sense not to interfere too much with the talent. Maybe Jay-Z has learnt a lot from his time at Def Jam, and is determined not to make the same mistakes again – but one of the problems is that when things go wrong, there is an identifiable head to blame. I wouldn’t know L.A. Reid if he passed me in the street, or Tommy Mottola; Russell Simmons became famous through being good at his job. Roc Nation is making moves, but let us pray that intangibles such as “artistry” don’t fall by the wayside. If this is just simply a case of them expanding their portfolio to include clever acts with a loyal fan base, and provide them with a platform from which they can go global, then fantastic. But experience whispers in the hip hop heads’ ears, warning them to beware. Even more than Puffy, Jay-Z really is all about the Benjamins.