Ten Years After His Debut Album Leaked, Jai Paul Is Right on Time
In 2010, British musician Jai Paul emerged on Myspace with “BTSTU,” a brooding, ambient hymn for a generation. “I know I’ve been gone a long time,” he sings on the chorus. “I’m back, and I want what is mine.” The posturing feels more spiritual than literal. Paul’s music seemed to come from somewhere between the past and the future. Even today, attempting to explain the song’s impact almost feels like recounting a dream. Drake’s longtime producer, Noah “40” Shebib, flipped Paul’s opening credo on the track: “Don’t fuck with me/Don’t fuck with me” for the beat on 2011’s “Dreams Money Can Buy,” arguably one of Drake’s best songs. A singer-songwriter by the name of Niia uploaded a cover version of “BTSTU” to her SoundCloud page as part of a remix contest that would result in Beyoncé sampling the track on “End of Time” from her album 4. This was all before Paul even released a full EP. Earlier this month, more than a decade after its release, he performed the track for the first time in front of an audience, at Coachella, still sounding unmoored by the linear constrictions of time.
Paul followed “BTSTU” with “Jasmine,” formally released in 2012 by XL Recordings. Then, a trove of music amounting to Paul’s debut appeared on Bandcamp. Psychedelic and experimental love songs written intimately, their specifics oozing a diary-like vulnerability. It might have launched one of the biggest careers of the 2010s were the album not an unauthorized leak. “To confirm: demos on Bandcamp were not uploaded by me, this is not my debut album,” Jai Paul tweeted shortly after the songs hit the web. “Please don’t buy.”
From there, the album existed in infamy. Paul would exit the public eye for several years, and all traces of the leak would quietly vanish from the web. But the myth would only grow. The music on the project remains unlike anything that came before it or since, a kind of extraterrestrial transmission. Paul’s vocals, breezily undulating between registers, infused a disarming honesty that belied the organized sonic chaos surrounding it. The album traveled between fans online as a zip file shared discretely like a love note. Finally, in 2019, the songs leaked on Bandcamp received an official release titled Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones).
Last night, at Paul’s first performance in New York City, fresh from his debut at Coachella, the scale of a collective online memory came into focus. Alongside a full live band, including his brother A.K. Paul on guitar and the singer Fabiana Palladino on keyboards and backing vocals, Jai Paul took the stage at the Knockdown Center in Queens, performing decade-old songs for the sold-out crowd of everyone from Zoomers to aging millennials who probably never thought this day would come.
Following the release of Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones), Paul wrote to fans about the leak and his long absence. “I understand that it might have seemed like a positive thing to a lot of people — the music they had been waiting to hear was finally out there — but for me, it was very difficult to deal with,” he wrote. “The hardest thing to grasp was that I’d been denied the opportunity to finish my work and share it in its best possible form.”
For all of his elusiveness, Paul is rather intentional in the way he communicates. A few days before his Coachella set, he wrote a post on the official Jai Paul subreddit. “I’m gonna be playing my first ever live show and I’m not gonna lie I am absolutely shitting it,” he wrote. “Just wanted to acknowledge the real heads over here and… let u lot know how much I appreciate you lot sticking it out with me for all this time. Hopefully it’s all gonna be worth it.”
His affability onstage in New York — Paul couldn’t help but giggle at the grandiosity of the moment — reflected that same sense of close-range humility. Paul almost looked like he didn’t know what to do with all of the real estate afforded to him, opting to move within a small radius, gently shuffling along as he sang and repeatedly raising his arms up, almost as to receive the palpable sense of love and joy radiating throughout the room.
He opened with a version of his Little Dragon and Big Boi collaboration “Higher Res.” The song’s pulsating drum beat rang triumphantly through the expansive venue, finding a booming sweet spot hard to maintain in a space that massive. He segued into his 2021 release “He,” a similarly bass-drenched tune made more dexterous in a live setting — though Knockdown Center’s cacophonous acoustics at times muddied the otherwise excellent instrumentation.
That much of Paul’s work relies on live instruments might surprise fans expecting the kind of proto-rave dynamic well-known electronic musicians (and, increasingly, pop stars) are known for. Paul’s set instead felt more like a basement show performed at the scale of the internet. During “100,000,” the crowd moshed and head-banged, the adults reverting to the revelry of a time when indie stars could successfully tour small venues for years, while younger fans bounced around like this was all they knew.
Shortly after, he performed a new single that fans are calling “So Long.” The only note in my phone from the track was “Bruh can sing.” Like much of Paul’s oeuvre, the song takes cues from R&B maestros like Prince, finding a supple, irresistible groove in themes of unrequited love. The same goes for his rousing live rendition of “Do You Love Her Now,” where Paul’s emotive clarity pierced through the crowded room so much so that by the time Fabiana Palladino’s part — a foil to our forlorn narrator — arrived, you might have felt a small jolt of activity inside your tear ducts. But this wasn’t a time for moping, and Paul transitioned elegantly into the bona fide hit “Jasmine,” sending the crowd into a frenzy.
Then came “BTSTU,” the song that brought us all here in the first place. By now, Paul seemed less shy up onstage, rapping the song with the bravado you might expect from Drake himself. In fact, I overheard a handful of people rapping Drake’s verse to the remix along to the set almost as if by instinct. The show would then close on a high with “Str8 Outta Mumbai,” easily the most notable banger from his album.
For an artist’s first performance, Jai Paul’s New York debut was about all you could ask for (and he’s doing it again for a second night this evening), yet it felt at times too present. It would have likely made for a better experience in a much smaller venue, but the intimate and obsessive kind of listening that his music first engendered doesn’t quite have a place in the current landscape. Fans had to enter a raffle for tickets in the same way you have to buy limited-edition sneakers. In the decade since the leak, Jai Paul has become one of the most sought-after musicians in the world, making his live debut somewhat bittersweet. Jai Paul’s story is partly the story of the past decade online, where nothing feels small or intimate anymore. Even if you try.
So Long *new, unreleased song
Do You Love Her Now
Str8 Outta Mumbai
A.K. Paul (Guitar)
Fabiana Palladino (Keys and BV)
Rocco Palladino (Bass)
Isaac Kizito (Drums)