As of this writing, 673 people have signed an online petition imploring Jai Paul's label, XL Recordings, to release his debut album. "The 'leak' was seriously the best album of this year," insists the petitioner, referring to 16 demos that unceremoniously surfaced on Bandcamp in April only to beswiftly removed and denounced by both Paul and XL amidst rumors of a stolen laptop. Though the notoriously painstaking London artist—who works with his bassist and brother Anup—has only released two singles over the course of the last two and a half years, the global breadth of the petition’s signees suggests a wide reach, including fans in France, Korea, Colombia, and New Jersey. This cosmopolitan base matches the music that makes up this not-album, from its samples of both traditional Indian music to snatches of "Gossip Girl" dialogue, from its Princely guitar solos to all those half-drunk beats that wear their Dilla love with pride. Unfortunately, even if the petition hits 10,000 signatures, it probably won't change much. Indeed, by all accounts, XL would like to see a proper Jai Paul album most.
Even considering the surrounding controversy, these tracks give us insight into an artist who doesn't seem like a machiavellian internet hype-master as much as a doubter, a tinkerer, an idealist. In his only interview thus far, from 2011, he said, "Music to me was just a hobby and, in a way, I didn't care about showing it to anyone." And that internal struggle—so elusive in ourshow me, show me, show me social media world—plays out in these songs, where he sings, perhaps prophetically, "In the company of thieves/ Will I stay or will I leave?/ Will they steal away my life?/ Will I go down without my fight?/ I might." Paradoxically, Paul's apparent ambivalence toward a music industry that's desperate to support him has only stirred the fervor of those willing to drop £7 on a shady looking Bandcamp page. When he's ready, we will be, too; if he's not, at least we've got something. — Ryan Dombal
When Earl raps, he gazes far off into the distance, so cosmically bored is he by our interest. Watch him on “Sway in the Morning,” at god knows what hour, slumped in front of a fluorescent-lit table: This freestyle is an industry rite of passage, and yet this one is different, precisely because Earl is there, and everyone, in that moment, exists to please him. Sway plays beat after beat; Earl, with the contemptuous purity of a teenager, waves each one away. "What would you prefer?" Sway asks courteously, his industry-vet eyes narrowing with the effort of getting inside Earl's head. When he drops "Drop It Like It's Hot (Remix)", a grin cracks Earl's face; his head bops goofily. The physical relief that washes over Sway's body, as he leans back, is palpable. This is the relationship Earl has to the world: We want, more than anything, to hear him rap. We will stand and wait expectantly for minutes, years. Frankly, it's awkward, maybe even a little pathetic. Being a functioning teenager, he doesn't exactly relish handing expectant adults what they're waiting for, and thus the first voice we hear on Doris belongs, hilariously, to Frank Ocean's cousin.This ambivalence is the dance of Doris, the story of Earl Sweatshirt: How do you do what you want when strangers seem to want it even more badly than you do? "Don't nobody care about how you feel," Vince Staples teases on the intro to "Burgundy". "We want raps." Sooner or later, he's going to have to give up the goods. So he sighs, leans in, opens his mouth.
The second he does, our anticipation justifies itself. Quite simply, there hasn't been a more viscerally enjoyable and economical rapper working in years. Earl's POV leaps from the front seat of a car into the sky in a single line ("Ride dirty as the fucking sky that you praying to"); family communications break down into a series of sound effects ("Mama often was offering peace offerings/ Think, wheeze, cough, scoff, and then he's off again"); Earl sprouts a ballooning gut and morphs into a fattened hedonist (You know me, drugs out front the telly/ I'm couch-drunk, ready to fuck/ Count 'fetti and bucks/ Count loud as I slap loud cross the belly"). Try wrestling free of the line "hard as armed services/ y'all might'a heard of him" once he utters it. But Earl's heart is in here, too—his father, his mother; that fabled camp for troubled teens, being outed by Complex; girls, fame, puppy love, being true to yourself. "Breaking news that's less important when the Lakers lose/ There's lead in that baby food," he deadpans on "Hive". He can tell you are a little dumb, maybe. But he'll oblige, eventually. He even assented to Sway at last, unleashing a verse so devastating that Sway nearly doubled over when it was finished. Earl's verdict? "That was butt." — Jayson Greene
Early on, Janelle Monáe rarely exhibited doubt or vulnerability, not only because she is a bona fide Icon, but also because there has always been another, important correlative to her vibrant self-expression: like any science fiction author, she uses her medium to explore deeply rooted social ills and present an alternative vision of how the revolution might look. Her first EP and LP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) and The ArchAndroid, were vast in scope, and the futuristic dystopian epic they told—that of Cindi Maywether, a cyborg fugitive hunted for the crime of falling in love with a human—was an entertaining but tightly packed narrative. Monáe, while adept and self-assured, had some difficulty getting her work to resonate with an audience not already receptive to concepts like "identity politics" or "Afropunk."
With The Electric Lady, the masterful, guest-packed double album she's called a prequel to ArchAndroid, Monáe hit her stride. The record is still fearless and luxurious, but now it's accessible, too; songs like "Dance Apocalyptic" and Miguel duet "Primetime" still resonate without metaphorical context, but the narrative is there if you want it. The powers of "Q.U.E.E.N." ("Are we a lost generation of our people?/ Add us to equations but they'll never make us equal") and "Ghetto Woman" (a paean to her mother's uphill battle) are self-evident. Nearly every track pulls its own weight, both individually and in the context of a larger work about inequality and spiritual rebellion. Her Electric Lady isn't a robot, she's an evolved life form. That distinction turned a highly sophisticated, empirically likable work into an organic classic—one that lets people in. — Devon Maloney