How Jai Paul Reshaped Popular Music


Jai Paul’s simplified account reads like a moralizing fairy tale: a miraculously talented singer appears out of nowhere with songs like no one has heard before. But the greedy townspeople steal his masterpiece and sell it, and the shy genius disappears, leaving only two demo singles and the spectral mp3s of his unofficial debut.

Jai Paul’s 2007 demo version of his song “BTSTU” (featuring production by his brother, Anup “AK” Paul) first caught fire in 2010, when music blogs discovered it on his MySpace page. The song quickly made the rounds online; his watery dynamics, effortless melodies and iconic “don’t fuck with me” falsetto voice made it clear that Paul was as iconoclastic as he was gifted. “The dude is on some shit,” Fader concluded. The song emerged at the perfect time to catalyze a latent trend: spurred by the releases of acts like Discovery, left-leaning audiences were abandoning the ramshackle affectations of rock-based indie and seeking sleek electronic pop and R&B. It was a fluid era of dissolving hierarchies. Paul’s weird and wonderful bachelor fits perfectly.

In his first and only interview – with Dazed in January 2011 – Paul said the song “felt like the first time all my ideas had come together into something really concise, so I was really proud of it”.

“BTSTU” received an official release on XL Records in April 2011, titled “BTSTU (Edit)”. It went on to explode online and on UK radio, where Zane Lowe declared it the world’s hottest record. A month later, Drake released a freestyle on the song titled “Dreams Money Can Buy,” and Beyoncé sampled it on her cut album “End of Time” the following year. With anticipation at fever pitch, Jai released her next single “Jasmine (Demo)” on XL in April 2012. It felt like an instant classic. The song digs deeper into the blotchy path set by its predecessor. The warm guitar shimmers as if spotted under a lake. Sub-bass rumbles in a thick layer of sidechain compression. Jai’s voice seems to come from somewhere incredibly near and far at the same time.

“The production concept made the tracks unstable and unwieldy – mixes that were about to swallow each other,” Adam Bainbridge, who records as Kindness, said in a 2017 interview.

Jai Paul’s influences were pretty obvious: Prince, D’Angelo, maybe a little Panda Bear. But the way he combined them was not. He used production techniques that prioritize dramatic ambience over sonic clarity, imbuing eerie sounds with a warm analog grit. Alongside Burial, Paul is a modern master at creating digital textures that look viscerally real.

Excitement for Jai Paul’s debut album built steadily over the next year. One weekend in April 2013, it seemed to happen. A version containing 16 untitled tracks appeared for sale on Bandcamp with immediate online fanfare. Some songs were fully formed and brilliant. Others, lasting less than a minute, felt unfinished. The celebration was short-lived; the album was removed within two days. In his first and only tweet, Paul wrote, “I haven’t uploaded the demos to bandcamp, it’s not my first album. Please do not buy. Statement to follow later. Thanks, Jay. The statement never arrived, nor did an official version of the release. The truth about what happened remains shrouded in mystery.

In late 2012, XL sent the media a musical Christmas card that played an unreleased song by Jai Paul. Unofficially titled “Str8 Outta Mumbai”, it appeared as part of the leak the following year. With technicolor-caliber synths, Bollywood samples, and a “woo-hooo” vocal topline, it calls to mind a postcolonial take on Blur’s “Song 2.”

Jai’s influence is still felt in today’s landscape. An obvious torchbearer is recent Young Turks 1010 signee Benja SL, along with British electronic producer (and AK Paul collaborator) Mura Masa and, in his most pop moments, experimental vocalist Yves Tumor. If you squint, trace minerals can be detected in mainstream pop songs like Zayn’s “Rainberry” and Halsey’s “Hopeless.”

“When I think about how much Jai Paul and AK Paul influenced a generation of artists on just a few tracks (demos), it’s kind of mind blowing,” R&B singer Nao wrote on Twitter.

Over the next few years, as Jai Paul retreated from his disastrous contact with the limelight, his brother AK stepped forward. After contributing guitar work and producing Jai’s singles, he ended up writing on Emeli Sandé’s multi-platinum debut album in 2012. Our version of events. He also co-wrote songs with Sam Smith and Jessie Ware.

AK’s first release under his own name was in 2014, when he released “So Good”, a striking collaboration with Nao. It’s sharper and more defined than Jai’s material, but retains the same emotional warmth and sensuality. Over the next two years, Paul continued to be an in-demand collaborator, releasing a song with singer Jones and earning a production credit on Miguel’s wild heart (after appearing in a rare studio photo with Jai and the singer).

Jai Paul has yet to release any new solo material since his debut was leaked. Behind the scenes, however, Jai and AK continued to work, produce and release music from like-minded young musicians. Even though Jai stepped back from the starring role he seemed destined for at the turn of the decade, it’s likely that he and his brother will continue to influence the shape of pop music for years to come.

In March 2016, the Paul brothers announced a strange new venture called the Paul Institute, alongside their friend Muz Azar. At first, the Institute was just a mysterious web page with an email address. But a week later, AK released their first solo single through The Institute. “Landcruisin'”, with its edgy night-flying grooves, lives up to the description given to it by an enthusiastic Zane Lowe: “blade runner popular.”

Jai Paul has only appeared in a handful of photos. Whether intentionally cultivated or not, an air of mystery surrounds it. So about zero people were prepped for the report that appeared in an obscure British property magazine called Goods Week in 2017. The story – which included a photo of Jai and AK Paul holding shovels and wearing yellow construction vests and hats – said the Paul Institute had purchased a building in London once used as a nightclub by the BBC to serve as the home base of a “growing collective of musicians, artists and technologists”.

The brothers’ smug smiles and the building’s strange metal dome made it look like they were starting a cult New Age organization plucked from the pages of a Pynchon novel. “How will he have to make an album in time,” wrote a crestfallen fan on the Jai Paul Reddit page, “when he’s apparently running some sort of music school?”

Over the past two years, the nature of the Paul Institute has become clear. It’s essentially a record label combined with a talent incubator: The Pauls find young musicians who share their 80s-influenced pop vision and nurture them creatively, often by performing, co-writing and designing their discs. Think Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for the Central St. Martins set.

To date, the label has released music from four artists (plus AK himself): HIRA, REINEN, Fabiana Palladino and Ruthven, all of whom were relatively (but not entirely) previously unknown. In an interview with Dazed, Palladino said she met Jai after reaching out. “I was totally aware of this ‘mystique,’ but it’s just internet stuff,” she said. “He’s a normal person. It’s funny that people think he’s a magical being. Ruthven just emailed demos to the address on the Paul Institute website and had a response within a few days.

The Institute has collected the seven singles it has released so far on a Spotify playlist called Official Releases From the Paul Institute. Taken as a release itself, the playlist is one of the most interesting projects of recent years. The music is clearly indebted to pop and R&B touchstones like Prince and Kate Bush. But this is not faithful retro-fetishism; the songs combine vampy ’80s synths and drums with a forward-looking chrome sheen. It’s as if the Pauls built a wormhole between 1987 and 2022, ignoring everything in between.

In 2017, Palladino released his first Paul Institute single “Mystery”. It’s co-written and produced by Jai Paul, and even features his backup vocals, his first official appearance on a record since 2012. Big kick pads form the song’s backbone; about halfway through, closed drums explode into the mix like rhythmic shooting stars. Palladino’s voice is strong and clear, harmonizing with Paul’s wispy falsetto. It’s a surprising introduction to her gifts, and her 2018 single “Shimmer” is even better. She produced it herself, while Paul contributed electric guitar and synthesizers. It begins with Palladino’s delicate harmonies emerging from a cascade of sparkling electronics. Then galloping drums come in and she kicks into high gear. Inspired by Chaka Khan and Donna Summer, Palladino struts with Coachella-worthy confidence; “You think I’m an easy target / I won’t lower my voice,” she sings, sounding like a cloned android of a Haim sister.

By day, Ruthven is a firefighter in London. When he’s not dashing through burning buildings, he’s making slinky jams. On his 2017 single “Evil,” his rugged vocal twists and turns over neon-hued synths and percussion that owe a heavy debt to Evil-era Michael Jackson. Its follow-up, 2018’s “Hypothalamus,” sounds like a natural extension of “Jasmine,” with a catchy synth line cutting through the chained darkness. But where Jai’s songs tend to maintain an even keel, this one burns at the end, thanks to an arena-ready guitar solo from AK Paul.

In 2018, the Paul Institute added two new faces to the fold, REINEN and HIRA. The latter is a British R&B singer who had previously collaborated with AK on a song called “Eve”. His Institute single “Red Light Drive” is a thick, low-lying slice of Prince-indebted late-night pop — that’s what you could get if the Weeknd included the soundtrack to every Michael Mann movie.

The Institute really started showing its lineup with REINEN’s 2018 title “Masquerade.” Follower of Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel, REINEN breathes theatrical maximalism, humming on martial percussions. The song is full of eerie sonic bits: chorale synth pads, laughing vocals, eerie chimes, birdsong; it feels like the whole soundboard of a Broadway play is kicking in at the same time. “I felt like I was immersed in a throbbing, kaleidoscopic ballroom,” the singer told Dazed.

It’s entirely possible that Jai Paul’s name will never appear on another solo record. But guiding the Paul Institute’s stable of talent as they expand his glittering pop-funk universe, it seems the reclusive genius has found a creative path he feels comfortable in.


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