At the heels of Jay-Z’s book decoded, writer Toure did his own breakdown of Jay Electronica’s classic, ‘Exhibit C’. It’s not perfect, but very well done, indeed. Check it out:
I did this because I was asked by the editors of the Anthology of Rap to be part of a night of discussing and deconstructing hiphop songs. I chose one that I love and that I thought would be hard. Then many asked me to post it on Twitter so here we are. Some have suggested why do this now? It’s late. I’m doing now because I was asked to pick any song and deconstruct it and I only wanted to spend time combing through this one. I think a song of this magnitude remains worthy of discussion and the longer time goes on the more we realized what an achievement it is. I’m not herein arguing that this is the greatest song of the decade, just that these are things I hear and notice in this great song. Some of the things I point out will be obvious to some people, some of the things will not be obvious to some people. If some things are obvious to you, take these gold stars and put them in your pocket and don’t bother us with your “I already knew that.” I’m looking at this from a hiphop standpoint and a literary standpoint because I think it’s valuable to look at it from both vantages. Other people will notice other things and things I didn’t notice and I’d like to hear that. This isn’t definitive or encyclopedic, but more of an open source document: my reading of a great song that I expect will be added to by others.
In the intro Jus Blaze says “In the hearing against The State of Hiphop vs Jay Electronica.” Thus Exhibit C is the third and final exhibit or argument but what is the charge? Is it do you belong in hiphop? Is it do you deserve to be in the game? I’m not quite sure but I like that he sets this up as if he’s completing an almost legal case to prove his dopeness, his belonging, his necessity to the game. And that means there’s a reason given within the text for him doing this song: he’s on a trial of sorts with the state of hiphop as the plaintiff and him as the defendant. Most songs don’t offer a reason for why they exist, for why the person is telling the story or saying the rhymes and I like that this song gives it’s own reason for existence. This song is the most autobiographical of the three Exhibits, the one where he’s testifying—in both the legal sense (it’s a case) and in the Black cultural sense, testifying, telling his life story. This song is him laying himself bare before the court and saying this is who I am and where I’ve come from and how I got to be who and where I am.
This is a song that fits into the vaunted Black memoir/autobiography tradition—Malcolm X, Black Boy, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Manchild In the Promised Land, Assata, Monster, Makes Me Wanna Holler, etc—most of which, Skip Gates has pointed out, could be subtitled Up From Hell.
This is also a song that follows the classic Growth of A Savior story structure as does, say, the Matrix. (Electronica often refers to himself as a savior.)
1 Both Jay and Neo are literally and, more importantly, figuratively sleeping when we meet them.
2 Neither Jay nor Neo are looking for enlightenment. They’re not on a quest.
3 Wise men come to them offering knowledge and, critically, saying I see something special in you. This is something Jay and Neo don’t see.
4 Because of the wise men they begin a journey that is both physical and internal.
5 The journey leads to them ultimately realizing who they are and the power they have and accepting that they are indeed saviors: Neo for the postapocalyptic world, Jay for hiphop.
This is a song that is, in a literary sense, extremely efficient. Every part of it works and matters and is necessary to build to the final conclusion. If it were a machine it would be one with no extraneous parts, no unnecessary movements. Most hiphop songs have non-sequitors and misdirections and if they were people they might run like say Barry Sanders, with side moves and jukes and then some straight running and then a curved movement around someone. That can be beautiful. But I like that this song is, in a literary sense, like Usain Bolt: it runs in a straight path from its beginning to its end.
I also appreciate that Exhibit C, in a narrative sense, makes the shape of a capital Q. Where great stories come full circle, this one comes full circle and then, at the end, goes a brilliant step further.
Where most autobiographical songs in hiphop are about where the person is from, and almost suggest the person has hardly visited anywhere else (because they’ve kept it so real they hardly ever leave home), this one begins far from home, never visits home, and is about Jay’s movement through the Eastern part of the country and that geographical movement mirrors and motivates Jay’s personal development.
“When I was sleepin on the train…”
[This is a deceptively deep beginning: there’s a double entendre and a doubling of movement. Sleeping is a double entendre in that he’s literally sleeping and figuratively sleeping—figuratively in the 5 Percenter self because he lacks knowledge of self. There’s a double sense of movement because while he’s literally in motion (on the train), he’s also in motion in a literary sense: the song begins in motion, in medias reas (Latin for: in the middle of things).]
“sleepin on Meserole Ave out in the rain…”
[Meserole Avenue is in Greenpoint, Brooklyn which is interesting: here’s a New Orleans MC whose most autobiographical song begins in Brooklyn and whose style is very New York. But he’s still attached to the South—he’s sensitive to Southerners getting dissed by NY MCs (as we’ll see in a moment). The historic schism between Southern and NY hiphop is at play within this song.]
“without even a single slice of pizza to my name
too proud to beg for change, mastering the pain…”
[“Too proud to beg for change” is a deep double-entendre: he’s too proud to ask for money and too proud to ask for his life to be altered. And even though he was a bum sleeping on the street, he still had pride, dignity and character. Even at his lowest he wasn’t begging for anything.]
“when new york niggas were calling southern rappers lame, but then jacking our slang.”
[This is an artful way of establishing a time period, when Southern hiphop was getting dismissed by NYers but still was powerful enough to influence NY. It also establishes, for a second, his Southern hiphop pride, in spite of everything else in the song being a love letter to NY hiphop: the producer he’s employed, the MCs he references, the people he notes are reaching out to him, the way he rhymes, the place he starts the song in…]
“I used to get dizzy spells…”
[This would actually happen to someone who’s homeless and not eating properly or consistently, but this is also a classic literary device: the voice of the future, of a ghost, or the Gods, speaking to this special person when they’re downtrodden, long before greatness comes.]
“and hear a little ring, the voice of an Angel, telling me my name, telling me that one day I’ma be a great man, transforming with the MegatronDon spittin out flames…”
[the use of flames is interesting here as the next line is about eating other MCs so it’s almost as if they’re being flame-broiled before being devoured like Burger King burgers. I like, too, this elegant shout-out to Jus Blaze the MegatronDon. It was prophesied that I would rhyme with you. And here I am actually doing it.]
“eatin wack rappers alive shittin out chains.”
[I love this line because it’s so visual. I can see two MCs standing there, facing each other, and then one opens his mouth absurdly wide and eats the other one whole, digests him, then pulls down his pants and defecates out a thick gold rope chain and walks off. Nice. MCs are constantly saying I’m better than you, I’m the best ever, you can’t see me, but Jay’s not actually making the boast: an angel (or a voice in his head) is telling him he will be great one day. So he gets away from the over-bravado that can be tiresome in hiphop by having someone else telling him this will happen for you one day.]
“I ain’t believe it then…”
[I love this: he cuts through the potential arrogance of the angel’s predictions and brings you screaming back to the narrative’s present. I can see this angel telling him he’s going to be incredible and he’s like, I don’t buy it. It’s like we’ve been getting a Technicolor opera telling him you’re gonna be major and he turns to the camera and blankly says, what? But the last word “then” is crucial. I didn’t believe it at that point but later on I would.]
“Nigga I was homeless. Fightin, shootin dice, smokin weed on the corners, tryna find the meaning of life in a Corona
[Love that last line! Especially because alcohol is often referred to or thought of as truth serum.]
“Till the 5 Percenters rolled up on a nigga and informed him.”
[The grammar here is crucial: did the 5 Percenters inform him of the meaning of life or that you either build or destroy? Perhaps both. This is a crucial entrance of the first real characters into the story: up to now he’s either been alone or speaking to a ghost (who may or may not be real, that could be him hearing voices).
Also, if you’ve been listening to hiphop for a long time you know in the 80s and 90s the 5 Percenters were a powerful presence in hiphop, giving us great, conscious, complex hiphop and if you miss great, complex, thoughtful hiphop, you partly miss the influence of the 5 Percenters. So when he says, my life was transformed by the Gods, it’s like, oh snap, we might be about to get into some serious hiphop here! Course we already know that because of the rhymes he’s kicked, but in this way the story justifies itself at this point.]
“ ‘You either build or destroy. Where you come from?’ ”
“ ‘The Magnolia projects in the 3rd ward slum.’ ”
“ ‘Hmmm… it’s quite amazing that you rhyme how you do…”
[I find this interesting and a bit funny because the character in the story has never even mentioned MCing. We have no idea that he’s an MC from the information provided to us in the text so how do these 5 Percenters who just now rolled up on him know how anything about how he rhymes? I assume they caught him in a cipher and rolled up on him or heard of his reputation but ultimately it’s one of those leaps in a movie you just accept. But I do love how his MC persona in the song is immediately established as astounding which mirrors how he came into hiphop: astounding from early on, the same way, say, Nas was astonishing from his first widely-known rhyme. So we have two separate movements: while the character is growing from nothing, homeless, into something, moving into spirituality and knowledge of self, the MC within the character is introduced as amazing.]
“ ‘and how you shine like you grew up in a shrine in Peru.’ ”
[They again give him a massive compliment: you shine, brilliantly. This is a hiphop compliment but here from spiritual guys it speaks of something deeper. They see a light coming from him, he’s special. Again, he’s bigging himself up but putting it in other people’s mouths so it doesn’t sound arrogant. But this line is like the angel telling him he’s going to be great before he knows it and it also points directly toward the song’s final line. At this point he doesn’t yet know he’s shining brilliantly. Later he’ll know.]
“Question 14 – Muslim Lesson 2: Dip diver, Civilize a 85er…”
[That was quick. He met the 5 Percenters in the graf beforehand and now he’s quoting Muslim lessons by number. He’s growing by leaps and bounds! I’m not being disingenuous, the narrative has leapt forward and it fits because in a moment we’re about to go into a swift montage.]
“I’ll make the Devil hit his knees and say the Our Father.”
[This is the first time in the song Jay brags in his own voice and interestingly it’s about his religious or spiritual power not his rhyming ability. He’d rather tell you he’s got a powerful spirit than say he’s a dope MC.]
[Magic! Blam! I changed! I grew! I started to become the man you know. Here comes the montage, which always signals transformation. ]
“You rockin with the True and Living
shout out to Lights Out, Joseph I, Chewy Bivens.
Shout out to Baltimore, Baton Rouge, my crew in Richmond.”
[He’s all over the place. Where most MCs rep for one area and give you a microscoped view of that area, this guy breezes through the many places he’s lived.]
“While y’all debated who the truth was like Jews and Christians…”
[While you debated what’s real, I knew what was real. You were dealing with two false answers, arguing between them, while I had the right answer and wasn’t debating but was moving around, making moves, becoming me.]
“I was on Cecil B, Broad Street, Master, North Philly, South Philly, 23rd, Tasker…”
“6 mile, 7 mile, Hartwell, Gratiot…”
“Where niggas really would pack a U-Haul truck up,
put the high beams on, drive up on the curb at a barbecue and hop out the back like ‘What’s up?!’
Kill a nigga, rob a nigga, take a nigga, bust up!”
[That’s a courageous sort of crime. Damn. Dream Hampton points out that this is some Detroit shit. She said: “Murder capital. Post industrial wasteland. Where Trick Trick robs Young Berg for his chain then declares a no fly zone for national rappers. The most dangerous place of his travels and where he began recording (ironically at Eminem’s studio, Effigy Farms, with Mike Chav, his Detroit engineer who provides his distinct soundscape. Detroit is where Jay takes on the name Electronica after listening to techno, and where he recorded 80 percent of his pre-signed stuff.”]
“That’s why when you talk the tough talk I never feel ya. You sound real good and you play the part well, but the energy you givin off is so unfamiliar.”
[This is a really cool, smart way of establishing his thug authenticity and saying the “y’all are studio gangsters” thing that most MCs say but in a much more elegant and specific way. You sound real, you act real, but your vibes are off. He’s saying game recognize game and I don’t recognize you. I love that he pins it down to I don’t feel y’all because later he asserts that you’ll feel my music, I give you an electric shock.]
“Nas hit me up on the phone, said ‘What you waitin on?’ Tip hit me up with a twit, said, ‘What you waitin on?’ Diddy send a text every hour on the dot sayin ‘When you gon drop that verse nigga? You taking long!’”
[Again, his development as an MC happens offstage or something because how did go from a nomad and a BBQ gangster to a widely-known and highly-anticipated MC with the likes of Nas eagerly awaiting his music? You may know the answer in terms of his actual life—and as dream points out he began recording Detroit which is the previous stop in the text—but I’m saying that within the text no discussion of him MCing is ever given which makes it slightly comical for him to suddenly have the whole industry hungry for him. But we can accept it because the rhyming in the song justifies it. I also like that he says people are using a variety of modern communication techniques to reach him. That contributes to the suggestion that people are dying for his music, that they’re coming at him from every direction: phone, tweet and text. And this is way cooler than saying the world is awaiting my album: it shows it.]
“So now I’m back spittin that He Could Pass A Polygraph”
[This is a very cool way of saying I keeps it real.]
“That Reverend Run rockin Adidas out on Hollis Ave…”
[I’m takin you back to that classical New York hiphop.]
“That FOI, Marcus Garvey, Nikki Tesla.”
[What a list. Hiphop heads obviously know about the FOI and Marcus Garvey and what he’s asserting by name-dropping them. But Nikki Tesla? I’d never heard of him before now. Tesla he’s a pioneer of modern electrical engineering, a man rumored to have been nominated for the Nobel in 1912. So he’s talking about being brilliant, being original and giving people an electric feel as he says in the next line. Dream adds: “Tesla is important because he’d found a way to harness electromagnetic (the Earth’s) energy. This is why Thomas Edison’s backers hired assassins to kill him. His path would’ve led to free energy (knowledge) as opposed to industries who charge a fee. Eventually, it was Tesla’s (stolen) technology that is responsible for cell phones.” So like Telsa, Electronica is trying to liberate electricity and knowledge.]
“I shock you like a eel. Electric feel. Jay Electra.”
[Quoting MGMT but again talking about electricity and more importantly making you feel his music.]
“They call me Jay Electronica. Fuck that.
Call me Jay ElecHannukah. Jay ElecYarmulke.”
[He’s making Judaism references because Blacks are the original Jews. But also it’s interesting that after the angel told him his name (and the 5 Percenters told him about himself) now he’s come to knowledge of self and he’s telling you his name. And the agency suggested by the grammar is important: first he says “They call me…” others call me, then he snatches agency: Fuck that. Here’s what I want you to call me. He takes control of his identity. That’s dope. It kindof reminds me of that epiphanal moment of self-actualization in movies about a search for identity: What’s your real name?! “Louis Cypher!” in Angel Heart or “Tyler Durden!” in Fight Club.]
“Jay ElecRamadaan. Muhammad Asalaamica RasoulAllah Supana.”
[Muhammad, Peace be upon Him, the Messenger of God. I am the Messenger of God… the savior.]
“Watallah through your monitor.”
[May He be glorious and exalted… through the speakers I’m blessing.]
“My uzi still weighs a ton check the barometer…”
[Obvious one for hiphop heads: Public Enemy’s 1987 song “My Uzi Weighs A Ton” gives you an uzi as Chuck’s mind, so not only is Electronica making another reference to classic hiphop, he’s also saying his mind is as powerful as a hi-tech weapon. But this has already been proven. (Yes, I know Electronica had a song of his own called “My Uzi Weighs A Ton.”)]
“I’m hotter than the muthafuckin sun check the thermometer. I’m bringing ancient mathematics back to modern man. My momma told me never throw a stone and hide your hand.”
“I got a lot of family, you got a lot of fans.”
[This is a great line and a crucial difference. Malcolm Galdwell’s first book The Tipping Point talked about the connections humans have between them as either loose ties or strong ties. Some artists may have a lot of loose ties—fans—where others have strong ties. If you have loose ties a million people may buy the album and like it but on your next album you have to win them over anew. An artist with strong ties may have fewer fans but they love him and will ride with him no matter what and when he puts out a new album they will have to prove to him that they still understand him and are worthy of him being onstage. Jay doesn’t have fans, who could be fickle, he’s got family: they love him and whenever he comes home, they’ve gotta take him in.]
“That’s why the people got my back like the Verizon man. I play the back and fade to black and then devise a plan.”
“Out in London, smoking, vibin while I ride the tram.”
[This is so elegant in a literary sense because he’s brought the song full circle: he’s made it from New York and sleeping on the train to London tram largeness, hanging on the London tube by choice, indicating succinctly his size, his global nature and how far he’s come. And yet, even though he’s come far personally and geographically, he’s still the same dude, still smoking and vibin.]
“Givin’ out that raw food to lions disguised as lambs…”
[I’m here to improve people’s lives.]
“And, by the time they get they seats hot,
And deploy all they henchmen to come at me from the treetops, I’m chillin out at Tweetstock…”
[This is deep. This is where the narrative structure goes from a completed circle (at London) into the extra bit that makes a circle into a capital Q. He’s gone to another location, a sortof post-global location where he can connect with people from all over the world. (Tweetstock is a festival where Tweeps come together, also called a Tweetup.) And more than that, bear with me, he’s there connecting with people who you’d normally connect with via computer, but now they’re in the real world which is kindof like Neo unplugging from the Matrix and realizing his true self and coming into the real world. Is that exactly what Jay meant? Probably not but there’s definitely significance in this final location being a sort of Internet place made real and thus in some metaphorical way taking him beyond the physical realm. This is as far as humanly possible away from being homeless on the subway. Unless he becomes an astronaut.]
“Building by the millions. My light is brilliant.”
[He now knows he shines as the 5 Percenters told him. He knows who he is. He’s now like Neo facing down Agent Smith, fully aware of his power. Ready to move forward on his mission to save hiphop.]