Jai Paul’s simplified tale reads like a moralizing fairy tale: A miraculously talented singer appears out of nowhere with songs like no one has heard before. But greedy townspeople steal his masterpiece and sell it, and the shy genius disappears, leaving only two simple demos and the spectral mp3s of his unofficial debut.
Jai Paul’s 2007 demo version of his song “BTSTU” (with production from his brother, Anup “AK” Paul) first caught fire in 2010, when music blogs discovered it on his page MySpace. The song quickly made the rounds of Internet users; 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. “Dude is on a shit,” concluded the Fader. The song came at the perfect time to catalyze a latent trend: Spurred on by releases from acts like Discovery, left-field audiences were abandoning the ramshackle assignments of indie rock and seeking sleek electronic pop and R&B. It was a fluid time of the dissolution of hierarchies. Paul’s strange and wonderful bachelor fits in perfectly.
In his first and only interview – with Dazed in January 2011 – Paul said that the song “seemed like the first time that 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 hottest record in the world. A month later, Drake released a freestyle on the song called “Dreams Money Can Buy”, and Beyoncé sampled it on her album “End of Time” the following year. With anticipation at its worst, Jai released his upcoming single “Jasmine (Demo)” on XL in April 2012. It sounded like an immediate classic. The song sinks further into the smeared path established by its predecessor. A warm guitar sparkles as if it were glimpsed under a lake. Sub-bass rumbles in a thick layer of side chain compression. Jai’s voice seems to come from a place incredibly near and far at the same time.
“The production concept made the tracks unstable and unwieldy – mixes that were about to swallow on their own,” 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 wasn’t. He used production techniques that favor dramatic ambience over sonic clarity, imbuing eerie sounds with a warm analog grain. Paul stands alongside Burial as a modern master in creating digital textures that feel viscerally real.
The excitement for Jai Paul’s debut album gradually grew over the following year. One weekend in April 2013, it seemed to happen. A release containing 16 untitled tracks appeared for sale on Bandcamp with immediate online fanfare. Some songs were perfectly formed and brilliant. Others, which lasted less than a minute, felt incomplete. The celebration was short-lived; the album was retired within two days. In his first and only tweet, Paul wrote: “The demos on bandcamp were not uploaded by me, this is not my first album. Please don’t buy. Statement to follow later. Thanks, Jai. The statement never arrived, nor did an official version of the press release. The truth of 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’s reminiscent of a postcolonial rendition of Blur’s “Song 2”.
Jai’s influence is still felt in the current landscape. One obvious torchbearer is recent Young Turks 1010 signatory Benja SL, as well as British electronics producer (and AK Paul collaborator) Mura Masa and, in his most pop moments, experimental singer 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 pretty mind-blowing,” the R&B singer Nao wrote on Twitter.
Over the next several years, as Jai Paul retreated from his disastrous stunt into the limelight, his brother AK stepped forward. After helping with guitar work and producing Jai’s singles, he ended up writing on Emeli Sandé’s debut multi-platinum 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 it retains the same emotional warmth and sensuality. Over the next two years, Paul continued to be a sought-after collaborator, releasing a song with singer Jones and securing production credit on Miguel. 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 down from the lead role he seemed destined for at the start of the decade, it is likely that he and his brother will continue to influence the form 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 via the Institute. ‘Landcruisin’, with its edgy night flight grooves, lives up to the description given to it by enthusiastic Zane Lowe: “Blade runner pop.”
Jai Paul only appeared in a handful of photos. Whether he is intentionally cultivated or not, an air of mystery surrounds him. So about zero people were prepared for the report in an obscure UK real estate magazine called Goods Week in 2017. The story – which included a photo of Jai and AK Paul holding shovels and wearing yellow building vests and hats – stated that the Paul Institute had purchased a building in London formerly 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 odd metallic dome made it look like they were launching a cult New Agey organization ripped from the pages of a Pynchon novel. “How is he going to make an album,” wrote a dispirited fan on the Jai Paul Reddit page, “when he apparently runs some kind of music school?”
Over the past two years, the nature of the Paul Institute has become clear. It is essentially a label associated with a talent incubator: Les Pauls find young musicians who share their 80s-influenced pop vision and nurture them creatively, often playing, co-writing and designing their records. Think of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for the backdrop for Central St. Martins.
To date, the label has released the music of 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 contacting him. “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 simply emailed a few demos to the address listed on the Paul Institute website and received a response a few days later.
The Institute has rounded up the seven singles it has released so far on a Spotify playlist called Official Releases From the Paul Institute. Considered an outing 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 staunch retro-fetishism; the songs combine vampy ’80s synths and drums with a future-oriented chrome shine. It’s as if the Pauls built a wormhole between 1987 and 2022, ignoring everything in the meantime.
In 2017, Palladino released his first Paul Institute single “Mystery”. It is co-written and produced by Jai Paul, and even includes his backing vocals, his first official appearance on a record since 2012. Big pads form the backbone of the song; halfway, closed drums explode in the mix like rhythmic shooting stars. Palladino’s voice is strong and clear, in harmony with Paul’s hazy falsetto. It’s a surprising introduction to her giveaways, and her 2018 single “Shimmer” is even better. She produced it herself, while Paul contributed electric guitar and synthesizers. It begins with the delicate harmonies of Palladino emerging from a cascade of sparkling electronics. Then galloping drums arrive and she shifts into high gear. Inspired by Chaka Khan and Donna Summer, Palladino struts around with Coachella-worthy confidence; “You think I’m an easy target / I’m not going to lower my voice,” she sings, sounding like an android cloned from a sister Haim.
By day, Ruthven is a London firefighter. When he’s not rushing into burning buildings, he’s making tight jams. On his single “Evil” from 2017, his robust voice twists and turns neon-hued synths and percussions which owe a heavy debt to Bad-ère Michael Jackson. Her follow-up, ‘Hypothalamus’ from 2018, sounds like a natural extension of ‘Jasmine’, with a catchy synth line breaking 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 slice of late-night pop indebted by Prince – that’s what you could get if The Weeknd lined up the soundtrack to every Michael Mann film.
The Institute really started showing its lineup with REINEN’s 2018 track “Masquerade”. A follower of Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel, REINEN breathes theatrical maximalism, humming on martial percussions. The song is overflowing with strange sounds: choral synth pads, laughing voices, strange chimes, birdsong; it looks like the whole soundboard of a Broadway play is in action at once. “I felt like I was immersed in a thrilling, 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 talent stable as they expand their glittery pop-funk universe, it seems the reclusive genius has found a creative path he feels right at home in.