LOS ANGELES – He emerged in front of piercing, sunset-colored LED screens that flashed like strobe lights, percussion pulsing from the stage to the audience floor. In the crowd, it was felt first in our chests, then throughout our bodies. He opened with “Higher Res,” a malleable Big Boi cover, before launching into his few familiar hits. For an artist well known for over a decade, Jai Paul made this tour opener feel like the first time.
Because, in some ways, it was.
Before Jai Paul hit the stage at Los Angeles' Mayan Theater on Tuesday night, he'd only performed a handful of times, and never before this year. He's been celebrated for being the rare elusive musician, a trait that rarely translates to an energetic performance. Dressed in an oversized parka and sunglasses like an alternative universe Gallagher brother, Paul showed no restraint.
He was comfortable, stopping to either clap for his band or for the audience — or possibly for himself — after most tracks. His crowd, enraptured, rarely pulled out their phones to record. It was as if they'd all signed a secret social contract: This was a special evening, years in the works, and they should fully enjoy it. No distractions.
In certain circles, Paul's mythology is renowned. He is, in some ways, the last truly mysterious pop phenomenon of the pre-algorithmic streaming era.
It began with “BTSTU,” a track the British musician of Indian descent uploaded to MySpace sometime between 2007 and 2009 that took the digital blogsphere by storm. His sweet falsetto earned him a deal with the major indie label XL Records, and the nonsensical genre description of “psychedelic funk.” (As listeners would soon come to find out, it he was much more than that.) A bright snare, a sharp kick drum, a weird pop sensibility introduces the song — Paul had managed to make the music world pay attention with just one track, a feat nearly impossible to replicate in the modern digital era.
Drake and Beyoncé sampled it. The New York Times compared him to Prince. A moment was happening. Then came “Jasmine," soon to be sampled by Ed Sheeran, and the D’Angelo comparisons. DJs and producers everywhere were transfixed. He combined sounds with a sort of masterful idiosyncrasy.
Then the magic ran out, or so it seemed. A decade ago, in 2013, demos for what listeners assumed to be Paul's debut record leaked and he withdrew further, repudiating the collection of songs.
A decade later, he made his live debut at Coachella 2023, then performed two nights in London and New York. On Tuesday night in Los Angeles, he kicked off a new tour leg.
So, can an artist born of the internet come alive on stage? What could there be to bear witness to?
It turns out, quite a lot. His prescient electronic pop-R&B hybrid sound, with its sticky and innovative synths now familiar to anyone who has listened to a producer in the last 14 years, sounded every bit as formative as it did in the 2010 era. His melodies were liquid. And his falsetto did recall Prince, as the critics once said, particularly on the tracks “All Night” and “So Long.”
The set started an hour late and only lasted about that long (and some change), a dozen-plus tracks concluding with the one that started it all “BTSTU”, and the one that confirmed his greatness, “Str8 Outta Mumbai.”
Jai Paul was incubating in his time spent hidden behind computer screens, emerging fully formed — waiting for the right moment to share his talent with his fans in this particular live medium. And it was worth it.