When one of hip-hop’s most mythical albums was finally unearthed, the artist behind it, Jay Electronica, praised Allah for its unforeseen release.
The long-rumored album’s unlikely emergence occurred after it was leaked by a 19-year-old hacker. And according to that hacker, it took only about five minutes to dig up Act II: The Patents of Nobility (The Turn), a project that was first announced in 2007 and, thanks to pressure brought on by the leak, released in an official capacity on TIDAL last month (before being taken down quietly not long after).
The album sat in cloud storage of one of Electronica’s collaborators for eight years, the hacker says, a fact he deduced from the digital time stamp imprinted on it. He claims it was located in a folder with a title that referenced Manhattan’s Jungle City Studios. (Electronica’s collaborators dispute this claim).
It likely would have remained in that folder indefinitely if the hacker, who insists on remaining nameless but divulges he’s a college-enrolled male in the U.S., had not come across the names of Electronica’s inner circle and, on a whim, decided to break into each of their laptops.
After only a few minutes, he discovered gold. Act II, a coveted album that had gained folkloric status after being promised and pushed back numerous times over the years, was nestled neatly in a .zip file, its file names nearly identical to a tracklist released by Electronica in 2012. Although the hacker broke in looking for the album, he didn’t actually expect to find it.
“I was excited and didn’t know what to do with it,” he says. “[I didn’t know] whether to keep it to myself or not.”
He decided on leaking it and created a “group buy,” which is what happens when an online community pools money together to purchase a product. He set a target funding goal of $9,000 and leaked the track “Real Magic” as proof that he actually had the goods. The goal was achieved in about two weeks.
Just like that, Act II, perhaps only surpassed by Dr. Dre’s Detox in lost-album infamy, was finally out in the world. But with it brought questions. How did the hacker find the album in the first place? What right did he have to release Electronica’s fabled opus? And did Electronica agree with his reasoning?
My journey to find the origins of the leak begins in early October, as I start poking around for clues and end up falling into a strange corner of the internet, full of encrypted messages, mysterious aliases, and shadowy industry figures.
I find the hacker’s online identity by tracing the digital footsteps of the album’s leak: first on Twitter, where whispers are circulating of a large purchase for the project, then on Reddit, where a user tells me of an infamous moderator on the forum LEAKTHIS, an online community with a collective interest in unearthing (mostly illegally) unreleased music.
“He won’t talk to you lol,” the user warns.
LEAKTHIS members share a mutual admiration for the hacker, often replying to his threads with a goat emoji. But despite his reputation as a reclusive figure, he quickly agrees to talk with me for this story.
“I like providing music for people that otherwise they wouldn’t hear,” he explains when I ask him why he leaks projects. “But I also like collecting songs myself that will never leak or anything.”
I’m speaking with him through an encrypted app that deletes our message history often. My questions are frequently shut down, as he tries to avoid divulging any details that could lead authorities or other hackers to discovering his real identity. He often goes silent for days, or if I push too hard on the wrong topic, he’ll leave the conversation altogether.
He usually comes back, though. Once, after telling me he’s finished speaking with me, he pops up with a name and address accompanied by a blurry selfie picture of a teenage boy. He mistakenly thought I’d written a recent VICE feature on leaking culture and wants to expose the real identity of the 17-year-old hacker at the center of it.
“Great job, you guys interviewed a rapist, pedophile, animal abuser :-),” he captions the picture.
Whether he did this because he feels left behind or just because he wants to let me know I’ve chosen the wrong subject, I don’t know. It seems to prove that he does hold at least some of the power that users on Reddit and LEAKTHIS claim, though.
Looking through LEAKTHIS, you can see he’s shared unheard gems by beloved artists like TDE rapper Isaiah Rashad, the Weeknd, and Kid Cudi.
And then there’s his crown jewel, Act II.
“We weren’t going to get the album regardless,” he says when I ask him whether he believes he stole it. “The album has been nothing but positives for him.”
He’s quick to point out how it’s earned rave reviews from both fans and critics alike, as well as approval by Electronica himself, who, in a retweet of hip-hop journalist Angela Lee about the project, added: “A.P.I.D.T.A. Allah is indeed the best of planners. Humbled by the love its [sic] receiving.”
Then there’s the fact that some of Electronica’s collaborators were in the Discord channel, an invite-only chat platform, that was promoting the group buy. They were annoyed by the leak at first, the hacker says, but then “happy” to support it.
Was that the truth? Not quite, according to some of Jay Electronica’s collaborators.
“The story [the hacker is] putting out there is definitely not accurate,” says Mike Chav, the audio engineer who worked on Act II and whose Dropbox was the one supposedly hacked. “You gotta think who stands to benefit from things, and we kind of came to our own conclusions.”
Chav, along with other members of Electronica’s team (including the rapper’s tour DJ TJ The King), went “Scooby Doo detective,” as he puts it, after hearing about the group buy. So they entered the Discord channel in search of clues. What they found didn’t add up in their eyes, and they quickly came to their own determination: Someone they knew in the music industry had given the hacker the files to leak.
Their reasoning is based on perceived errors in the hacker’s story: Chav almost never uses his Dropbox to exchange files, he says, and he never used it to transfer Act II, which sits on two hard drives at his home. And while the members of Electronica’s team acknowledge they’ve used Jungle City Studios before, they say they never recorded any of Act II there, so it wouldn’t make sense for the file to be named after it.
Their suspicions were heightened by a longtime “super fan” of Electronica who they’d met multiple times in person at shows. According to the fan, who approached them in a sidechat on Discord, the hacker had done “business” with big-name artists before and had contact with another Discord member who was widely considered a figure in the music industry.
This figure, who, based on the fan’s description, Chav recognized as someone once in their inner circle, could have handed the album off to the hacker.
“Whoever created the smokescreen kind of played [the hacker] like a little puppet,” says DJ TJ The King. “Our impression is that some 19-year-old kid from Middle America didn’t just stumble upon this, you know? [Electronica] didn’t believe it either.”
The hacker tells me that this shadowy figure is in fact “a friend of Jay Electronica” but denies receiving Act II from them. They only confirmed its authenticity, he says.
“I’m sure Jay’s team doesn’t remember exactly what was where nearly a decade ago lol,” he counters, before adding that he does in fact work with labels, but not in this case. “I help them, they help me, and I don’t go to jail.”
Regardless of who you believe, both sides do agree on one thing: Electronica was pleasantly surprised by the leak, even behind closed doors.
“Any other time, Jay would be pissed that this happened,” says TJ. “But it was like, everyone was on lockdown, and we were supposed to have been on the road… So we’re kind of sitting here twiddling our thumbs.”
Electronica, just like Chav and TJ, didn’t believe the hacker had anything at first. “They’re gonna be mad when they find out it’s just stuff that’s [already] out,” TJ remembers Electronica telling him when he called to share news about the group buy.
What’s more, Electronica was dealing with a death in his family, so his attention lay far off from music. But then the buy was completed for Act II—or at least the “shell” that would have been released officially had it gone through the proper mixing, mastering, and clearing channels, TJ confirms—and his Twitter timeline was set ablaze with reactions to the project. He couldn’t believe it.
“I really love [him],” the hacker says when I ask him why exactly he went looking for Act II in the first place. “He’s been a big influence on my life and helped me push forward when things have been rough.”
The positive response to the album, reiterated vigorously on social media, perhaps washed away an insecurity within Electronica that fans wouldn’t like his debut, the main reason it was never officially released, TJ tells me.
“Jay thought at the time that people wouldn’t like it because it sounds so different from what was popular,” he says, adding that the inability to clear all of the album’s samples also played a part in its shelving (and most likely its recent pulling from TIDAL).
By that account, perhaps the hacker was right: While it may have not benefited Electronica financially (he wished he could monetize it somehow or even receive the 9K that was raised, TJ tells me), the leak may well have been a positive for him. Not long after its release, Electronica joined the group buy’s Discord channel and even created his own as a way of directly reaching his fans, according to both the hacker and TJ.
“I will say it’s only fitting for it to be released like this,” Chav admits. “Like, more mystery, more weird shit that has continuously followed all of the Jay Electronica projects.”
I tend to agree. For years, Act II was a myth, and then it was here. And then, of course, it was gone again. The hacker, the shadowy figure, the colleagues posing as detectives—they’re all part of the magic trick that’s been Electronica’s career.
If we were to follow the rules of a trick outlined in the 2006 film The Prestige, which Electronica references in his project titles, we start with The Pledge, then we go to Act II: The Turn and then we finish with “the prestige,” where we’re supposed to bring back what’s disappeared.
In this case, the leak served as the third act. It’s up to the audience to decide which player was behind it. This brings us to our final suspect: Electronica himself.
As many have pointed out, it wouldn’t be out of character for the mysterious rapper to leak his own album. In fact, when I tell friends that I’m writing this piece, that’s typically their first question: “Did he do it himself?”
TJ brings up (and denies) the rumors without prompt.
“Jay really had songs on there that he didn’t want out,” TJ says, pointing to the fact that a handful of verses on the project are rough sounding and mumbled out, seemingly as reference tracks to be recorded properly later. “A lot of people kept thinking, ‘Aw man, Jay leaked it!’ Nah, Jay is not the type of person that would leak something.
“Jay would take songs off of that and just put them on the internet; he’s done that plenty of times,” TJ adds. “Half of those songs that were on there, he put out. Maybe two or three songs that no one’s heard. The songs he wanted people to hear, they were out.”
The hacker denies these rumors, too. The one player who doesn’t, of course, is Electronica himself. Like any good magician, he keeps the illusion going.
“Every trick consists of three parts,” he recently typed out in the group buy’s Discord before mysteriously leaving the channel.