This article originally appeared on Noisey UK. It's the day before Brexit Day, I'm in Paris for Jamiroquai's first live show in seven years—and I have no idea why I'm here. Until a few hours previous, my only reference points for Jamiroquai were the video for "Deeper Underground" which routinely pissed me off throughout my teens as it aired on MTV2 between what felt like every other song, and that scene in Napoleon Dynamite where Napoleon dances to "Canned Heat" in front of an auditorium of bewildered but also extremely impressed peers. At a packed Salle Pleyel—one of his five headline dates that sold out in actual seconds—I essentially played the role of the entire supporting cast of Napoleon Dynamite; bewildered but also extremely impressed.
The thing about Jamiroquai is that, in my opinion, if you break them down into individual components they make no fucking sense. There is the obvious stuff—their name is a portmanteau of "jam session" and a reference to the Iroquois Native American tribe; they had a didgeridoo player for eight years; this music video—but let's consider Jay Kay, for a second. Jay Kay: the group's centrifugal force and main component that catapults them from the realms of "musician's musicians" into the forefront of mainstream pop culture. His voice, his moves, his many, many big hats—these are the things we think of when we think of Jamiroquai. We don't really think of them as what they are on paper, which is a multi-membered funk/acid jazz band born out of a London scene also comprised of James Taylor Quartet and Brand New Heavies. Can you imagine James Taylor Quartet or Brand New Heavies selling out The O2 twice over and sending the internet into a collective frenzy in 2017? No, you cannot.
And yet, somehow, a guy from Stretford whose calling card is pairing elaborate headgear with bootcuts and a tracksuit jacket, singing in the vaguest possible terms about the universe, has become a sensation that transcends all the usual demographics. Chance The Rapper loves him, The Black Madonna loves him, The Internet love him, Katy Perry was extremely "ready" for the comeback, Tyler, The Creator claims "Jay Kay influenced my music as fuck," Pharrell—no stranger to a slapping bass line or, indeed, a big hat—has expressed an interest in working with him, Missy Elliott sampled "Morning Glory" on "Bite Our Style (Interlude)" and much of Justin Timberlake's entire solo career has been a partial Jamiroquai homage. But why? What is it about this man who is sort of like a civilized Gallagher brother that causes such a fuss? To paraphrase the popular meme: Who is he?
After I—a non-convert, an entirely blank slate—watched Jamiroquai perform for no less than two hours and 15 minutes straight, my theory is this: Jamiroquai appeals to literally everyone. Your dad who loves Steely Dan because of their technical prowess is down. Your George Michael-obsessed mam is down. Your mate whose favorite Prince era is self-titled is down. Red Hot Chili Peppers fans are down. Stevie actual Wonder is respectfully down. Consumers of the most mainstream of pop to the deepest Radiohead cut to UK garage to bossa nova and everything in between—down, down, down and down again. The 2,500-capacity venue was filled with such a diverse crowd I could not in all honesty tell you which age bracket held the overall majority, but I can tell you that every single one of them was buzzing (in a very pure way, too, since drinks were banned inside the venue). I saw teenage girls dancing in the seated section. I saw middle-aged men filming Instagram stories. I saw people in tailored suits and people in Supreme hats. The only other place I have seen such cultural harmony is in Hackney Wetherspoons on a Saturday.
It's pretty obvious from the offset what the attraction is. Jamiroquai, the band, are flawless. From the minute they bowled onstage opening with "Shake it On" straight into "Little L," to the encore of "Canned Heat" straight into "Love Foolosophy" (how dare they), the entire show runs with all the precision and proficiency of a space mission. Jamiroquai, the man, settling into a slightly more relaxed role, is no longer the same guy who runs in circles around the stage like a child dizzy on Lucozade.
These days he's chill, charming, funny. He doesn't talk much but almost everything he does say is some sort of "thank you" punctuated with a staccato'd laugh that lands somewhere between Will Smith and Michelle Visage. At one point his LED hat ran out of charge and he points out the irony of living in a hyper-technological world and yet even Jay Kay can't get through a set without having to plug his hat in. Still, he struts around the stage, visibly enjoying himself more and more as the night goes on; putting his foot up on the amps and leaning into the crowd who, very respectfully, just stretch out their arms in his general direction as though they're saluting the sun, without any attempt to touch or grab him. He finger-points and Fat Mac shuffles for the duration, somehow signing off on every single move with an inherent grace and coolness—the kind of swag your uncle thinks he possesses on a wedding dancefloor but absolutely does not. "I haven't fucking died yet!" he exclaims at one point, "Ha ha haaa!" At the end of the set, he walks from one corner of the stage to the other, shaking hands with every single person in the front row.
So captivated was I that, despite knowing about five songs and having precisely no beers, the only times I pulled out my phone were to capture some particularly class moves and Google his age (47!). I have now come to agree that he is one of the smoothest motherfuckers alive. But it's a very understandable brand of smoothness—he's not like Michael Jackson or Freddie Mercury, who prompt responses of "EXCUSE ME, BUT HOW" every time they open their mouths or do anything resembling dancing. He's more of an icon disguised as an everyman; Prince in a zip-up hoodie. He doesn't code-switch because he embodies two contrasting worlds at once. He's the lone raver who sits down next to you in The Stone Circle at Glastonbury and starts talking about how DMT is a naturally occurring compound, but he's also the guy who sits down next to you at a modestly priced bar—sunglasses on, indoors—and starts talking in unsolicited detail about his collection of luxury cars.
Jay Kay gives off the impression, just for a moment, that he is quite relatable and anyone could do what he does—but he isn't, and you definitely can't. Jay Kay is a force unto his own. He moves like a toddler trying to maintain balance on a boat but they feel right because he delivers them with a finesse that implies he made them up alone in front of the mirror to suit him, rather than having them hammered into him through formal training. He has one of the best voices of his time both technically and in terms of how effortlessly it translates (on their softer, more lounge-inspired tracks like "Corner of the Earth" especially it feels like an angel blowing on your face). In videos he has managed to turn climbing over cinema seats into legitimate choreography, pull off a costume that is a mixture of The Mask and The Joker while going nuts amid some bins and stare deeply into the eyes of a falcon without once looking ridiculous. Nobody should be able to get away with that sort of behavior. And yet, here is Jay Kay, singing about cosmic girls and space cowboys and giving me my absolute unfettered life.
On the one hand Jamiroquai is a slap in the face to all that is bland and modest about British music, sexy dancing over the rigid, stoney-faced template of The British Male with wildly indulgent music videos and weird trousers. On the other hand, you can also very much picture "Little L" playing in a restaurant in Mayfair as city boy's rack up coke on their important documents. But whether you consider it a nuanced balance of technical prowess and masterful pop songwriting or "wishy-washy funk-lite designed purely for early-evening wine bars in the provinces," what is clear is that Jamiroquai are back after a near decade and I am now as gassed as everyone I saw spaffing over "Automaton" on Facebook in January. I went to Paris looking for answers—answers we have been seeking all year and even made one of our writers become Jamiroquai in order to obtain—and I didn't really get them. Instead the experience completely eliminated the need for them entirely. I get it now. No further questions.
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Automaton is out now.
Photography by David Wolff-Patrick.