It’s finally here. It only took a decade-plus and a global pandemic, but Jay Electronica’s debut album, A Written Testimony, was finally released today. And as a bonus, JAY-Z is on most of it. The project is a long time coming for those who have been captivated with the New Orleans-born artist since his Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) dropped on Myspace in 2007.
Jay promised Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn) for years to no avail, making him the biggest “what if” of the 2010s — if not ever. But some of that anxiety about his potential has been quelled with the release of his 10-track debut.
There are so many things to talk about with the thought-provoking album, including heavy references to the polarizing Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation Of Islam, the ingenuity of his 11th hour live stream (which other artists should consider to build hype for their project), and the reality that the release of an album few had faith in dovetailed with a health epidemic straight out of a religious text. But here are my other biggest takeaways from the momentous project:
For the past decade, Jay Electronica’s sparse output has made it difficult for his fans to describe his skill level and potential to the unknowing. But now, it’s as simple as saying he went bar for bar with JAY-Z for a whole album.
By the end of “Ghost Of Soulja Slim,” most listeners couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could have been indifferent about getting this album. All of his skills were on full display. His lyricism was sharp throughout the project. He showed his poetic grace with one-liners like “Universal Soldier’s” “my poetry’s living like the god that I fall back on.” On “Fruits Of The Spirit,” he touched on societal ills like The Flint Water crisis and ICE’s plundering of families at the border.
At his best, he’s a dexterous lyricist with a commanding mic presence who meshes sentimentality and militancy into thrilling poetics.
Jay Electronica reflected on the elephant in the room, his prolonged absence, multiple times on A Written Testimony. The answer to “why” is rarely simple. Jay Elec explained his reticence via expression of the doubts and demons that played a part in delaying the album’s release.
He humanized the pressure artists feel to succeed on “The Blinding,” where he raps about being in “the wee hours of the night, tryna squeeze out bars…just so y’all can pick me apart?” On “Universal Soldier” he mentioned, “stuffin’ my nose, some of the cons I suffer for pro(se).”
“Ezekiel’s Wheel” contains even more poignant bars, as he reflects, “some ask me ‘Jay man why come for so many years you’ve been exempt?’ / cause familiarity don’t breed gratitude, just contempt / and the price of sanity is too damn high just like the rent,” before pondering, “sometimes I was held down by the gravity of my pen.”
“Shiny Suit Theory” is from 2010 but is hyper-relevant, as he reflects on Diddy asking him “what you scared of?” and perhaps aggravating his creative qualm by telling him “fuck the underground you need to win a Grammy.” Now he just may.
For the most part, A Written Testimony subsists on dreamy, drumless soundscapes like “The Neverending Story,” “A.P.I.D.T.A.” and “Ezekiel’s Wheel” that offer the Jays’ poetics to shine. But they have fun on “The Shining,” where Jay Electronica rhymes over 808s after a beat switch, and “Flux Capacitor,” an ambitious track where Rihanna’s “Higher” is chopped and turned into the basis for the most energetic moment on the album.
Most of the songs were produced by Jay Electronica himself (including “Ezekiel’s Wheel” and “Flux Capacitor.”) But veterans like Alchemist (“The Neverending Story”), No I.D. (“Fruits Of The Spirit”), and Houston band Khruangbin ( “A.P.I.D.T.A.”) also produced tracks. And then there is the “The Blinding,” which features an all-star lineup of Swizz Beatz, G. Ry, AraabMUZIK, and Hit-Boy.
On, “Ezekiel’s Wheel” Jay Electronica exclaims, “my debut album featuring Hov man this is highway robbery.” A week after Jay Elec announced his album, speculation arose that JAY-Z would have a heavy presence on the project. More like a ubiquitous one. A Written Testimony is essentially a collaboration album ala Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, the Raekwon classic with a heavy dose of Ghostface Killah.
As a fan of the game, Jay knows that the time has passed for Jay Electronica’s catalog to compare to would-be contemporaries like Kendrick Lamar or J. Cole’s. But as a torchbearer (and a fan of Jay Elec), JAY-Z also knows that lending his presence for a whole album results in a heavy one-off.
The two Jays have seamless chemistry throughout the project. JAY-Z fully delves into Jay Elec’s world of esotericism and introspection on every song. Jay zips through many of his verses with technical precision and a spellbinding delivery, while Jay Elec glides along with the patience and drawl of a sage polishing the next jewel to come. The two fed off of each other, trading spiritually-tinged, intricately crafted verses like a seasoned duo throughout the project.
Their fusion is fascinating. JAY-Z is the billionaire entrepreneur eternally seeking his next financial windfall, while Jay Electronica is the reclusive nomad who’s perfecting wealth of self. They’re seemingly diametrically opposed, but their shared knowledge of self, lyrical ability and a knack for storytelling form an incredible coalescence throughout their shared Testimony.
Last night, the @AintNoJigga Twitter account, a “Hovstorian” who has to be someone in JAY-Z’s circle if not Jay himself, tweeted, “Hov sat in that studio. Listened to the conversations. Remembered everything he has learned. Put it all together. Gave us 5% Carter.” JAY-Z’s earned many nicknames throughout his 30-year-career, but 5% Carter and “Hovtep,” which also circulated last night, are new ones.
JAY-Z’s biggest fans may recall his early proximity to Nuwabian teachings through his onetime mentor Jaz-O, who was involved in the Black conscious community during the ’80s. Other fans may recall the 7* Five Percenter chain JAY-Z was wearing in the early 2010s. When asked by Charlamagne Tha God about the medallion during a 2013 Breakfast Club appearance, Jay said, “religion is like a personal computer, you let people in if you want to.”
He permitted access on A Written Testimony. He ended off his momentous verse on the Alchemist-produced “The Neverending Story” with “Inshallah,” and lamented that, “I got numbers on my phone, that’ll never ring again cause Allah done called them home” on the weary “A.P.I.D.T.A.” Jay is selective about what he divulges to the public. He may expand on these lyrics in a future interview, or maybe this is simply if you know, you know status.
It’s been a long time coming. The Alchemist was good friends with the late Prodigy, who infamously had beef with JAY-Z. Their bond meant that Alchemist wasn’t lacing JAY-Z with anything in the ‘00s. And despite there not being any volleys tossed between JAY-Z and Prodigy for a while, the lack of a formal resolution before the Mobb Deep rapper’s tragic death in 2017 may have quelled the chances of collaboration through most of the 2010s. But in 2020, both men are icons in their own right. Any residual ill will (that probably didn’t even exist between them directly) is long gone. That’s why it felt so sweet to hear JAY-Z rip through Alchemist’s dreamy production on “The Neverending Story.” I hate to sound greedy, but maybe there could be more collaborations between the two GOATs in the future.
Some people rolled their eyes when they saw “Shiny Suit Theory,” a ten-year-old song, on the tracklist for A Written Testimony. But the track feels fresh on the album. It deserves to be more than a random loosie. The drumless The Ambassadors “Aint Got the Love (Of One Girl on My Mind)” sample is en vogue production. Jay Electronica’s brilliant encapsulation of Diddy, a central figure in hip-hop, deserves eternal encasing in a great album. And JAY-Z’s verse is a compelling summation of his convention-defying “nothing to something” come up through the lens of a psychiatric evaluation.
On “Exhibit A,” Jay Electronica reflected, “Back in the early ’90s ‘Where they at, where they at?
/ Get the gat, get the gat’ was a popular phrase.” The line was in reference to New Orleans rapper Lil Elt’s 1992 bounce classic “Get The Gat.” LSU’s football team made the phrase go viral earlier this year, and JAY-Z may give it a whole new life after uttering it on “Flux Capacitor.”
“The Ghost of Soulja Slim” pays homage to beloved MC Soulja Slim, who was killed at just 26 in 2003. JAY-Z also takes the moment to break into a cadence reminiscent of B.G. on “Cash Money Is An Army.” Louisiana natives and others who got the Elt reference celebrated it on Twitter last night, making it another example of an artist paying homage to their predecessors.
Andre Gee is a New York-based freelance writer with work at Uproxx Music, Impose Magazine, and Cypher League. Feel free to follow his obvious Twitter musings that seemed brilliant at the moment @andrejgee.
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