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Jay Electronica performing Act II tracks
Jay Electronica performing Act II tracks
Photo Credit: Dan Petruzzi

Jay Electronica, The Tale Of Two Debuts & Which One Is Better

Following the official release of Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn), the looming question among fans is: Which is the better debut from Jay Electronica — Act II or A Written Testimony?

Between 2009 and 2010, New Orleans rapper Jay Electronica generated a rare excitement in hip-hop that was unusual for a Southern rapper. Who else from the South had JAY-Z and Diddy bidding to sign them? Name another revered by Yasiin Bey, beloved by Just Blaze, and heralded by Erykah Badu all before releasing an album. To his credit, the attention Electronica gathered was because of his gift with words. He rhythmically produced abstract, highly technical, deeply mythical, and religious lyricism — a writer’s writer; a rapper’s rapper.

As popular music transitioned from the dying era of ringtone rap to the emerging Autotune jingles of the 2010s, Electronica felt like the perfect antithesis against bubblegum hip-hop. After signing with Jay's Roc Nation in November of 2010, the 35-year-old lyricist was set to release Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn), the debut album he announced in 2009. However, Act II never materialized, and instead, after 11 long years, he released his Roc Nation debut A Written Testimony on March 13, 2020.

Seven months after the album's release, Act II leaked online. Receiving the album through a leak feels far more fitting than some massive, big-budget, major label rollout. Electronica comes from the underground blog era; it's oddly proper for his original debut to premiere online through unconventional means. Nothing says the blog era quite like music stolen from a hard drive and shared through Mediafire links. Strangely enough, the leak is why the long-awaited release is off the proverbial shelf and able to be streamed alongside A Written Testimony on Tidal.

With both albums now officially out, the looming question among fans is: which is a better debut? One has to examine them as separate bodies of work and recorded under different conditions, all while representing the same artist. Electronica recorded A Written Testimony over 40 days and 40 nights with Jay as his co-conspirator, appearing on eight of the album's 10 tracks.

What's immediately fascinating about the two albums is how they begin. A Written Testimony leads with an audio clip from a controversial Minister Louis Farrakhan speech that stretches across the first two songs. "The Overwhelming Event" swells with suspensefulness into the fiery "Ghost of Soulja Slim." Jay opens the latter with, "Next time they bring up the Gods, you gon' respect us, that lil' vest ain't gonna do you, I shoot from neck up." The tone his first verse sets is abrasive, like a veteran gladiator with plenty of fight left in his veins. It's an energy Electronica meets by taunting adversaries and thanking God with kindred self-assertion.

Rather than Minister Farrakhan, Ronald Reagan is the first voice heard on Act II. The 40th president sounds at peace, quoting Winston Churchill's thoughts on man's destiny. Tranquil keys play beneath his speech, scoring an elegant intro that sets up Electronica's opening confession on album starter "Real Magic":

"Sometimes I don’t know what to say; it’s a genuine miracle I woke up today, so I got up to pray / But my BBM was pinging when my Android started singing / then, I missed all of the glory for technological luxuries / And just like that I forgot all of the trees, and the flowers and the breeze carryin' seeds across the seas / Extra honey in my tea, but pay no homage to the bee / What ever happened to us?"

Each line vividly extends into the next, a testament to the poetic wordplay that continues to bring him reverence from fans and peers alike. Notice how there's no sense of urgency in his delivery either, allowing the flow to move with a steady, spoken word grace. It's like watching the brushstrokes of a renaissance painter illustrate the imagery from his mind to the canvas. The gentle piano melody keeps the production reserved, pushing ears to maintain interest in the language of Electronica's lyricism.

Unlike the epic "Ghost of Soulja Slim," "Real Magic" is quiet, setting the stage for a lucid collection of songs that unfold slowly like a Stanley Kubrick film, rather than detonating abruptly like a hand grenade. Of the two albums, Act II builds a world for the listener. There's a continuity to the production — handled by Electronica himself — that doesn't shortcut the experience. The drums don't land like haymakers, with most of the production opting for gorgeous piano melodies and vocal samples that build a subtleness that compliments Electronica's compelling stream of consciousness.

Although his style is free-flowing, Electronica is enchanted by messaging. The music on Act II is representative of the mind of a thirty-something sage who speaks in magic, miracles, movies, and memories. Lyrically, he avoids all the apparent rap clichés, dodging mistakes that would usually trip up a less assured artist. A Written Testimony has a similar maturity, overflowing with spiritual ruminations and candid reflection, but from an elder statesman relishing in rapping alongside a fellow elder statesman. "My debut album featurin' Hov, man, this is highway robbery," he brags on "Ezekiel's Wheel," aware that he's in privileged company. When you're rapping alongside JAY-Z there's no chip on your shoulder. You have arrived. You are on the throne. But how did you get there?

Act II is the answer to that question. The two albums complement each other as the origin and the outcome. For example, “Welcome to Knightsbridge” has a vocal clip of Diddy saying, “This guy is too talented for us to be putting up with his motherfucking bullshit." Between the quote are two acrobatic verses that put on full display why Electronica was a sought after prospect. He has the swagger of a torchbearer, presenting himself as the next great wordsmith. If debut albums are comparable to how rookie seasons introduce new ballplayers entering the league, Act II is a playoff appearance while A Written Testimony is the championship.

But that's exactly why Act II satisfies a desire to see Electronica live up to the greatness of classics like “Exhibit C” and “Dear Moleskine.” A Written Testimony doesn’t deliver the one of a kind perspective that is “Letter to Falon,” “Better in Tune,” “Run and Hide” or “Life on Mars.” But it does show the exponential growth of a spiritual man who gained the world and had to juggle his identity against the expectations of who he is. No matter which is the preferred debut, they both show a unique portrait of one mind going through the stages from man to myth.

Travis “Yoh” Phillips is the author of hip-hop anthology Best Damn Hip-Hop Writing: The Book of Yoh, co-host of the high-end southern hip-hop podcast, Sum’n to Say, and the executive producer and co-creator of vérité music documentary series Rap Portraits.