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A year before Jay Electronica’s momentous 2010 Roc Nation signing, the hoopla surrounding his mystique was nearly deafening, but online music junkies, tastemakers and refined rap connoisseurs had already been intrigued by his persona and music for some time. His grand introduction came by way of Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge), a 2007 Myspace release spanning 15 minutes over the course of one track. As if the novelty of rapping over drum free selections from Jon Brion’s film score of the same title wasn’t startling enough, listeners found heavy cosigns from Erykah Badu and Just Blaze that stressed this arrival as that of a pivotal juggernaut.
The greatest press release a mildly buzzing rapper could ask for at the time, voicemails from Roc-A-Fella’s production mastermind and Jay Electronica’s one-time romantic interest made him seem larger than life, with a mind greater than anything we had previously been exposed to. Contextualizing him as a pure-hearted artist capable of becoming a savior figure, it felt like we were being introduced to an extraterrestrial superhuman from Marvel’s cinematic universe. Left with the impression that we were lucky to even know about him via their reflections, this rollout was an organic dash of marketing genius that set the upstart’s career in motion before Twitter and other technological resources advanced hip-hop careers.
Though Jay Electronica went over a decade without releasing a full-length body of work until his recent formal debut A Written Testimony, invested fans were fortunate enough to discover older material through unofficial compilations found on blogs and file-sharing services. Many of his earliest musical visions were demo quality recordings that appeared to be unfinished though sporadically impressive, considering his performances were accentuated by production from Detroit guru Denaun Porter on top of hand-chosen recognizable beats from the late J. Dilla. Paying clear homage to the likes of Jay Z, Notorious B.I.G. and Nas, Jay Elec’s command of the microphone was enough for many to believe that his novelty would manifest into something special once he settled into a groove.
With the help of his well-established benefactor Just Blaze, the two years following Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) made Jay Electronica one of the more widely touted and anticipated emcees since Canibus a decade prior. A deep dive into his earliest music uncovers a bit of untapped potential, but much of the work was haphazard and conceptually aimless until the earth-shattering “Exhibit A.” Initially released in conjunction with Guitar Center, the song felt like an apocalyptic harbinger that validated the praise that had been heaped upon the newcomer.
Dark and futuristic in nature, familiar followers were elated as this was a fully-realized production with improved audio quality. The song’s remix featured a latter-day Mos Def who was still sharp as ever, this collaboration bringing Jay even closer to acceptance and a place at the table with rap’s elite Jedi fold.
October 27, 2009, started the fateful chain of events that elevated Jay Electronica’s myth beyond reasonable expectations. Just Blaze premiered “Exhibit C” on Shade 45 and while it wasn’t a far stretch from the producer’s trademark sound (a classic soul loop accompanied by hyperactive drum patterns i.e. Jay-Z’s “Hovi Baby” and “Show Me What You Got”), it caught instant wildfire. Released as social media was beginning to sprout wings, the song became a moment forever etched in hip-hop’s ethos, setting a new standard and perhaps unfairly redefining how he’s been received since. Looking back, this was a perfect storm moment where preparation met opportunity, as the hook free barrage of upper echelon quasi-autobiographical rhymes (complete with mentions of encouragement from Nas and Diddy) sparked a frenzy in traditionalists already aggravated by autotune and Drake’s fusing the genre with R&B.
At a moment when the fervor surrounding him being spiked and hit a feverish peak, Jay Electronica’s next steps (or lack thereof) would throw his audience for a confounding loop while holding them entranced in the palm of his hand. Accustomed to a business model where record labels rush to capitalize on hot names and mold new stars out of clay, it became evident this was a one of a kind nomadic enigma who moved at his own pace. Unlike storied names such as Kid Hood, whose untimely passing came after impressing the world on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” remix, Jay Elec engaged the world in a tug of war between frustration and excitement making brief cameo appearances on songs or dropping a song intermittently before disappearing again. The past decade also found him in a short-lived love affair with an heiress to the UK’s upper-class Rothschild family, only adding to the culture’s confusion surrounding his mystique and every move.
Album done .
— J A Y E L E C T R O N I C A (@JayElectronica) February 7, 2020
“...my debut album featuring Hov man this is highway robbery”
— J A Y E L E C T R O N I C A (@JayElectronica) February 7, 2020
Recorded over 40 days and 40 nights, starting from Dec 26
— J A Y E L E C T R O N I C A (@JayElectronica) February 7, 2020
Releasing in 40 days
— J A Y E L E C T R O N I C A (@JayElectronica) February 7, 2020
Salivation and hunger for a full-length Jay Electronica project would spawn eventual restlessness and doubt, with his backstory remaining largely untold short of going down intricate internet rabbit holes and taking context clues from his music. Attention to detail uncovers his roots in New Orleans, residencies including Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and his steadfast devotion as a practicing follower under Louis Farrakhan’s Nation Of Islam, but the question remained: Would we ever be introduced to his fully fleshed-out visions, grounding philosophies and principles the way legends like Nas and Jay Z so expertly did with Illmatic and Reasonable Doubt? To everyone’s surprise, last month Jay Electronica exited seclusion to inform Twitter that an album had in fact been completed, this revelation even met with a bit of well-deserved skepticism.
In the short time since A Written Testimony world premiered on Instagram and Youtube via a studio session and its subsequent release to digital streaming platforms, the long-awaited release has already been met with passionate debate akin to “Ether” vs. “The Takeover” or any other topic rap passionates devote energy to. Stylistically a bridge between the influences of Five Percenter legends such as Rakim and New Orleans hometown heroes not limited to Soulja Slim, it would serve well to remember that Jay Electronica has rendered himself a magician, as his initial 2007 greetings displayed a fascination with the film The Prestige. By this logic, one could assume he initially set out to be an idea, a concept or a spectacle designed to inspire and exist outside of the conventional confines of the music industry.
With mixed reviews of his debut in mind, we’re left with new questions to consider: Did the initial hype and excitement amount to smoke and mirrors? With him still having Just Blaze’s public support, why is the album mostly made up of underdeveloped self-produced beats? Is Jay Electronica a hot business commodity and an investment for Roc Nation or is there an actual kinship with Jay-Z who guest stars throughout the effort?
Without question, Jay Electronica is one of the more complex personas we’ve come across in ages. There’s a noteworthy delivery and a sharp knack for writing in his newest verses, but the extended hesitation to develop into a polished act and deliver output suggests he may have never wanted this level of attention, to begin with. Though he remains shrouded in mystery, it’s a pretty safe bet that we’ll be watching his next act – that is, if he ever chooses to resurface in the public eye.
The hook to Royce da 5’9”’s “Hard,” from his 2016 album Layers, has to be talked about. It’s almost like a Rosetta Stone into the current thought process that undergirds his current output. But, before that’s done, the song itself has to be taken into context. It’s pure superhero music—triumphant horn blasts and defiant autobiographical rhyme bursts with a quasi spoken-word opening verse. It’s a stylistic extension of what he had been doing for years—breaking rap bars into uneven run-on pieces with entangled and elongated metaphors and complicated punchlines that are impossible to get on the first (or fourth) listen. In the beginning, he’s back in grade school, speaking to a teacher in what’s probably a monologue courtesy of l’esprit de l’escalier. “Look around you: Do I look like anything like the rest of your class?” he asks. “Can’t you see that I’m special? I don’t act like these f***in’ crumbsnatchers. I don’t even breathe like ‘em’. I was born with my lungs collapsin’.”
It’s not pure braggadocio—on Trust The Shooter, the mixtape he released before Layers, he shared that he was born at “four-pound, dark purple, couldn’t even breathe on my own/ Shakin’ baby in the incubator, breathing machine for my lung.” He then obliquely spoke on dysfunctional families, drug addiction, a broken medical insurance system, major label disasters, the prison industrial complex, idol worship, and ADHD treatment—all within the first minute of the first song. “I learned everything I need to know at day one in the hospital.”
It was the introduction to an artistic explosion and growth spurt that may be unprecedented in the annals of hip-hop. Sure, there’s maybe another artist who has evolved in the ways that Royce has over the past half-decade—going from rapping about rapping to rapping about the ills of the world and exposing the raw nerves of his life—but it’s hard to think of one. And it’s hard to think of anyone who has the poetical focus of a member of a group as rhyme-driven as Slaughterhouse, who literally and lyrically hangs with Eminem, who doesn’t care about marketplace success so much that he constantly talks about his commercial achievements and shortcomings at almost every turn.
He begins the second verse of "Hard" bombastically: "My finest hour is here/This what I see in my prayers/ This is me, though I'm facin' all of my fears/ Making all my enemies look in the mirror/ And see the face to the Jordan meme of the Jordan face with all of the tears…" and he goes on, dropping intertwined bars about his skillset, a brush with divorce, what may or may not be physical or sexual assault on "your whore," and how the song was inspired by watching Hamilton on Broadway (a slight flex in of itself). So it almost makes sense when he breaks out into a Lin-Manuel Miranda-esque semi-song:
I said f***in’ the baddest bi**hes around wasn’t hard as I thought/ Man, what the f**k was I thinkin’? (get money)/Jewelry and cars/ Achievin’ the highest level of success ain’t as hard as I thought (top of the world)/ What the f**k was I thinkin’?/ I was drunk or I was lost/ My people said it would be hard/ My teacher said it would be hard/ What the f**k was she thinking’?/ Why did I listen to y’all?
The obligatory Infinity Saga analogy says that Royce is Thanos between movies; the one who acquired all the Stones—wealth (he brags about designer jeans and driving an Aston Martin), marketplace recognition (his Bad Meets Evil project with Eminem went gold and debuted a number one on the Billboard 200 a decade ago), peer respect (he's quickly replacing Black Thought as the "most underrated" rapper in spaces where those discussions take place), and whatever the other three Stones would be in this analogy. But somewhere offscreen, he realized that such things only served as temptation and he destroyed them. It's a neat analogy, but not perfect. We don’t know if Royce ever achieved what he wanted—he equates himself with Leonardo DiCaprio ("all they have on me is the awards") in a way that suggests he wouldn't mind winning a Grammy. What we know is he came close enough to those things to not want them. And, even though he compares himself to the Mad Titan on "Upside Down" from his latest album, The Allegory ("to the genre, I'm Thanos"), he’s actually Vision.
Despite his claims, Royce isn't the one who has the conviction to destroy half the universe; he's the one who used the Mind Stone properly, in ways that Marshall Ultron never imagined; the one who surpassed Dr. Dre Stark and Paul Banner’s expectations. His last two studio albums—2018's Book of Ryan and the recently released The Allegory–are all about building connections and showcasing emotional vulnerability in a way that someone as stoic as Thanos only revealed when alone with his daughter.
All "they" got on Royce is the awards, but if there were blind justice in this world, he would have been nominated for one for Book of Ryan. It's an album that spiritually began on a song that isn't on the album. "Tabernacle," the first song on Layers and nestled in the middle of Trust The Shooter, is the song. It's the one you play for people who don't get Royce, the one you play for people who don't listen to hip-hop because they think rap doesn't have depth, the one you listen to when you need to be inspired by the meaning of the chaos of your own life story. There's really no way to encapsulate the song without listening to it.
"Tabernacle" is the Sankofa song; the one where Royce looks back to move forward. And Book of Ryan is an astounding album-length look back at Ryan Montgomery and the Montgomery family. Full of domestic violence, humor, drugs, love, and dark and light moments in equal measure, it's a black Black comedy that is a coming to terms story masquerading as a coming of age tale. It's as if Lemonade, 4:44, and EVERYTHING IS LOVE were put into the blender of one mind and shredded by rap skills and spoken narrative. And, for good measure, there are a few songs that are about nothing but rhyming. One of them features Pusha T, Jadakiss, and Fabolous and feels like something that was erroneously leftover from a DJ's compilation; the other, "Caterpillar," featuring Eminem, could be construed as a callout against Kendrick Lamar ("remember when you praisin' the butterfly, don't you ever disrespect the f**kin' caterpillar"). "Caterpillar" isn't a dis—Royce too regularly praises Kendrick for such a thing to be taken seriously. He's also too direct in his conflict (he goes straight at Yealowolf's neck for a not fully-disclosed reason). But he's also so cut-throat that reading lines like,"Guess what I'ma never do?/ Show so much respect to you/ That I feel like we friends so now we no longer competitors/ That could be the death of you" is the kind of camaraderie as bloodsport the game needs. (But don't think too much about it. Royce's following lines—"Never let someone who's not as smart as you gas you up and tell you something that you never knew/Always stay professional"—feels like a preemptive subconscious strike against people who read too much in between the lines of rap lines.)
For the most part, Royce uses Book of Ryan to eschew well-worn rap roads and travels to the past to talk about his dad's addiction, his brother's incarceration, family outings, and his eccentric elders. The album also goes inward to talk about depression, alcoholism, and recovery. And Royce goes back to his old neighborhood to talk about his love affair with a lucky basketball signed by Isiah Thomas and buying snacks at a local store. He also talks to his son about his fears—the greatest being his shortcomings as a father and passing on his alcoholic tendencies: "You in a gene pool with a lot of sick fish/ And I’m the sickest of them all." It's hard to quantify things like "heart," and talking about them in regards to music is so subjective. But Book of Ryan is full of heart. There's really no better way to say it.
Royce wore a rhinestone du-rag so you don't have to. He tells you to Google it, as he does a few things on The Allegory. He's not willing to break down things for the listener all the time, but he presents the donning of the headpiece as a symbol of the sacrifices he made following commercial success early on in his career. And it makes sense. The first time I heard of Royce was while working in the Source offices from Riggs Morales, who was one of Eminem's first industry advocates (and would go on work at Paul Rosenberg's Goliath Artists amongst other industry positions). At the time, Source co-founder Jonathan Shecter was no longer with the magazine, but was running a small label called Game Recordings that released vinyl records with sexy girls on the cover. It was a bit ahead of the curve—since then, selling things hamburgers and beers via women in bikinis has become mainstream, but back then Riggs had a 12" of Bad Meets Evil that he was exceptionally fond of. Riggs had good taste in music and assured that the two emcees were amongst the best he'd ever heard. I never listened to it, but I kept it in mind.
At the time Royce released his debut, Rock City in 2002, I remembered that this was the kid Riggs was championing and listened. I was unimpressed. The lyrics were good, but the music and message felt too indistinct and trendy. And dude was running around with a rhinestone du-rag. This is why, now on "Upside Down," Royce announces: "Whoever think I'm here to make some corny-ass radio Viacom jingle got my whole diatribe tangled."
He's no longer making music for mass consumption. He's no longer after those stones.
A few things have to be said about The Allegory. Firstly—and this can't be understated—it's entirely produced by Royce, who wasn't making beats two years ago when he made Book of Ryan. It's important because while these aren't "superproducer"-level tracks, they're incredibly accomplished album cuts. The sounds aren't one-note, the arrangements aren't regular, and he often makes space for singers to come in on hooks and mini-verses. Moreover, it doesn't come off as an insular, navel-gazing vanity project. It's an album that stands on its own as a collection of music, stripping funk, warning basslines, sprinkling keys, and interpolating Dana Dane with a reserve that surpasses his position as a novitiate.
The rhymes are often amazing and every guest appearance by a rapper is spectacular. Griselda's Benny the Butcher, Conway, and Westside Gunn show up individually, as does fellow Slaughterhouse alum, KXNG Crooked. T.I and Cyhi da Prince gang up on "Black Savages." His brother and longtime collaborator Kid Vishis shows up, as does Grafh. Oddly enough, Eminem shows up on an interlude to make the most cohesive observation of race on the album, which is both confusing and not.
It's not confusing, because—through beefs and dis records and death and reconciliation—Eminem and Royce have emerged as an amazing mixed-race bromance. And, with his past few records, Royce's transparency about his upcoming explains his bond with Em in ways that are pretty opaque until now. They're not just rappers who came up together, they're products of tumultuous families, addicts who have leaned on one another, men who found sobriety, artists who genuinely use the recording booth as therapeutic havens. In the past, Royce spoke and rapped drunkenly on record; now he's making hour-long meditations on society and has motivational hustler Derrick Grace running through flash quizzes with Grace's daughter in between songs—distinguishing bullet calibers and reciting Black empowerment lessons.
It's confusing because The Allegory presents itself as Royce's "woke" project. In the beginning, he compares it to Homer's Illiad and Plato's Allegory of the Cave—two references that guarantee that this is not a project that will make itself known plainly or with ease. It's part To Pimp A Butterfly and part DAMN. And, like those projects, as much as it seeks to be progressive in terms of race, it remains shockingly regressive on sexual politics. On the opening of “Upside Down,” Royce begins: “Why the gay ni**as tryna f**k the straight ni**as that's tryna f**k the gay bi**hes that look just like the straight ni**as?/ Why the straight ni**as that the gay bi**hes tryna look just like the gay ni**as?” It’s a confusing bit of nothing—something that Royce routinely does with such verve that how it sounds trumps what it means. But, it’s troubling and manages to wave away the realities of multiple gender identities unnecessarily. Though it marries to the title of the song, it’s divorced from the rest of his verse and there’s no exploration of what he means beyond thought-twisting. While The Allegory is great on many levels, it's definitely misogynistic and often transphobic and homophobic on others. Royce still seems to be cheating on his wife and saying so publicly—or at least willing to allude to infidelity for a punchline. He's still under the spells of capitalism and bars violence. He outs himself as an anti-vaxxer. In short, it's a mess.
It's a mess, but it's a beautiful one because it's honest. "Pendulum" alone is disturbing in its dismissal of women. Royce confesses that he's "too narcissistic to be lickin' carpet, too artistic to nut/ This a catharsis" before going on to add that "my side chick is still burnin', now my dick is scorchin'/ Talkin' bout 'I think I'm pregnant; I'm not with abortion'/ Any child that slides out you is an instant orphan." The song's hook doesn't add any clarity: "We gon' rob the rich and leave them with the f**kin' bill." It's a thinking person's album that becomes uncomfortable if you think about it too intensely. And that’s a shame.
But The Allegory is also an album that speaks on growing old in rap, living and dying in Black America, the importance of owning your masters as a recording artists, and contains an apology to Royce's father for bringing up his dad's past without talking to him about it first. Yet, what the "allegory" is isn't quite clear. And it may be too meta and too lazy to say that that's the point. What's clear is that Ryan Montgomery, after 20 years as a professional rapper, is making the best music of his career and expanding his arsenal in profound ways. And that's going to have to be enough. He's learned that f**king the baddest bi**hes around and achieving the highest levels of success aren't as hard as he thought. He's still learning. If he continues to release music—or follow on his plans to "screenwriter a movie or write a play"—the caterpillar may do things with the Mind Stone that Thanos never imagined.
Their eyes were watching for you the way they watch for Jesus Shuttlesworth and Malcolm X and Nipsey Hussle over on Slauson and Crenshaw They came in cars on planes by bus by grit They got there by foot They were in wheelchairs Their sandpaper palms gripped canes and walkers They were slouching Baby Boomers salt-and-pepper-haired Gen Xers tattoo-faced Millennials They be Beyoncé and Jimmy Kimmel and 7-feet ballers who crush the ground like jolly green giants They marched from all over with purple and yellow gold steamed to their chests they marched through the musty scents of Downtown Los Angeles the way 20th century Europeans marched from freedom ships to Ellis Island the way 21st century immigrants march from Mexico into the barbed-wire borders of the promised land the way chocolate-legged country dwellers marched from Mississippi to the salty beaches and sleepy ‘hoods of California a massive army of humanity hemmed up block after block looking for the Staples Center looking for that angel in America who got a city of billions ‘round the world saying your name, Kobe The lines of flesh speed text as police and arena workers shoo people to move like you moved on that basketball court a Black Mamba yes but also an African ballet dancer who broke a-loose the chains of plantations and copied and pasted Beethoven and basketball with Biggie and Beverly Hills as your body leaped and lunged into the open mouths of nameless ancestors who done seen some things and them ancestors blew Michael Jordan and Dr. J and your daddy and your momma and Philadelphia and Japan and Italy and the holy ghost of Dizzy and Coltrane into your veins just means the people marching to be like you, Kobe and they be White Black Latinx Asian Native American Pacific Islander Christian Jewish Muslim Atheist Agnostic This gender That gender No gender They be Kendrick’s cool hip-hop they be Sinatra’s cool jazz They be lakers matching jellybeans with Amy Winehouse and Marilyn Monroe as you Kobe and you Gianna wax poetic with John Lennon and Marvin Gaye about love love love They be a rainbow coalition of thousands marching over your mid-range jumpers and 360-degree dunks as they scrape field hollers and spirituals and your blues from their veins, Kobe Wearing number 8 Wearing number 24 Wearing Gianna’s number 2 Street hustlers selling tee shirts posters clipped and chipped memories of you putting an entire nation on your shoulders winning 5 championships teaching us the magic of the mamba mentality telling us to keep shooting even when the odds are slanted like that cloudy hillside in heaven you be heaven to us, Kobe ‘cuz you never gave up That’s why they come to you like you are a saint a king royalty yeah a political leader yeah a self-help guru yeah a storyteller yeah They come to you because you could chest-pass a basketball through the smashed windows of centuries of dreams denied They come to you because you crumbled in front of us and got back up and confessed and apologized and sculpted yourself into a husband a lover a father a girls’ dad Vanessa Bryant’s multi-lingual soulmate her tears her words the biblical permission we need to release your joyful angel’s wings into the healing arms of the Pacific Ocean Kobe forever forever forever
Monday, February 24, 2020 9:53 pm PT Los Angeles, California
© 2020 Kevin Powell