Ghostface Killah - Supreme Clientele Ghostface Killah - Supreme Clientele
Ghostface Killah - Supreme Clientele

How Ghostface Killah's 'Supreme Clientele' Breathed Life Back Into The Wu-Tang Clan

Ghostface Killah celebrates the 20-year anniversary of his classic album 'Supreme Clientele.'

Twenty years ago, the Wu-Tang Clan found themselves at a crossroad. The collective out of Staten Island that spurred the resurgence of New York City hip-hop with their 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, and planted their flag atop the mountaintop again with their sophomore LP, Wu-Tang Forever, was on the brink of watching their dynasty crumble right before their eyes. Upon inking their deal with Loud Records as a group, the contract included a clause that allowed each individual member to release solo albums on competing labels. These groundbreaking terms resulted in a succession of classic albums from Wu, including Method Man's Tical, Ol’ Dirty Bastard's Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., GZA's Liquid Swords, and Ghostface Killah's Ironman, all of which were released within a two-year span. The commercial success of these albums establishing each member as individual stars, as well as Wu-Tang Forever's international acclaim, brought Wu-Mania to unprecedented heights, bringing RZA's five-year plan for supremacy to completion.

However, following Wu-Tang Forever, their hot streak began to simmer, as the second wave of solo albums from the crew brought back diminishing returns, commercially and otherwise. While RZA (Bobby Digital in Stereo), Inspectah Deck (Uncontrolled Substance), and U-God (Golden Arms Redemption) all unleashed their solo debuts, those releases, as well as sophomore efforts from Method Man (Tical 2000: Judgement Day), Raekwon (Immobilarity), GZA (Beneath the Surface) and Ol' Dirty Bastard (Nigga Please), were given underwhelming reviews and deemed disappointing in comparison to their previous work. And with a new class of stars like Jay-Z, DMX, Master P, Ja Rule, The Hot Boys and others backed by burgeoning movements of their own, the Wu's reign was threatened to end prematurely, their time as the undisputed top dogs in rap having passed them by. As whispers about the Wu's ability to return to form began to become a real question in rap circles, Ghostface Killah silenced that noise with his sophomore release, Supreme Clientele, an album that ushered the Wu sound into the new millennium and established him as one of the most captivating wordsmiths of all time.

Co-starring on Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... and earning a platinum plaque off the strength of his own 1996 solo debut, Ironman, Ghostface Killah had become a budding star. Initially donning a ski mask during live performances while on the run from the law, the Stapleton Projects native was a capable emcee, as evidenced by his appearances on 36 Chambers, but rough around the edges and seemingly lacked the commercial appeal of groupmates like Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck. However, Ironman, which included the Mary J. Blige-assisted hit single "All That I Got is You," as well as the fan favorites "Daytona 500," "Winter Warz" and "Camay," was hailed as a quality body of work, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. The following year, in the wake of Ironman's release, Ghostface Killah, a lifelong diabetic, made a trek to West Africa to seek out alternative healing methods to help cope with his bouts with high blood pressure.

In addition to the organic treatments he received, Ghostface, who was joined by RZA during his stay, also gained inspiration from the culture of Benin, where happiness was a way of life, in spite of the impoverished conditions its natives were subjected to. Years later, the rapper would touch on how his visit to Africa left a lasting impact, altering his view of the world around him and giving him a sense of spiritual clarity. “F**k all this Tommy Hilfiger, Polo…all this sh*t…they don’t give a f**k about none of that over there. Everything is the same,” he said. “But over here, everybody wanna be better than the next one…They might be f**ked up, money-wise, but trust me, them muthaf**kas is happy, man. Them ni**as in harmony ‘cause they got each other.” Upon his return stateside, GFK arrived with the lyrics for "Nutmeg," the first song written for his then-untitled sophomore album, as well several other songs that ultimately wound up on the album. However, in the midst of this burst of creativity, more pressing matters, of the legal variety, awaited him at home.

Charged with robbery, stemming from a 1995 incident outside of Manhattan nightclub Palladium, during which a valet attendant was allegedly assaulted and robbed of $3,000, Ghostface was facing the possibility of a prison sentence of five to fifteen years if convicted. Making matters worse, in December 1997, he was arrested in Harlem for weapons possession and wearing a bulletproof vest after being stopped by police for a traffic violation. Continuing to record amid the drama, Ghostface spent much of 1998 hunkering down in the studio recording material for Supreme Clientele, with a tentative release date slated for early in the following year. "Mighty Healthy," the first song liberated in support of Supreme Clientele, hit radio soon after, with the Mathematics-produced cut serving as a slice of the zany brand of rap GFK would be delivering soon enough. However, Ghostface's decision to take a plea deal in the 1995 robbery case in February 1999 resulted in the rapper receiving a sentence of six months in prison and five years probation, delaying the album indefinitely.

Released in May, after serving four months of his sentence, GFK got back to work, putting the finishing touches on the album in various studios in New York and Miami. RZA., who had taken a backseat in terms of his contribution to the production on Wu albums post-Wu-Tang Forever, worked closely alongside Ghostface in curating the sound and direction of the album, overseeing the mixing process and adding additional wrinkles to tracks supplied by other boardsmen. This proved to be a major selling point, as RZA's absence from Immobilarity, Raekwon's anticipated follow-up to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., was duly noted and attributed to the album’s failure to live up to its predecessor. With RZA in the fold and Ghostface as creatively invigorated as ever, Supreme Clientele was gearing up to be a seismic undertaking, with Ghostface positioned as the unlikely hero tasked with saving the day and restoring the rap world's faith in the power of the Wu.

On February 8, 2000, after a year's worth of anticipation, Supreme Clientele, the first Wu-Tang release of the new millennium, hit shelves. Executive produced by RZA and Ghostface Killah, the album includes tracks from a mix of producers, including known commodities like Carlos Broady, JuJu, Mathematics, and Inspectah Deck, as well as relative newcomers Black Moes-Art, The Blaquesmiths, Carlos Bess, Choo the Specializt, and Hassan. Appearances by Wu members Cappadonna, GZA, Masta Killa, Method Man, Raekwon, Redman, RZA, and U-God, as well as affiliates Redman, Solomon Childs, Chip Banks, Hell Razah, and Lord Superb helped add additional flavor to the proceedings.

Supreme Clientele begins with an intro sampling audio from the Marvel Super Heroes cartoon, which leads into dialogue lifted from the “Iron Man Theme” by Jack Urbont, a contrast from Ironman, which saw RZA incorporating samples from the blaxploitation film Education of Sonny Carson to compliment Ghost's rhyme spills. Known for his unconventional brand of lyricism, GFK stretched the limits of listeners' imaginations out of the gate with "Nutmeg," the first song on the album and one that finds the rapper stringing random words together with no regard for coherency.

"Scientific, my hand kissed it," he raps, before littering the Black Moes-Art produced track with enough slang and non sequiturs to make E-40 blush. Powered by an interpolation of "Ain't No Sunshine" by Bill Withers, the track is the perfect theme for a ghetto superhero tasked with demolishing sucker emcees with futuristic flows and kicking truth to the young black youth. Joined by RZA, who makes the first of multiple appearances on the project with a visceral verse of his own, Ghostface Killah marks his return with a big splash via "Nutmeg," one of the most inventive rap songs to come out of the Wu-Tang camp. After touching the sky, Tony Starks levels back to earth on "One," produced by Juju of the Beatnuts, who builds a drum loop atop elements lifted from “You Roam When You Don’t Get It At Home,” by The Sweet Inspirations." Rhyming "Ayo, the Devil planted fear inside the black babies/Fifty cent sodas in the hood, they going crazy," Ghost's observations of poverty and despair in the black community are sprinkled in between carefree stanzas, a reminder that for all of the colorful couplets, knowledge always reigns supreme in his chamber.

Touching on his constant run-ins with the law on "Saturday Nite," Pretty Tone goes rogue on "Ghost Deini," which accounts for one of the most sobering salvos on the tracklist. Written in Miami, on the beach during a torrential downpour, "Ghost Deini'' finds its host passing down jewels while raging against the machine, proclaiming, "It's me against housing" atop a murky backdrop, courtesy of The Blaquesmiths. In addition to GFK's recollection of high-stakes jewelry heists, "Ghost Deini" is notable for guest star Superb's endearing performance, which finds the American Cream Team member mourning a fallen comrade and attempting to make sense of the madness of the world around him during a drunken rage. Raekwon doesn't join Ghostface for the whole ride this time around, but makes good use of his airtime on "Apollo Kids," the first of The Chef's pair of contributions to Supreme Clientele. Produced by Haas G of the U.M.C.'s, "Apollo Kids" finds Tony Starks comparing his rhyme style to baked ziti and scraping more food for thought on the plate to enhance our sonic palette. The second single released from the album was a moderate hit, peaking at No. 32 on Billboard's Hot Rap Singles chart, and is notable for its accompanying video, which see Ghostface rocking mink coats and barking rhymes while eating a golden ice cream cone in all his splendor.

Dialogue from Kung-Fu flick Shaolin Rescuers sets the tone for "Mighty Healthy," a standout offering that reasserts Ghostface and his fellow Wu Gambinos' dominance over the rap landscape. Boasting "The world can't touch Ghost, purple tape, Rae co-host" and anointing himself as the rap game's version of New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, his mettle under pressure in the face of doubter's of his crew's staying power is unwavering, as evidenced by his virtuoso performance on this Mathematics-produced outing. Supreme Clientele finds Ghostface flying solo on more occasions than not, but the moments that do include costars double as some of the most riveting moments on the album. The tension between Bad Boy Records and Wu-Tang now in the distant past, Hitman Carlos "6 July" Broady constructs a soulful composition in "We Made It," which features Superb, Hell Razah of Sunz of Man, and Chip Banks, who passed away shortly after the album's release. Future Theodore Unit rapper Solomon Childs pops up for an impressive appearance alongside Ghost and RZA on "Stroke of Death," a brain-melting cut that constitutes as cosmic slop at its finest. However, the most potent collaborative efforts on the tracklist find the Wally Champ locking in his Wu brethren, as Method Man, Redman and Capadonna collide on the raucous number "Buck 50," and "Wu Banga 101," which pairs him with GZA, Raekwon, Cappadonna and Masta Killa.

As engaging a storyteller as any artist next to Slick Rick, Ghostface Killah spins plenty a tale on Supreme Clientele, the most lucid being "Malcolm." Produced by Choo, the song, which begins with dialogue from Malcolm X's "After the Bombing" speech plastered atop a sample hijacked from "Going In Circles" by Isaac Hayes, blurs the lines between fiction and reality and touches on an alleged incident between Ghostface Killah's entourage and Ma$e, which reportedly left the Harlem World rapper with a broken jaw, during the second verse. Painting a vivid picture of the scene in painstaking detail, GFK brushes with broad strokes, the outcome being a cinematic offering that leaves you doubling back for more and covering your tracks any tidbits missed. In an era where contrived club bangers were standard fare, Ghostface throws his hat into the ring, albeit orgnaically, with "Cherchez La Ghost," a catchy mid-tempo ditty that reworks the '70s hit “Cherchez La Femme” by Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. Featuring U-God, who delivers one of the most popular performances of his career, "Cherchez La Ghost" saw Pretty Toney beckoning the ladies to the dance-floor and was a breakout single, peaking at No. 3 on the Hot Rap Songs chart, his best showing as a soloist at that point in time.

In the wake of its release, Supreme Clientele garnered stellar reviews, with fans, critics, and even fellow rappers pegging it as a resurrection of sorts for the Wu-Tang Clan. Peaking at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 with 134,000 copies sold in its first week, Supreme Clientele was certified gold within two months of its release, further cementing Ghostface as one of the most consistently viable members of the Wu. Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Raekwon and RZA were initially predicted to lead the Wu-Tang Clan to the promised land, however, Ghostface Killah put the crew from Shaolin on his back at a time when many had begun to count them out, a feat that afforded him a newfound level of cache and respect as one of the leaders of the Wu in the eyes of the people. Controversy surrounding the album's creation occurred in 2004, when Superb claimed to have written Supreme Clientele in its entirety, which Ghostface Killah vehemently denied.

"'Perb (Superb) is Rae's (Raekwon) man," Ghost later explained in an interview with Rhapsody Music. "He been in the studio a few times while we're doing shit. He ain't write shit. All 'Perb contributed was a couple of lines that you could put in the air. When we write, we all do that. ‘Say this one right here" or "Put this one right here.’ We all catch lines with each other 'cause you in the studio. You got niggas around you that write. Even if he did write a verse, he could never make an album of mine. He couldn't make an album, you feel me? I made Supreme Clientele what it is. Those are my stories, based around what they're based upon. It's me. I can't see what songs 'Perb wrote. He ain't write ‘Mighty Healthy’ or ‘One’ or ‘Apollo Kids’ or ‘Cherchez LaGhost’ or ‘Saturday Nite’ or ‘Malcolm.’” While Superb has never backed down from those claims, Ghostface's output following the release of Supreme Clientele, which includes close to a dozen solo studio albums and multiple collaborative albums, and the quality his music has sustained casts a heavy cloud of doubt over the validity of those allegations.

Ghostface Killah went on to release multiple albums that are considered classics in their own right, but Supreme Clientele remains the crown jewel of his solo career and one of the most brilliant rap releases of all time. Influencing the likes of Kanye West, who initially honed in on his sample-driven sound in hopes of working with GFK after hearing his work on the album. While those tracks ultimately wound up in the hands of Jay-Z and were included on The Blueprint and elsewhere, Kanye's affinity for Ghostface and Supreme Clientele is well-known, with Yeezy sampling "Mighty Healthy" in 2012 on his song "New God Flow," which included an appearance by GFK himself. Even more recently, Griselda/Shady Records rapper Westside Gunn has sung the album's praises, titling his own 2018 mixtape Supreme Blientele in honor of the original. With 20 years having passed since it first touched down, Supreme Clientele's place among the holy grail of rap albums is secure as ever and serves as a friendly reminder that while ebbs and flows come and go, the Wu-Tang Clan is indeed forever.

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Toots Hibbert performing at Hammersmith Palais, London in 1983.
Photo by David Corio/Redferns

Remembering Toots Hibbert

The best singers don’t need too many words to make their point. Otis Redding could let loose with a sad sad song like “Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa” and get you all in your feelings. Bob Marley got pulses pounding with his “Whoi-yoooo” rebel yell. Gregory Isaacs melted hearts with nothing more than a gentle sigh. Toots Hibbert, who died last Friday at the age of 77, could sing just about anything and make it sound good. One of the world's greatest vocalists in any genre, Toots paired his powerful voice with the understated harmonies of Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Mathias to form The Maytals, a vocal trinity that never followed fashion and remained relevant throughout the evolution of Jamaican music—from the ska era to rock steady straight through to reggae, a genre named after The Maytals' 1968 classic “Do The Reggay.”

Whether they were singing a sufferer’s selection (“Time Tough”), a churchical chant (“Hallelujah”), or the tender tale of a country wedding (“Sweet and Dandy”), The Maytals blew like a tropical storm raining sweat and tears. The lyrics to Six and Seven Books,” one of The Maytals' earliest hits, are pretty much just Toots listing the books of the Bible. “You have Genesis and Exodus,” he declares over a Studio One ska beat, “Leviticus and Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua, Judges and Ruth...” Having grown up singing in his parents' Seventh Day Adventist Church in the rural Jamaican town of May Pen, Toots knew the Good Book well.

The Maytals broke out worldwide in 1966 thanks to the song “Bam Bam,” which won Jamaica's first-ever Independence Festival Song Competition, held during the first week of August as the island nation celebrated both independence from Great Britain in 1862 and emancipation in 1834. They would go on to win the coveted title two more times, but “Bam Bam” was a singular song with a message every bit as powerful as Toots' voice. “I want you to know that I am the man," Toots sang. He was young and strong, ready to "fight for the right, not for the wrong." The trajectory of "Bam Bam" would not only transform Toots' life but make waves throughout popular music worldwide.

"Festival in Jamaica is very important to all Jamaicans," the veteran singer stated in a video interview this past summer while promoting his latest entry into the annual competition. "I must tell you that I won three festivals in Jamaica already, which is “Bam Bam,” “Sweet & Dandy” and “Pomp & Pride.” Toots described that first festival competition as a joyous occasion. "Everybody just want to hear a good song that their children can sing," he recalled. "Is like every artist could be a star."

In 2016, on the 50th anniversary of "Bam Bam" winning first place, Toots looked back over the legacy of the tune that made him a star. "I didn’t know what it means but it was a big deal," he told Boomshots. "You in the music business and you want to be on top and you write a good song and you go on this competition and if they like it then it becomes #1." After The Maytals won, the group was in demand not just all over the island, but all over the world. "We start fly out like a bird," he says with a laugh. "Fly over to London."

"Bam Bam" went on to inspire numerous cover versions, starting with Sister Nancy, Yellowman, and Pliers. It would also be sampled in numerous hip hop classics, and interpolated into Lauryn Hill's "Lost Ones." But according to Toots, he did not benefit financially from these endless cover versions. "People keep on singing it over and over and over, and they don’t even pay me a compliment," he told Boomshots. "I haven’t been collecting no money from that song all now."

 

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“This man don’t trouble no one... but if you trouble this man it will bring a Bam Bam” Original Maytals Classic @tootsmaytalsofficial 🎶 All them a talk, them nuh bad like Niya Fiya Ball ☄️🔥💥 via @tonyspreadlove . 💥💣🔫#Boomshots

A post shared by Word Sound & Power (@boomshots) on Sep 12, 2020 at 8:19am PDT

When Toots began singing in his parents' church, music was not seen as a career prospect, and the profits were slim for Jamaican recording artists in the 1960s. "Those days we get 14 cents for the record to play on the radio," Toots said. "I get three shillings and five shillings for a number one record, which I had 31 number one record in Jamaica... It’s not about money for me. It’s about the quality that Jamaicans need to go back in the festival jamboree... You gotta talk to the children."

On the poignant “54-46 (Was My Number),” Toots recalls the dehumanization of his arrest and 18-month imprisonment at Jamaica's Richmond Farm Correctional Center for what he always insisted was a trumped-up ganja charge just as his music career was taking off. The song's crescendo comes two minutes in when Toots breaks into a scat solo that cannot be translated into any language known to man, delivered with palpable passion that made his message universal. During Toots' ecstatic stage performances he would follow this riff by commanding his band to “Give it to me... one time!” Then the 'd make 'em say Uh!  (Way before Master P!) “Give it to me... two times!” Uh! Uh! And so on and so forth until Toots worked the place into a frenzy.

The Maytals' live show was so explosive that Toots began touring all over the world, opening for rock megastars like The Rolling Stones and The Who. While Bob Marley richly deserved the title King of Reggae, his friend Toots was performing internationally before The Wailers, and remained a force to be reckoned with throughout his life, blazing a trail for generations of reggae artists to follow in his footsteps.

On his Grammy-winning 2004 album True Love, Toots recorded some of his greatest hits with a host of legendary artists, many of whom were also good friends, including Willie Nelson, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, and Eric Clapton. His 2006 cover of Radiohead's "Let Down" was a favorite of the band's, who used to play it on their tour bus. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood called Toots’ version “truly astounding,” according to Easy Star Records Michael Goldwasser.

Toots supported himself and his family by touring all over the world. During a 2013 show in Richmond, Virginia he was singing John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads" when a teenager in the crowd threw a vodka bottle at the stage and hit him on the head. He suffered a concussion and had to stop touring for several years. As his first album in a decade, Got To Be Tough was highly anticipated when it was released on Trojan Jamaica label August 28. On the cover the former boxer and lifelong fighter can be seen throwing a punch. Just a day after the album dropped, Toots came down with symptoms similar to COVID 19. Within a few days he was hospitalized where doctors placed him into a medically induced coma from which he never recovered. As his Tidal obituary pointed out, he passed away exactly 33 years after his old friend Peter Tosh died by gunfire.

Songs like "Just Brutal" from the hit different now, with Toots pleading for more love in a world gone wrong. "We were brought here," Toots sings. "Sold out. Victimized brutally. Every time I keep remembering what my grandfather said before he died."

“I’m feeling alright,” Toots said the last time we spoke, while he was still sidelined with stress issues due to the bottle-throwing incident. "I’m feeling alright. I’m feeling alright. I’m feeling just cool because is Jah works. You seet?" I asked him if the song "Bam Bam," was about him—a peaceful man who should not be provoked—or else. "Nooo don't trouble him," Toots said with a laugh. "It’s gonna be double trouble, triple trouble. A lot of trouble."

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(L-R) Siobhan Francis, Tasha Dougé and Amneris Alvarado with piece “This Land is OUR Land” aka Justice
Photo By: Kay Hickman

In Celebration Of Juneteenth: Read 'we them people,' A New Poem By Kevin Powell

dream on

dreamer

the way Alvin Ailey

and Maya Angelou

and George Floyd

and Breonna Taylor

dreamed of

southern-baked

pilgrims

dancing and

slow marching

their sorrows

down the yellow

brick roads

of

second-line members

humming from

the heels of their dirt-kissed feet:

i wanna be ready/to put on my long white robe....

we are survivors

we are survivors

we are survivors

of people

who were free

and became slaves

of people

who were slaves

and became free

we know why the caged bird sings

we know what a redemption song brings

we them people

we the people

we are those people

who shall never forget

our ancestors all up in us as we sleep

our grandmother all up in us as we weep

because we are

native american

black irish welsh french german polish italian

jewish puerto rican mexican greek russian

dominican chinese japanese vietnamese

filipino korean arab middle eastern

we are biracial and we are multicultural

we are bicentennial and we are new millennial

we are essential and we are frontline we are everyday people and we are people everyday

we are #metoo we are #metoo we are #metoo

we are muslim christian hebrew too

we are bible torah koran atheist agnostic truer than true

we are rabbis and imams and preachers and yoruba priests

tap-dancing with buddhists and hindus and rastafarians

as the Nicholas Brothers

jump and jive and split the earth in half

while Chloe and Maud Arnold

them syncopated ladies

twist and shout and stomp and trump

hate

again—

again—

again—

yeah

still we rise still we surprise

like we got Judith Jamison’s crying solo in our eyes

every hello ain’t alone every good-bye ain’t gone

we are every tongue every nose every skin every color every face mask

we are mattered lives paint it black

we are mattered lives paint it black

we are mattered lives paint it black

we are every tattoo every piercing every drop of blood

every global flood

we are straight queer trans non-gender conforming

we are she/he/they

we are disabled abled poor rich

big people little people in between people

we are protesters pepper-sprayed with knees on our necks

we are protesters pepper-sprayed with knees on our necks

we are protesters pepper-sprayed with knees on our necks

we them people

we the people

we are those people

who will survive

these times

because we done

survived

those times

where pandemics were

trail of tears and lynchings and holocausts

where pandemics were

no hope and no vote and no freedom spoke

we them people

we the people

we are those people

while our planet gently weeps

we bob and bop

like hip-hop

across the tender bones

of those tear-stained photographs

to hand to

this generation

the next generation

those revelations

yeah

that blues suite

yeah

that peaceful dance

inside a raging tornado

we call

love

 

Saturday, June 6, 2020

5:37am

 

-

This poem is an exclusive excerpt from Kevin Powell’s new book When We Free The World, published by Apple Books. Kevin Powell is a poet, journalist, civil and human rights activist, and the author of 14 books. His next will be a biography of Tupac Shakur.

Photography by Kay Hickman

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Jay Electronica backstage at Brooklyn Bowl on May 31, 2018 in New York City.
Johnny Nunez

The Curious Case Of Jay Electronica

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.

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