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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.
When listing the most pivotal and popular artists in the history of gangsta rap, many of the names mentioned will have ties to New York or California: N.W.A., The Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, Kool G Rap, Ice-T, and others. Artists from Philadelphia - the home of rap legend Schoolly D, who many credit with helping pioneer and popularize the sub-genre - were often an afterthought in these conversations, particularly during the '90s, when the city's dearth of rap talent on the national stage paled in comparison to that of other major markets across the country. Following the success of the hit singles "P.S.K." and "Gucci Time," Schoolly D's style would shift towards sociopolitical rap during the late '80s and by the turn of the decade, was considered past his prime. Cool C and Steady B had a hot streak during the '80s, but faded into obscurity shortly before being convicted for their roles in the murder of a Philadelphia Police officer during a botched bank robbery. And for all of their commercial success and groundbreaking accomplishments, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince were often maligned for their lack of street cred, both on wax and off, and released their last album as a unit in 1993. Sure, The Roots, Jamal, Bahamadia and others made noise during the mid '90s, but lacked the mainstream appeal or staying power to truly put the city on their back, leaving the City of Brotherly Love without a rap artist with the lyrical chops, credibility and platform to possibly be mentioned alongside those aforementioned names for the better part of the '90s.
This would change during the late '90s when a crop of new talent emerged out of Philadelphia, the most touted prospect being Beanie Sigel, an artist who embodied the gritty aesthetic and culture of the city, all the while possessing skills comparable to the most lauded wordsmiths of all-time. Born and raised in Philly, Sigel, the product of a broken home, took to the streets at an early age, dropping out of school and quickly building a reputation as a brute hustler and stick-up kid. Charged with aggravated assault as early as age 13, Sigel had numerous run-ins with the law, most notably in 1994, when he, along with a neighbor, were accused of shooting an off-duty police officer during a physical altercation. However, those charges were ultimately dropped, leaving Sigel a free man and adding to his legend in his South Philly stomping grounds. That close call did little to deter Sigel from continuing his criminal lifestyle, as he became even more entrenched in the streets in the subsequent years. But in 1998, Sigel – a longtime fan of acts like EPMD, Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane who had developed a gift for rhyming himself – stumbled upon the opportunity of a lifetime after linking with a local Philly rapper named Murder Mil, who inspired him to take his craft a bit more seriously. "It was just something I knew how to do," Sigel recalls. "I met a cat named Murder Mil and he actually made me want to start writing, we actually battled and I felt, at that time, that he had got over on me. He won that battle and I ain't like that."
From there, Sigel and Murda Mil sparked a partnership, taking on various rappers on the local battle circuit, most notably Philly's Most Wanted, one of the hottest duos in the city who were on the cusp of signing a major label record deal at the time. Trading off bars over Destiny Child's "No, No No (Remix)" instrumental, Murda Mil and Sigel fared favorably against their counterparts, with Sigel stealing the show with an onslaught of couplets. The performance caught Philly's Most Wanted member Boo-Bonic's attention, who convinced his management team to allow Sigel to accompany Philly's Most Wanted to a meeting with Roc-A-Fella Records in New York City. Sigel, still skeptical of taking a full dive into the music world, was initially reluctant to take the trip, even considering attending an illegal dogfight instead. "I had a few rhymes that I had 'cause where I was from, what we was doing, that rap thing was out the window," he explains. "That was something I had to do on my own time. We was doing what we was doing so it wasn't cool to be a rapper. We was clowning people who was trying to rap at that time, we was getting money. We was dressing like rappers and we had things that the rappers had." However, he ultimately decided to take Boo-Bonic and his manager, Sadiq, up on their offer, making the trek up I-95 to Manhattan for a night that would forever change the trajectory of his life.
By 1998, Jay-Z, Damon Dash and Kareem "Biggs" Burke had taken Roc-A-Fella Records from an independent label into a potential industry powerhouse, with a distribution deal with Def Jam, along with Jay-Z's platinum-certified sophomore album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, positioning the Roc as the next seismic movement on the east coast. While commercially successful, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 received mixed reviews for its glossy production and contrived radio-friendly singles, leaving many pondering whether Jay-Z had let the Cristal and Moet go to his head, to the point he'd lost touch with his roots as a battle-tested lyrical wizard. In spite of housing Hov's protege, Memphis Bleek, and R&B acts Rell and Christión, Roc-A-Fella had yet to become the army it is now known as, with the label's brain trust still in search of a prize prospect to add to the roster. Keying in on Philadelphia as a breeding ground to poach new talent from, the Roc heavily considered Philly's Most Wanted as the free-agent acquisitions that would help take the label over the top. But, as fate would have it, their interest would shift towards a relative unknown named Beanie Sigel, who remembers his first encounter with Roc-A-Fella fondly. "Jay was actually working on, I believe, the Hard Knock Life [album]," Beans shares. "'Cause he was doing a song with Too Short, ‘It Was All Good Just A Week Ago.’ I remember Too Short being in the studio with Jay. So we in the lobby of the studio and Dame Dash was out there talking, he had Philly's Most Wanted with some other cats that was in there that was rapping. And Dame sparked up a little confrontation about Philly rappers and New York rappers and, 'I hope they this, that and the third.'"
Dash's thinly-veiled slights and jabs at the away team resulted in an impromptu cipher, with Philly's Most Wanted and other Roc-A-Fella hopefuls going toe-to-toe with one another while Beans played the back. However, when one rapper began to get a bit too animated for Sigel's liking, he inserted himself into the fray, putting forth a showing that left the indefatigable Dash at a rare loss for words. "He was getting too aggressive so I started rapping," Beans says of his decision to step up to the plate. "So when I started rapping, Dame was like, 'See, I told you.' He thought I was from New York, and I had to correct him. ‘Man, I'm from Philly.' So he was like, 'Yo, you from Philly?' So he went and got "Biggs," Kareem [Burke], he brought him out like, 'Yo, you gotta hear this kid.' He was like, 'Yo, spit that rap,' and I wouldn't rap no more. I'm like, 'Nah, I ain't here for that.' I wound up rapping for him, they start flipping out. They went in the joint and pulled Jay out the booth like, 'No, you gotta come out now.'" Slaughtering the "A Week Ago" instrumental for nearly 20 minutes, Sigel's extended rhyme spill was so impressive that Jay-Z, Dash and Burke quickly brokered a record deal with The Broad Street Bully in the subsequent weeks, making him the first bonafide rap free agent to be inducted as a member of the Roc-A-Fella family.
From there, it didn't take long for Sigel to make an impression on the rap world, making his debut on Philly rap band The Roots' 1998 single "Adrenaline," which saw the neophyte anchoring the track with an epic stanza to close the proceedings. Next on the docket was a string of buzzworthy showings to close out the year, including appearances on "Reservoir Dogs," a stacked posse cut from Jay-Zs Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life album featuring The LOX and Sauce Money, and "Crew Love," a cut from the Belly soundtrack featuring Jay-Z and Memphis Bleek. However, 1999 would see Sigel truly put his name in contention for rap's Rookie of the Year, earning over a dozen credits alongside the likes of Foxy Brown ("4-5-6"), Blackstreet ("I Got What You On"), Puff Daddy ("Journey Through the Life"), Eve ("Philly Philly"), Sisqó ("Unleash the Dragon"), and The Notorious B.I.G., Black Rob, Ice Cube ("If I Should Die Before I Wake"). He also provided reinforcement alongside his Roc-A-Fella labelmates, joining Jay-Z and Memphis Bleek on "More Money, More Cash, More Hoes (Remix)," Jay-Z, Memphis Bleek and Amil on "For My Thugs," as well as a pair of appearances on Vol. 3.... Life & Times of S. Carter, the most prominent being "Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up)." Released as the lead single, the Rockwilder produced cut peaked at No. 9 on the Hot Rap Singles chart and thrust Sigel into the spotlight, with many fans clamoring for the firebrand's debut solo studio album.
Released on February 29, 2000, The Truth was the first Roc-A-Fella release of the new millennium and looked to position Sigel as the next street orator to place his imprint on the rap game. With comparisons to the likes of The Notorious B.I.G. putting even more pressure on Sigel, the first single from The Truth was as much of an opportunity to make a statement to affirm the hype behind his name as it was to gain traction on radio and the Billboard charts, which the album's title track accomplished on both fronts. Produced by Kanye West, who earned his first credit on a Roc-A-Fella project via this record, "The Truth" instantly grabbed listeners' attention upon its release in early 2000, many of whom were captivated by the scorching instrumental, which samples "Chicago" by Graham Nash. But the true crux of the track was Sigel's imposing presence, with the newcomer brazenly warning "I hope you got an extra mic and a fireproof booth/'Cause you know I'm known to melt a wire or two" on the opening bars, making it clear that the lyrical exploits were going to be aplenty. Reaching No. 23 on the Hot Rap Singles chart, "The Truth" presented Sigel as the last of a dying breed, an artist with the street credentials and skills to become the next legendary emcee to emerge out of the east coast.
Setting the tone with that introductory number, the Philly rep teams up with Memphis Bleek on "Who Want What," building on the innate chemistry the pair displayed on previous collaborative efforts like "My Hood to Your Hood," from Bleek's own 1999 solo debut, Coming of Age. According to Just Blaze, who produced the track, the song was his first placement within the Roc-A-Fella camp and was one of the more beloved selections from the album. “I had the beat already done and gave it to Hip Hop (aka Kyambo Joshua), who was the A&R for Rocafella at the time," Blaze remembers. "They heard the record and they just went in, did it, and mixed it. I didn’t know as many people liked that record as they did until I was out one night and I heard it [playing out of] five cars driving past." Volleying four-bar couplets before passing off the mic to one another, Bleek and Beans put forth a war-ready salvo, announcing themselves as the future of the label, with Bleek snarling, "You bout ta witness a dynasty like no other/Who flow like Bleek, think, no other/Who rhyme like Sigel, dog, no other/It's Roc-a-Fella twins desert eagle no other," as Sigel assumes the role of enforcer while assuring Jay-Z that they're more than qualified to carry the torch. Speaking of Sigel's over boss, Hov appears on three songs on The Truth, the first being the Bink!-produced standout "Raw & Uncut," which captures Sigel comparing their synergy to that of Micheal Jordan and Scottie Pippen. "Playa," an uptempo anthem for the clubs, also includes a feature from Jay-Z, who joins former Roc first lady Amil and Sigel as the trio holds court over jittery production by T-Mix.
In addition to contributions from Roc-A-Fella's core nucleus, The Truth also includes a guest spot from fellow Philly native Eve, who tackles the hook on the uplifting, feel-good single "Remember Them Days," but perhaps the most enduring meeting of the minds on the album comes via "Mac And Brad," which pairs the Broad Street Bully with southern rap legend Scarface. Produced by J5, this offering finds the kindred spirits and purveyors of the morbid broadcasting their cruel intentions, sans a hook, planting the seed for future collaborations between Scarface and the Roc, as well as a long-rumored joint-album that failed to materialize. While Sigel's various costars turn in admirable performances, The Truth's most brilliant moments come when its host flies solo, with highlights like the Buckwild-produced "What a Thug About" confirming his ability to thrive on his own strength without the added reinforcements. On "What Your Life Like," Mac paints a visceral picture of life behind the wall that has been hailed as one of the more authentic and jarring descriptions of prison to ever be laid on wax, before voicing his undying allegiance to his most trusted comrades on "Ride 4 My," a Bink!-produced number powered by a sample lifted from the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack. However, the apex of Sigel's mastery behind the mic is displayed on "Die," an intense composition that finds him pondering the various ways he could come face-to-face with his demise. Rhyming "When you live by the sword, you die by the sword/I'll probably die in the vocal booth spittin' out raw/Die on stage, rippin' down tours/Die from AIDS, trickin' out-a-town whores," Sigel puts the trappings of fame with the realities of his checkered past and illicit lifestyle into context, resulting in a sobering tune that finds its author closing the proceedings out on an evocative note.
Debuting at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 with 155,000 copies sold in its first week, The Truth was considered a commercial and critical success, with a number of critics praising Beanie Sigel's performance throughout the album and the realism of his lyrical content. In addition to Sigel's own singles, The Truth was also bolstered by "Anything," a solo selection by Jay-Z tacked on the end of the album. The song, which peaked at No. 9 on the Hot Rap Singles chart, features a sample of Lionel Bart's "I'll Do Anything," was a blatant attempt at recapturing the magic of his breakout 1998 single "Hard Knock Life," which Hov admitted himself in an interview years later. Reaching gold certification, The Truth not only solidified Beanie Sigel as a rising star in rap, but gave Roc-A-Fella as a viable movement with a talented stable beyond its leader that was fully capable of holding down the fort. Later that same year, Sigel was prominently featured on Jay-Z fifth studio album, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, further entrenching him as one of the premier spitters out of the east coast and the most respected rapper out of the streets of Philly. He would also go on to become the leader and frontman of State Property, a crew of Philadelphia rappers that helped rejuvenate and revive interest in the cities rap scene on a national scale. In a career that includes multiple classic bodies of work, The Truth remains the moment that the rap world got introduced to The Broad Street Bully, whose only intent was to put on for his hometown. "That's just me being able to let my home know that I knew how to rap," he says of his mindstate while recording his debut. "They ain't know who I was 'cause I wasn't out on the scene like that, so when I did The Truth, I always knew how to rap. It was just a collection of little raps I would play with when I was in the mix."
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