Jay Electronica was a mythical figure in hip-hop before many of us even heard his voice for the first time. At the beginning of Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge), his 2007 debut EP inspired by Michel Gondry’s sci-fi romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Just Blaze and Erykah Badu speak of him as a fascinating, Bobby Fischer-like talent. “We would talk and I was just like, ‘Yo, what is with this dude?’” Blaze says on the intro. “He would basically just ask you the craziest questions. … ‘Cause he’s so much of a planner and a tactician, and I learned that later on.” Badu took it a step further. “I wouldn’t even call him a person cause he’s a weird looking cat,” she said. “His ears are kinda pointy, he’s got a square head. He looks kinda like he’s [an] alien from somewhere really … But in a rare beautiful way, like some kind of mythical creature who would have a bow and arrow on his back and wings under that bow and arrow.”
For a few years, Jay Elec lived up to expectations: his 2009 single, “Exhibit C,” made him a star; many believed he was the next Nas. He was going to save hip-hop, and the pressure heightened when he signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label — not only was he a prodigious talent, he now had support from the greatest rapper ever. Fans thought he could disrupt the game.
But the expected debut album, Act II: Patients of Nobility (The Turn), never arrived. For the next decade, he’d tease us with loosies and guest appearances but no actual album. Questlove said the album was done, but Jay-Z held it up due to the lack of a clear-cut single. After an incredible performance at the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival in 2014, he admitted that drugs and alcohol were to blame. Regardless of the reason(s), stories surfaced of deadlines being missed and studio sessions being canceled.
Despite his personal demons and the repeated delays, fans and peers still love Jay Electronica. That respect was on full display on Thursday (March 12), when he took to Instagram Live to preview A Written Testimony, his debut album. A flood of rap’s greats – Lord Finesse, 9th Wonder, Juicy J, DJ Khalil, Killer Mike, Swizz Beatz, and more – were in the comments, geeking out alongside casual, non-celebrity fans. Now, Jay Electronica has finally delivered, even if he didn’t create exactly what his fans may have wanted.
Many of Jay Electronica’s most celebrated songs focus on diaristic narratives from the story of his life: surviving homelessness, finding enlightenment and forgiveness through Islamic teachings, and battling depression. That topical matter continues on A Written Testimony, but it’s less self-narrative and more self-referential. While the witty, charismatic bars are still here at times (“I’m here to bang with the scholars, and I bet you a Rothschild I’ll get a bang for my dollar,” he grins on “The Ghost of Soulja Slim”), he’s more focused on his mission now that he’s actually made it out of the slums; through the majority of Testimony, he professes his love for Allah and pledges allegiance to Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan.
The minister speaks the first words we hear on the album in the intro, and he’s referenced on nearly every song in one way or another. Indeed, Jay Elec’s rhymes evoke religious text, and in several instances, he speaks of himself in poetic third-person. He does this on “The Neverending Story” with dazzling results, using a somber, piano-laced Alchemist beat to unpack his narrative in a tangible way. “Have you ever heard the tale of / The noblest of gentlemen who rose up from squalor? / Tall, dark, and decked out in customary regalia / Smellin’ like paraphernalia / Hailin’ from the home of Mahalia,” he begins. “… The prodigal son who went from his own vomit / To the top of the mountain with five pillars and a sonnet.” It could come across as self-aggrandizing and cocky from many other artists; after all, everyone thinks that they’re chosen to save the game in one way or another. But it feels more purposeful coming from Jay Electronica, since he references his creator just as much as he references himself. Using third person so often makes him sound invested in how he’ll be seen long after he’s gone, a rare concern in much of today’s fly-by-night hip-hop experience. While Kendrick Lamar delves into Christianity on good kid, m.A.A.d city and considers the beliefs of black hebrew israelites on DAMN., he essentially holds the hands of the listener, guiding them through his thoughts as he searches for the answers. Jay Electronica does the opposite: he often speaks in arabic (and once in Spanish) with no need to translate himself. It seems like he’s fine with only his fellow Muslims and their god understanding what he says.
Another prominent theme of the album is fear and self-doubt. On “Ezekiel’s Wheel,” Jay obliquely explains his hiatus with references to Paulo Coelho’s renowned self-discovery salvo, The Alchemist. “Some ask me ‘Jay, man, why come for so many years you been exempt?’ / ‘Cause familiarity don’t breed gratitude, just contempt / And the price of sanity is too damn high, just like the rent / Sometimes I was held down by the gravity of my pen / Sometimes I was held down by the gravity of my sin / Sometimes, like Santiago, at crucial points of my novel /My only logical option was to transform into the wind.” After Hov’s challenge of “What, you scared of heights?” on “The Blinding,” Jay Electronica continues the sentiment. “In the wee hours of night, tryna squeeze out bars / Bismillah, just so y’all could pick me apart?” Some will roll their eyes at this being such a theme when he hasn’t released an album until now, but it’s a peek into the process that he worked through before discovering the bravery to create an album that so convincingly sticks to what he wanted to do.
Jay-Z is the co-star of A Written Testimony, appearing on all but one song with a type of inspiration unseen throughout his career. While Kanye West helped extract topical diversity and familial reflections from him on Watch The Throne, Jay Electronica inspires his musical versatility. On songs like “Ghost Of Soulja Slim,” he spits as hard as he’s ever rapped, with references to cops dropping street kids off in rival neighborhoods and the survival of his ancestors. On “Universal Soldier,” he addresses feeling unloved by Allah, while cleverly rhyming and contrasting Chessimard (freedom fighter Assata Shakur’s surname) with Pablo Escobar. He flippantly defends his decision to work with the NFL on “Flux Capacitor,” moments before darting a clever triple entendre and deriding the inevitable freeloaders who will misrepresent friendships with him after he dies. While it’s easy to dismiss the album as Jay-Z “outshining” Jay Electronica, it’s more of a difference of styles. Hov’s flows are more stunning and polished, while Jay Elec’s delivery sounds a bit rusty – but lyrically, they’re similar quality with different goals. Jay-Z is unafraid to show off the flashy, pro-black ideology that’s been a focus of his career for the past eight years or so, while Jay Electronica pays more attention to sharing his mission from God.
Some will have their criticisms. Despite comparisons being made to Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx because of Jay-Z’s prominence on the record compared to Ghostface’s on the aforementioned ‘95 classic, they don’t have the same seamless chemistry as the two Wu-Tang members. While they feed off of each other’s energy on songs like “Ghost of Soulja Slim” and “The Blinding,” and share mutual love for fallen loved ones on the gut-wrenching “A.P.I.D.T.A.,” they sometimes sound sonically discordant. This definitely feels like Jay Electronica’s vision – part successor to Act I with airy melodies and dusty film clips, and part major-label debut with help by Hit-Boy, Swizz Beatz and Travis Scott – but some fans simply want more verses from him after waiting so long; and it feels dishonest for the tracklist or album cover to avoid listing Jay-Z’s name anywhere at all, when he serves as such an anchor. It also feels criminal that Just Blaze doesn’t even have one beat here, especially when none of the production holds a candle to what he’s provided for Jay Electronica (even though Elec’s soundbeds are effective and cohesive). Plus, Jay Electronica’s open book history may have worked against him here – he’s revealed so much of his life before on wax, and this doesn’t have the same autobiographical feel that other memorable debuts have had.
But in those same ways, the album sees Jay Electronica being the disruptive force that rap fans prophesied him to be. Being the third voice on your debut album nearly two minutes into the second track could be seen as gun shy or egoless, with either of those perspectives bucking the assumptions that come with such a long-awaited record. Some would call Jay Electronica the complete antithesis to Jay-Z: the latter has been accused of putting profits above all; the former is an avatar for black consciousness. Dropping a debut album without your most prominent producer feels infeasible. Releasing an album ten years after announcing your debut is already questionable; and including a song on it that dropped 11 years ago is even weirder. But his favorite song from Prince was not “Raspberry Beret;” it was “Sometimes It Snows In April.” If Jay Electronica has told us anything throughout his enigmatic career, it’s that he works on his own terms. He’s making the culture come to him, not the other way around – and his art will last longer than he made us wait for it.