In these unprecedented and tentative times, it seems only fitting that an album so long-awaited, it became more of a myth than an actual music release, has been dropped. A Written Testimony by Jay Electronica begins to provide a sense of contemplation and composure, in a world currently tainted with ambiguity.
It’s not only his music that’s surrounded by mystery. Jay Electronica is an enigma himself, and has come across this way since he arrived on the scene. He released his first mixtape, Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge), onto MySpace back in 2007. A continuous fifteen-minute track with no drums, it sampled music from the soundtrack of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and received praise for its experimental approach.
Before Jay even starts spitting, you get a feel for the man, through a spoken word piece from queen of Neo-Soul, Erykah Badu. Referring to him as an “alien” or “some kind of mythical creature“, Badu praises Jay’s peculiar intelligence and curiosity. For someone relatively unknown at the time, this project and the commendations he received made quite a statement.
An artist who can be described as more metaphysical than man, it’s difficult to tell whether Jay Electronica is rapping or preaching at times. A member of the Five Percent Nation, like many rappers before him, his music signifies more than just his individual artistry.
Since the release of Act 1, he’s become notoriously difficult to decipher, and it seems his devotion to more spiritual aspects of life have trumped his musical output. For him this is all unimportant, and he has been open in his criticism of album releases and the music business.
The past thirteen years have seen Jay Electronica release very little of his own music. His singles “Exhibit A” and “Exhibit C” in 2009 were two of a few officially released tracks, which did well to showcase his lyrical prowess, and highlight producer Just Blaze’s beat-making skills. “Exhibit C” in particular turned a lot of heads, and triggered people to ask where the next album was at:
“Nas hit me up on the phone, said ‘What you waitin’ on?’ Tip hit me up with a tweet, said, ‘What you waitin’ on?’ Diddy send a text every hour on the dot saying, ‘When you gon’ drop that verse? N****, you taking long’”
The powerful, righteous-sounding instrumental gives a perfect foundation for Jay to deliver some of the most conscious and authentic wordplay heard in rap to date. A track so good, that after continuous failure to drop the promised Act 2 album, fans began to wonder if he would be the ‘best to never do it’.
Fast forward to 2011, and his debut album Act 2: Patents of Nobility (The Turn) was announced as complete. It sadly never came to fruition, and this would be the first of many setbacks for avid fans of the New Orleans rapper.
The mystery surrounding Electronica’s personal life seemed to take centre stage in the years that followed. His relationship with Kate Rothschild, an heiress to one of the world’s most wealthy banking families, was a particular cause of controversy.
Jay Electronica would continue to provide features on a variety of artists’ music, but there was still no mention of an album dropping. That was until 2017, when Jay-Z, who Jay Electronica had signed with, claimed that the album was ready for release. However, Electronica cast doubt on the album ever being released, in an interview with Billboard the following week.
It’s now 2020, and the album, or shall we say, ‘an album’, is finally here. It’s debatable whether this is the infamous Act 2, as the supposed track list from 2012 boasted features from Kanye and Diddy.
However, since its announcement at the start of February, A Written Testimony has appeared rather quickly, especially considering Jay Electronica’s tendency to delay. The album took a scripturally significant “40 days and 40 nights” to make, and we may never know if these tracks have been buried away at Roc Nation for some time, or are completely new creations.
“Shiny Suit Theory” we know is not a new track. It was released around a decade ago when Electronica signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. You can picture a night at a speak easy, with jingles, stop-start sounds and an audience applauding on loop.
Jay paints a picture of a moment he had with Diddy, and if this was from a decade ago, it was around the time the rap mogul was trying to sign him. It was Jay-Z however who won the bidding war, and he features on the track with a raw and direct verse, showing he’s still got it.
A Written Testimony not only aims to solidify Jay Electronica’s position as a rap great, but also does well to show the growth of a true hip hop heavyweight in Jay-Z. Hov features on eight of the ten tracks, his consistent features throughout the album act as master, who is overseeing a protégé.
He offers a big helping-hand here, although remains uncredited throughout the album. He doesn’t need to show off any more, and his backseat approach marks the maturity of an artist who is on his way to achieving it all in the rap game. That said, with Jay Electronica producing nearly all the tracks, it’s still very much his album, his message, and his territory.
The album gets underway with “The Overwhelming Event“, which features a short segment from a Louis Farrakhan speech, a standard source of inspiration in a Jay Electronica record.
Likewise, in “Ghost Of Soulja Slim“, after a loud round of applause, the track opens with another powerful speech by Farrakhan. The beat comes in after his first sentence, which amplifies Farrakhan’s energy for the duration of the speech.
Jay-Z sounds sharp on this one, adopting a stop-start, staggered flow, reminiscent of the freestyles he used to drop on Stretch and Bobbito in the 90’s. His rapping is faster than what we’ve heard in recent years, yet the content doesn’t suffer and he drops some cold bars “Peaceful teaching of Rumi, but don’t confuse me / You mouth off for the cameras, I make a silent movie”.
When you hear Jay Electronica spit after, it’s as if these two gentlemen have been exchanging verses for years, the way they sound so classy together. “If it come from me and Hov, consider it Qur’an / If it come any of those, consider it Haram” he offers, the first of many Nation of Islam references, his voice radiating clarity.
He continues Jay-Z’s quick, hard-hitting supply, and lines like “I bet you a Rothschild I get a bang for my dollar” could even slip under the radar on the first listen, it’s that pacey. The track pays homage to Soulja Slim, a rapper, who like Electronica, grew up in the Magnolia Projects, but was sadly gunned down on his mother’s front garden in 2003.
“The Blinding” sees Travis Scott feature for the chorus, while the two Jays trade bars. The first part of the song is noisy and mechanical, sounding almost like a factory, whereas the second part offers a floatier feel.
Juxtaposing beats like this work effectively together, and can emphasise a more pensive second verse – Kendrick Lamar’s “XXX” springs to mind. “The Blinding” does exactly that “…it’s the one who missed the flights / Hov hit me up like, ‘What, you scared of heights?”, Electronica recounts in his second verse, before speaking more personally about his sister.
The Alchemist demonstrates his versatility on “The Neverending Story“; breaking away from his boom-bap signature to create a drum-shy but string-heavy instrumental. He samples an EBow-kissed riff by Argentinian rocker Little Nebbia, but leaves it subtle enough for the two Jay’s to sound crystal clear when they unload their bars.
On “Fruits Of The Spirit“, crafted by Chicago producer No I.D, there’s also a lack of percussion. It’s only Electronica spitting here though, and he could be at his best on the album.
These drum-less samples take us back to Act 1 times, and you can appreciate Jay’s poised voice once again. The beat is soulful, and almost Dilla-esque in the way it’s looped; something Elec is no stranger to, having met the Detroit prodigy and rapped over his work before.
Both Electronica and Jay-Z contemplate the passing of close ones on “A.P.I.D.T.A“, taking turns over Khruangbin’s song “A Hymn”. The instrumental hasn’t really been altered, and the funky, psychadelic trio are credited as the track’s producers.
There are some heartfelt outpours on this final track; “Pictures on my phone / The day my mama died, I scrolled her texts all day long” admits Electronica, before reminding us of our vulnerability – “The flesh we roam this Earth in is a blessing, not a promise”.
Jay-Z provides a sobering chorus, more nasally than ever, and it is him with which the album comes to an end. “I don’t want this thing to…” he says, which mirrors how many will feel after the song runs its course – arguably the most intimate track on the album.
Jay Electronica’s knowledge of all things mythological and sacred will make A Written Testimony feel a lot longer than forty minutes, and not even his lucid delivery can cut through the depth of his words.
The Nation of Islam is somewhat responsible for this, making him realise that music is the vehicle he can use to complete his mission. If there’s a reason why we’ve waited so long for the release it’s this, and no public or industry pressure can blur his path. He puts out music when it is the right time for him, and the result is a wonderfully condensed package.
Jay-Z’s role is predominantly teacher on the album, although that’s not to say he hasn’t been influenced by the other Jay. The pair featured together on “We Made It” six years ago, and Hov raised a few eyebrows with his “story of Yakub” bar, a reference only those familiar with the Nation would understand.
This album sees Hov drop a lot more Nation Of Islam bars, and whether it’s for Jay Electronica’s sake or not, the respect he has for his artist is obvious, and he sounds sharper than he has done in a while.
A Written Testimony depicts the journey of a man not looking to convert and persuade, but to express himself and his personal assignment in no uncertain terms. The fact that he does it with one of hip hop’s smartest and most established poets only adds to its prestige. Regardless of whether we ever hear another Jay Electronica project, his mission may already be complete.
Jay Electronica’s A Written Testimony is out now on Roc Nation, purchase it on iTunes here and stream it on Spotify below.
Written by Kyle Roscoe