Album Review: Jay Electronica, A Written Testimony

Jay Electronica

A Written Testimony (released March 13, 2020)

Six months ago, if I asked what would come first – a global pandemic or Jay Electronica’s mythical debut album – what would you have guessed?

Well, lucky us, we got two for one! Happy Friday the 13th!

It’s pretty insane to consider how much hip-hop, and the world, has changed since we were first introduced to the hottest rapper out of New Orleans not named Dwayne Carter.

In the summer of 2007, a then-unknown Jay Electronica dropped his five-track concept mixtape Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) on MySpace.

YES. MYSPACE.

Soon Jay Elec would become the talk of hip-hop, especially after dropping the blistering “Exhibit C,” which still stands as one of the best songs of the previous decade. But after that industry-shaking manifesto, the only thing we heard were crickets.

Sure, Jay remained in headlines – a bidding war and singing to Roc Nation, high profile romances with Erykah Badu and Kate Rothschild, even minor spats with Kendrick Lamar and others. He’d even occasionally stroll in for a guest verse every blue moon, like the wayward cousin who slides in for 20 minutes for a plate at Thanksgiving, only to disappear for another 12 months.

His debut album became this generation’s Detox, the great black hope that hip-hop needed but would always be denied.

That’s why word of his upcoming debut album was met with rightful skepticism. Claims that the album was written in 40 days and 40 nights, a tracklist released in Arabic that, when translated, sounded like titles to Castlevania episodes on Netflix – we’d be through this song and dance before with Jay Electronica.

But THIS TIME he came through.

A lot of that credit has to go to Jay Z. Jigga is the glue that holds A Written Testimony, Jay Elec’s official debut, together. He’s featured as an uncredited guest on all but one track, giving some needed focus to the affair.

Over the past 24 hours I’ve seen several fans frown upon Jay’s presence here, and I understand why. Collaborative albums are pretty common these days, with both stars getting top billing in today’s “me first” society. But uncredited collabs are much more rare and harken back to the great duos of the past – Ghostface guest starring on Rakewon’s debut, Rae returning the favor on Ghost’s debut and Snoop Dogg making his presence known on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. Trust me, this ain’t new, and Jay and Jay find incredible chemistry here.

Thankfully, A Written Testimony doesn’t seem to be a bunch of decade-old tracks uncovered from a vault (with one exception we’ll touch upon later). This SOUNDS like a 2020 album, not a stale rehash. The distorting synths of “The Blinding,” the off-kilter soul of “Flux Capacitor,” the exquisite twinkling of “The Neverending Story” – it’s a fresh as any modern day release.

But with two lyrical titans in the booth, you have to know this album is all about bars.

Jay Z and Jay Elec do their best to outbar each other on “Ghost of Soulja Slim” and it’s a wonderful stalemate. Jay Z turns to black history into black power:

My ancestors took old food, made soul food
Jim Crow’s a troll too, he stole the soul music
That’s the blood that goes through me, so you assumin’
I could never sell my soul, they sold they soul to me
Peaceful teaching of Rumi, but don’t confuse me
You mouth off for the cameras, I make a silent movie

While Jay Elec rides the wave and takes it another step further:

I came to bang with the scholars
And I bet you a Rothschild I get a bang for my dollar
The synagogue of Satan want me to hang by my collar
But all praise due to Allah Subhanahu wa ta’ala
I put on for my nation like I’m King T’Challa
Crushing the oyibo that try to bring wahala
You want it, I got it
Don’t make me have to blast this rocket, uh
Jay Electricity
The thing he need like a hole in his head is publicity
Though he shine like a Christmas tree
Verily, verily, I tread through life merrily
Giving all thanks to God for this universal therapy

Jay Elec doesn’t shy away from the elephant in the room, either – he doesn’t bite his tongue discussing his CP-time-ish work ethic. “The Blinding” isn’t just a thrilling tag-team match between the duo, it’s a chance for Jay Elec to provide refreshing honesty into his absences:

Hov hit me up like, “What, you scared of heights?
Know your sister tired of workin’, gotta do her something nice”
I’m like, “Don’t he know I stay up for Fallon late nights?”
She need bread, she need rice, she need threads, she need ice
Either tell it to my bank account or say it to the dice
When I lay down in my bed it’s like my head in the vice
When I look inside the mirror all I see is flaws
When I look inside the mirror all I see is Mars
In the wee hours of night, tryna squeeze out bars

The pressures of fame weigh heavily on Jay Elec, who admits on “Ezekiel’s Wheel” that “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.”

Jay Elec’s morose mood contrasts nicely to Jay Z’s charisma, who really finds new life on this album. Remember when Jay infamously spit that “Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense?” Sounds like he has found that freedom.

Though Jay is unquestionably one of the best to touch a mic, I’ve been pretty critical of his inconsistency post American Gangster. For every incredible guest verse he’s had over the past decade, he inevitably winds up lackadaisically biking with Frank Ocean or having breasteses for breakfast with Beyonce. But that hot streak he found with 4:44 continues to scorch here.

Jay Z uses “The Neverending Story” to bust myths about the depiction of blue-eyed Jesus, even chiding his grandmother and mother-in-law for buying into false narratives. “Shiny Suit Theory,” Jay Elec’s single from wayyyyyy back in 2010, gets a fresh coat of paint here, with Jay Z positioning the pair as America’s black kings (“How could this nappy-headed boy from out the projects/Be the apple of America’s obsession?”). And though I’ll quickly dispel the narrative that Jay Z overshadows Jay Elec on his own album, Jay Z definitely steals the show on “Flux Capacitor”:

The slave that shook hands and humbled the duke of oil
The spook that spoke sterling silver and pearls twirled, tumbled out my nappy coils
Visions of sugar plums for all the boys and girls
Why would I sell out? I’m already rich, don’t make no sense
Got more money than Goodell, a whole NFL bench

As mentioned earlier, Jay Z does a great job of adding context and structure around Jay Elec’s often-abstract soliloquies. But make no mistake, this is Jay Electronica’s party and remains the focus. On “A.P.I.D.T.A.,” written the night of Kobe Bryant’s tragic helicopter crash, both men’s hearts are heavy as they weigh the meaning of life. But it’s Jay Elec who really hits home:

Teardrops on my face, it’s like teardrops become waterfalls by the time they reach my laces
My eyelids is like levees but my tear ducts is like glaciers
As I contemplate creation, the salt that heals my wounds pour out my eyes just like libations
I can’t stop my mind from racing, I got numbers on my phone
Pictures on my phone
The day my mama died, I scrolled her texts all day long
The physical returns but the connection still stay strong

It’s pretty obvious that no matter how great A Written Testimony is – and it IS pretty great – it would in no way live up to the hype its legacy has created. In fact, Jay Elec makes clear many times on several tracks that making an album was not a priority, whether it was the weight of family issues, his perfectionist standards or just living up to the overwhelming hype. But A Written Testimony is about the journey not the destination, and with one of rap’s GOATs as his guiding light, has Jay Electronica finally delivered.

Best tracks: “Flux Capacitor,” “The Neverending Story,” “The Blinding”

4 stars out of 5

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