The Lowdown: The undeniable irony of Jay Electronica releasing his long-awaited album at the same time a global pandemic is ravaging most of the world couldn’t be more on-brand for the New Orleans MC. In hip-hop circles, the consensus was that the apocalypse would come before Jay would drop an official project. Alas, he proved his naysayers wrong (myself included) and has unleashed A Written Testimony upon the masses.
Since his arrival on the hip-hop landscape, Jay was crowned as the next great lyricist, a once-in-a-lifetime rhyme-slinger who would take the genre to another level. His thought-provoking rhyme paradigms hearkened back to a time when MCing was at the forefront of rap music while his enigmatic persona was erected on the duality of his enormous potential. His sparse musical output over the past decade only fed into that legend.
The mystique truly began, however, on July 2, 2007, when Jay released his mixtape, Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) ,on MySpace. Rapping over excerpts from Jon Brion’s emotional score off 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the eclectic collection was downloaded over 30,000 times, amassing a legion of loyal fans who catapulted him onto the national stage.
Despite several broken promises, those same fans waited patiently for a proper follow-up, mostly because Jay kept winning them over. In addition to rare guest verses, he dropped two Just Blaze-produced gems in “Exhibit A” and “Exhibit C”, consolation prizes that surreptitiously solidified his stature in the game and cemented him as an artist who could (and would) live up to the hype.
For awhile, it appeared as if an album would never happen, especially after he told Billboard the medium is “a false concept … created by corporations as a product to make money.” And yet, a glimmer of hope shined through this past February, when he tweeted that his album was complete and that it took 40 days and 40 nights — an ode to Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that denotes a significant, life-changing amount of time.
One Instagram release party later, A Written Testimony has arrived. Featuring guest appearances from Travis Scott, The-Dream, James Blake, and Khruangbin, the album was self-produced along with Swizz Beatz, the Alchemist, No I.D., and Hit-Boy, a meeting of minds that no doubt contributed to the unorthodox sonic tapestries that complement the other-worldly lyricism of Magnolia’s finest.
The Good: Rest assured, Jay Electronica earns his reputation as an elite rhymer-sayer on A Written Testimony. He blends the theology and philosophies of the Nation of Islam with multi-lingual lyrical exploits, all of which are wired with the complexity and dexterity that few of his contemporaries can even think to wield. Not surprisingly, he also addresses his own anxieties surrounding the release of the album. On “The Blinding”, Jay raps: “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 the night, tryna squeeze out bars/ Bismillah, just so y’all could pick me apart?”
Oddly enough, this record thrives from two Jays. As if he had something to prove, Jay-Z sounds as if he went into a time machine and came out with the fountain of youth he exuded on Reasonable Doubt. His rapping is nothing short of magnificent with not a single bar being wasted. His one-time prognostication of claiming that “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli,” may have finally come to fruition. On the astounding “Ghost of Soulja Slim”, he raps, “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.” Who could have envisioned that a 50-year-old billionaire could still rap with the hunger and poignancy that he did in the ’90s?
Continuing their two-man game, Jay Elec picks it back up on the short but stunning “Fruits of the Spirit.” His intricate wordplay is simply remarkable. In just over 90 seconds, he raps about Thanos, the teachings of Islam, the Underground Railroad, and just for kicks, threw in a Vince Staples reference.
He shines on the dreamy “Ezekiel’s Wheel”, a laid-back track with The-Dream on the chorus. He raps, “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.” With intellectual acuity, Electronica consistently demonstrates why he’s been a highly regarded lyricist since we were using Myspace.
The Bad: By proxy, A Written Testimony suffers from the ultimate catch-22 of having Jay-Z’s foreboding presence throughout the album. Hov appears on 8 of the 10 tracks, and, in an unprecedented occurrence, his voice opens and closes the album. Bringing his A-game to each track, Hov arguably outperforms Electronica every chance he can get, which may leave some to speculate if this project is more of a Jay-Z album featuring Jay Electronica. Furthermore, the inclusion of “Shining Suit Theory”, a 10-year-old song, is a puzzling choice seeing how it’s been out forever. It may be nostalgic to hear, but it hinders the forward progression that Jay Electronica attempts to make on the album.
The Verdict: Regardless, A Written Testimony is one hell of a promising effort that was well worth the wait. The skillset of Jay Electronica as both an MC and a producer is on full display, even when he does seemingly play Robin to Jay-Z’s Dark Knight on his own project. Looking beyond those minor gripes, though, A Written Testimony gives us a peek into the immense, singular possibilities of Jay Electronica. Hopefully for the next go-round, it won’t take another decade.
Essential Tracks: “Ghost of Soulja Slim”, “The Blinding”, and “Neverending Story”