Jay Electronica's A Written Testimony is a righteous step forward: Review
The long-awaited debut album from the rapper is an impressive, noteworthy performance. But he's often outshined by Jay-Z.
Eleven years ago, Jay Electronica was poised to be the biggest rapper in the world. He had released singles “Exhibit A” and “Exhibit C” to mass acclaim; the latter garnered so much buzz that some deemed him the next Nas. The hype seemed warranted: Jay Elec recalled hip-hop’s golden era of the 1990s, when would-be legends like Nas, Jay-Z, and The Notorious B.I.G. were still scrappy upstarts, and their albums — namely Illmatic, Reasonable Doubt, and Ready to Die — became cornerstones of the period. Jay Electronica was very much of that ilk. A tough-minded MC with an intricate flow, he could dissect Islamic teachings with great pacing and clarity. When paired with the mountain-sized production of Just Blaze, “Exhibit C” felt like a watershed moment. This dude was the one and supporters worshipped at the altar.
After a summer 2010 bidding war between P. Diddy’s Bad Boy Records and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label, Jay Elec signed with the latter. A year later, he took to Twitter and said that his album, Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn), was done. But the record never materialized. In a 2017 interview with Billboard, he called the idea of an album a “false concept … created by corporations as a product to make money.” Outside the occasional guest verse — most recently, an appearance alongside producer Poo Bear and singer Justin Bieber on the song “Hard 2 Face Reality” — there was no full-length project with Jay Electronica’s name on the cover. A lot of fans gave up and moved on. That was until Feb. 7th when he announced on Twitter that his debut LP, A Written Testimony, would be out in 40 days. Listeners had heard that before; fans were excited but skeptical. Following a decade of pump fakes and false starts, who knew if the album was actually going to drop.
But Jay Electronica came through, releasing a 39-minute, 10-track project that explores anxiety and his allegiance to Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan. Featuring The-Dream, Travis Scott, and James Blake, and with production from AraabMuzik, Swizz Beatz, HIT-BOY, G. Ry, No I.D., Khruangbin, The Alchemist, and Jay Electronica himself (who compiled six of the album’s 10 tracks), A Written Testimony moves swiftly, grouping ambient loops, pop samples, and atmospheric soul into a tightly-coiled set.
And now the obvious question: What took Jay Elec so long to record and release the LP? “Sometimes I was held down by the gravity of my pen,” he proclaims on “Ezekiel’s Wheel,” a slow-churning track that name-checks Paulo Coelho’s book The Alchemist. “Sometimes I was held down by the gravity of my sin/Sometimes, like Santiago, at crucial points in my novel, my only logical option was to transform into the wind.” The translation, it seems, is that Jay suffered from bouts of writer’s block; he knew how many people were waiting for his album and the pressure became too immense. Elec’s flightiness has long surfaced in his music — “Nas hit me up on the phone said, ‘What you waitin’ on,’” he once quipped on “Exhibit C” — and it arises sporadically on Testimony. On “The Blinding,” he mentions how his label boss also pushed him to make a move — much like Nas and Diddy tried to do all those years ago. Elec raps: “Hov hit me up like, ‘What, you scared of heights?’ Know your sister tired of workin’, gotta do her something nice … When I look inside the mirror all I see is flaws … In the wee hours of night, tryna squeeze out bars/Bismillah, just so y'all could pick me apart?”
Jay-Z gives Jay Electronica plenty of help on A Written Testimony, appearing on eight tracks, often outshining the protagonist’s noteworthy performance. Not that he isn’t still capable of scene-stealing, but Jay-Z hasn’t rapped this hard since the early 2000s when he was the undisputed King of Hip-Hop. He sounds motivated and streetwise here, like the old Jay-Z, outweighing the euphoria of hearing Elec spit new rhymes on a new album. On “Ghost of Soulja Slim,” Jay-Z comes off like a Bed-Stuy hustler with one foot in the boardroom and the other on Marcy Avenue. On “Flux Capacitor,” he swats those who rebuke his partnership with the National Football League: “Why would I sell out, I’m already rich, don’t make no sense/Got more money than Goodell, a whole NFL bench/Did it one-handed like Odell, handcuffed to a jail.” With an album’s worth of back and forth rhymes, Testimony recalls Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Ghostface Killah’s Ironman as solo records in name alone. They starred on each other’s work, and in some cases, the lead rapper let the co-star command whole songs by himself. Jay-Z and Jay Elec have nice synergy, but this is the latter’s opening salvo, and he sounds like the second fiddle in spots.
When he’s alone, on the quick yet impressive “Fruits of the Spirit,” Jay Elec runs through several topics in under two minutes: heart chakras; Flint, Mich. tap water; fake news; and America’s political tyranny. On “Soulja Slim,” he appears to take a subtle jab at his ex-girlfriend, banking heiress Kate Rothschild, whom he dated from 2012 to 2014 (“I came to bang with the scholars and I bet you a Rothschild I’ll get a bang for my dollar.”) On album closer “A.P.I.D.T.A.,” which was recorded the day basketball legend Kobe Bryant died, Electronica delves into the concerns keeping him up at night. “Sometimes a Xanny bar can’t help you fight back the anxiety,” he divulges. “I can’t stop my mind from racing.” Ultimately, A Written Testimony is an accomplished album with decent rewind factor, but it feels somewhat hampered by the seismic impact of the rapper's work a decade ago. That it doesn’t have forceful songs like “Exhibit C,” “Dear Moleskine,” or “The Ghost of Christopher Wallace” could draw naysayers, even if it picks up where Jay Elec left off. It exists nonetheless, and that’s a righteous step forward. B+