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Jay Electronica - A Written Testimony album cover
Jay Electronica’s A Written Testimony

After a 13-year wait, Jay Electronica’s debut surpasses all expectations

It took him long enough to release it, but A Written Testimony shows why the rapper was always such a unique proposition

Jay Electronica was supposed to liberate hip hop from its excesses. When he broke onto the scene back in 2007, eloquently rapping over quirky beats that sampled Jon Brion’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind score, the New Orleans emcee sounded like a fully-formed philosopher, the antithesis to the Auto-Tune-driven ‘ringtone rap’ that filled the airwaves. Two years later and his once-in-a-generation talent was confirmed with the Just Blaze-produced single “Exhibit C”, a bold, conscious rap anthem where Jay Electronica nonchalantly dismissed his peers as if swatting an irritating fly: “That’s why you talk the tough talk, I never feel you / You sound real good and you play the part well, but the energy you giving off is so unfamiliar.” He could break down Islamic scripture and the brittleness of western civilisation without ever sounding preachy, an emcee capable of making you question the world outside your window. For rap fans who primarily valued substantive bars, it felt like Jay Electronica could transform mainstream rap, and shift it into a more intellectual direction.

But the artist never looked too comfortable with the idea of fame, nor becoming lyrical rap’s new prodigal son. His debut album went from being hotly anticipated to the awkward butt of a joke, with years going by without a release. In his absence, he was surpassed in cultural capital by ascendant artists like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, while rap seemed to became more and more capitalist in its outlook, with artists putting out lengthy yet empty records designed purely to win the streaming numbers game. “An album is a false concept created by corporations as a product to make money,” he told Billboard in 2017, leaving fans to assume he would simply be the best rapper to never release an album.

The fact that Jay Electronica’s debut, A Written Testimony, has finally arrived in March 2020 – at the start of a global pandemic, and with close friend Jay-Z rapping on nearly every track – might sound like a fever dream, but its music is a genuine moment of clarity and thoughtfulness at a time where confusion and chaos is just about everywhere you turn. Throughout its swift 40 minutes, Jay Electronica is typically shamanic, breaking down our apocalyptic world with his trademark, slightly eerie, omnipresent wisdom. On the lush “The Neverending Story”, he prophetically raps: “What a time we’re living in, just like the scripture says / Earthquakes, fires, and plagues, the resurrection of the dead.” But he sounds much more human than his previous, sometimes holier-than-thou iterations, dissecting the depression that prevented him from releasing an album (“I spent many nights bent off Woodford, clutching the bowl / stuffing my nose / some of the cons, I suffered for the prose,” he raps on the stirring “Universal Soldier”) in a way that’s endearing. It’s a record about persistence and keeping the faith, even when you’re surrounded by darkness. When he raps, “The flesh we roam this earth in is a blessing, not a promise,” it’s a vital sermon about the gift of life. 

If Jay Electronica, who raps like a cross between a biblical thunderstorm and Nas if he had a doctorate in ancient philosophy, cements his obvious talent, then it’s the power dynamic between the two Jays that makes this debut feel so compelling. Jay-Z is the master to Jay Electronica’s apprentice, the latter fully aware that for all his wisdom, he still needs a 50-year-old hustler-turned-rapper to help bind it all together. Whenever they trade bars, it feels like you’re watching Joe Pesci and Robert de Niro dipping bread into balsamic vinegar while making deadly plans together in The Irishman. Everything they do oozes sophistication and poise, and they similarly share an inherent understanding of the mechanics of the underworld that’s thrilling to listen to. Jay Electronica is all dizzying wordplay and mind-bending historical references, but Jay-Z grounds this more fantastical vision into something everyday, subtly dissecting the idea of systemic racism with depth and relatability on “The Ballad of Soulja Slim”. Even though their exchanges are brief (Jay Electronica raps 11 verses, compared to Jay-Z’s six), not a word is wasted.

This is Jay Electronica’s big moment after years of indecision, and one that he makes the most of (besides a few dodgy bars about Michael Jackson’s innocence, and one very questionable line about “the synagogues of Satan” that he’s publicly discussed). The fact he gets to share the highlight of his career with one of the rap’s most celebrated figures also feels significant. Jay Electronica never enjoyed the limelight, preferring the idea of rapping like a spectral force, mysterious and very private. And this means the fact Jay-Z, who is both the first and last person to rap on this album, has taken on some of the pressure will have helped the obviously introverted lead artist’s nerves – it’s perhaps the reason why he sounds so fearless, despite shedding the weight of a mythical album that people had got bored waiting for. 

Hearing the perspicacity of Jay Electronica’s bars is going to help rap fans “sleep well” (as he implores Black America to do on mournful closure “A.P.I.D.T.A.”) while the world feels like it’s eating itself. Knowing that Jay Electronica can turn an insurmountable L into a potent album that actually matches the hype is cathartic, proving that there’s always a brighter day on the horizon. Long after the panic fades, Jay Electronica’s masterful, virtuous raps on A Written Testimony will still stand strong, passionately guiding young black men and women onto a path of enlightenment. It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t release another album – this one is more than enough.