To outside eyes, the hype had become too much. But after a 13-year wait, Jay Electronica returns with A Written Testimony, a debut that’s as satisfying as it is mercurial.
The headline, of course, is the inclusion of hip-hop vet Jay-Z, who signed the hibernating spitter to his Roc Nation imprint. But the album is less Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne collaboration and more Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.
A Written Testimony finds Jay Electronica in the driver’s seat while a rejuvenated Jay-Z calls shotgun, flexing skills like a sneering Ghostface. The album also features production by No I.D., Swizz Beatz, the Alchemist, and Hit Boy.
It’s clear from its dramatic opening, “The Overwhelming Event,” that this album is not for the faint of heart.
“The Honorable Elijah Muhammad has said that/almighty God Allah revealed to him/that the black people of America are the real/children of Israel/… and they, we, are the choice of God/and that unto us he will deliver his promise!” declares the voice of the controversial Minister Louis Farrakhan.
That’s soon followed by “Ghost of Soulja Slim,” a powerful nod to the late New Orleans hip-hop deity. “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’,” blasts Jay-Z on the track.
An introduction from the Nation of Islam leader – Jay Electronica practices Islam himself – and a shout-out to the Big Easy rap hero are reminders that A Written Testimony is still Jay Electronica’s show. He makes clear on said track: “Don’t make me have to blast this rocket, uh, Jay Electricity/The thing you need like a hole in his head is publicity.”
It’s one of the oddities of Jay Electronica. He sounds like he worships at the East Coast hip-hop altar of Rakim, the Wu-Tang Clan, Pete Rock and DJ Premier, but he proudly represents New Orleans royalty DJ Jubilee, Master P, Magnolia Shorty, and Cash Money. For example in 2009, he presented himself as a starving artist on his single “Exhibit C,” where he looked back on his struggles: “When New York n—-s was calling southern rappers lame/But then jacking our slang.”
It was as if Jay Electronica was created in a laboratory as payback for Southern rappers OutKast getting booed at the 1995 Source Awards after winning best new rap group.
And the curveballs continue on A Written Testimony. R&B singer-songwriter The-Dream pops up on “Shiny Suit Theory” with a voice that makes him sound like a blues-baptized female soul singer ready to make a comeback. Arguably it’s the most brilliant offering on A Written Testimony, which finds Jay Electronica recalling a conversation he had with his shrink: “Me and Puff, we was chilling in Miami/He said, ‘N—a, f— the underground, you need to win a Grammy/For your mama and your family, they need to see you shined up/You built a mighty high ladder, let me see you climb up.’ “
Jay-Z flips Jay Electronica’s clever line of unburdening his inner battles into a statement on how black ambition from impoverished neighborhoods such as Jay-Z’s own Marcy Houses project is often viewed as madness. “In this manila envelope, the results of my insanity/Quack said I crossed the line ’tween real life and fantasy/Can it be the same one on covers with Warren Buffett? Was ducking the undercovers, was warring with muh’f—–s…”
On the Euro-jazz fusion pacing of “The Neverending Story,” Jay Electronica announces, “His favorite song from Prince was not ‘Raspberry Beret’/It was ‘Sometimes It Snows In April’/He was brought up by the faithful.” It’s as if Jay Electronica’s aim is to not simply feed the public a commercially hit, but a deep album cut.
Houston rapper Travis Scott anchors the chorus on “The Blinding,” by spiritual chants: “Blinding/Blinded by the light/See the stars and our sun.”
“Listen, I named my son, Sir, so you gotta call my son, ‘Sir’/That boy already knighted, he ain’t even out his romper,” Jay-Z asserts. It’s a strange concoction that somehow works as Jay Electronica opens up to listeners about his turbulent return to the mic.
“Who signed every contract and missed the deadlines/40 days, 40 nights, tryna live up to the hype … Hov hit me up like, ‘What, you scared of heights?’/’Know you sister tired of workin’, gotta do her something nice.”
And on the blasting beat of “Flux Capacitor,” Jay-Z addresses the criticism surrounding his partnership with the NFL. “Why would I sell out? I’m already rich, don’t make no sense/Got more money than Goodell, a whole NFL bench.”
Despair is exhibited on the album’s final song “A.P.I.D.T.A.,” which was recorded the night Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others died in a helicopter crash Jan. 26. Jay-Z mourns, “I got numbers in my phone that’ll never ring again/’Cause Allah done called ’em home, so until we sing again I got texts on my phone that’ll never ping again/I screenshot ’em so I got ’em, I don’t want this thing to end.”
And Jay Electronica delivers a heartbreaking tribute to his mother: “The day my mama died, I scrolled her texts all day long/The physical returns but the connection still stay strong/Now I understand why you used to cry sometimes we ride down Claybourne/You just missed your mama/Now I just miss my mamas.”
In 2010, New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica was rushing to crown Jay Electronica the new God MC. But the hype turned into music’s long-awaited debut album, a project so late that it landed the formidable lyricist somewhere between Guns N’ Roses decade-in-the-making Chinese Democracy (2008) and Dr. Dre’s near 20-year wait Compton (2015). The New Orleans native seemingly appeared out of nowhere with his startling 2007 mixtape Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge). Less than two years later, he returned with the classic song “Exhibit C,” which was produced by seven-time Grammy-nominated producer Just Blaze. Jay Electronica was cast as the nostalgic avatar of the stripped-down return to ’90s boom bap.
“I’m bringing ancient mathematics back to the modern man,” he rapped on “Exhibit C” in 2009. “My mama told me, ‘Never throw a stone and hide your hand’/I got a lot of family, you got a lot of fans.”
Jay Electronica proves with his new album A Written Testimony that he is capable of living up to the public’s hip-hop coronation. And Jay-Z is showing the naysayers that he could still be as nasty, indignant and dangerous on the mic as his Reasonable Doubt days even while hobnobbing with the 1%.
Hip-hop loves a comeback.