It’s nearly 13 years since Jay Electronica uploaded ‘Act 1: Eternal Sunshine(The Pledge)’ to Myspace. The one-track 15-minute EP turned heads thanks to poignant bars over Jon Brion’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind movie score; a change of pace in an age where everything was auto-tuned. But it was the 2009 Just Blaze-produced ‘Exhibit C’ that immortalised the rapper. Jay Electronica was, briefly, the most exciting rhymer on the planet. In time, he became a myth, exacerbated by the fact that ‘Act 1’ remained the closest thing to an album he released.
Each of his guest features – on Big Sean’s ‘Control’, on ‘Hard 2 Face Reality’ with Justin Bieber – became an event, a chance for fans to broach the topic of a possible album, which seemed like it would never arrive. Frustration at lack of material was part of being a Jay fan. That is, until now.
‘A Written Testimony’ is a 39-minute, 10-track project that offers all the usual Jay Electronica tropes: complex rhyming patterns, double and triple entendre, lyrics across various languages laid over psychedelic production with minimal drums. Electronica excels on a technical level throughout. Yet, while this is the most anyone has heard from him musically in over a decade, there’s a sense of reticence throughout the LP. That’s because this isn’t a Jay Electronica solo album, despite what the marketing says. Other than the sampled speeches of Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan, the first voice on the album is also the last voice, that of an uncredited artist who comes to dominate the album, spitting extended verses on eight tracks: Jay-Z.
As a 50-year-old billionaire, Jay-Z doesn’t have to rap any more, but here he does so with aplomb, sounding sharper than he has at any point in almost 20 years. He sounds like the king of the genre again. On the stand-out, Electronica-produced ‘Flux Capacitor’, Jay-Z shows skills displays skills that had been AWOL for 20 years, spitting, “Throwin Roc Nation brunches, that’s a feast / For Non-Believers, I created my own Easter / Evidence for your reverence / Why would I not have a watch like a Saudi prince?”
Putting his eloquence and opulence on display, Jay Z really goes for his detractors: “Why would I sell out? I’m already rich, don’t make no sense / Got more money than Goodall, a whole NFL bench… When I die, please don’t tweet about my death.” In that one verse, he grounds the album, stopping it from drifting too aimlessly. With off-kilter, non-metronome production, Jay Elec does as he pleases, dipping when he wants into his preferred subjects such as “the honourable minister Louis Farrakhan / to Serge Gainsbourg or Madonna or a podcast on piranhas”.
‘A Written Testimony’ retains coherency due to Jay Z’s more grounded raps. They exchange epic verses in a style that’s inevitably similar to Raekwon and Ghostface Killah on ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx’. The album also features The-Dream, Travis Scott and production from AraabMuzik, Swizz Beats, HIT-BOY, Khruangbin, No I.D, The Alchemist, all of whom adhere to Jay Elec’s trademark washed-out psychedelia.
Though Jay-Z may be motivated and streetwise, taking shots at critics while bringing it back to his rap heyday, Jay Electronica remains cerebral. The latter spits wisdom on the ‘The Never-ending Story’: “Though I tarry through the valley of death, my Lord give me pasture / iI you want to be a master in life, you must submit to a master / I was born to lock horns with the Devil at the brink of the hereafter.” Elsewhere he reveals why it’s taken him so long to make an album. From penultimate track ‘Ezekiel’s Wheel’: “Some ask me “Jay, man, why come for so many years you been exempt?” / ‘Cause familiarity don’t breed gratitude, just contempt… Sometimes I was held down by the gravity of my pen.”
It’s a blessing to have so much new material from Jay Electronica on a single project, but this comes across as a collaborative Jay Z and Jay E album rather than a solo record. Throughout, Electronica cedes the spotlight to Jay Z, making ‘A Written Testimony’ sound like a‘Watch The Throne’ or ‘Everything Is Love’. Jay Elec has famously been unable to cope with the pressures and expectations that his first release created, so perhaps he’s using his more famous peer’s uncredited presence as a crutch.
Still, this does offer a much-needed salve for fans wounded by the absence of a full-length album from this mythical figure. This record is nothing spectacular; it won’t shift or affect cultural discourse. But it also feels poignant that this album is released in the middle of a global pandemic because Jay will always remind us of the evils of the world. “The flesh we roam this earth in is a blessing, not a promise,” he remind us on ‘A.P.I.D.T.A’: “I bow with those who bow to the creator and pay homage.” ‘A Written Testimony’ leaves listeners with the hope that Jay Electronica has finally been released from his own self-imposed shackles.
Release date: March 13
Record label: Roc Nation