It’s surreal to be even talking about Jay Electronica’s debut album as something that actually exists in this universe. For the longest time, a large part of the hip-hop community was obsessed by Jay Elec’s pen game, something displayed numerous times on tracks like “Exhibit C” and unofficial projects like Style Wars EP and What The F*ck Is A Jay Electronica. Oh and of course Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) is one of the most moving and poetic projects ever released. Apart from the odd few tracks, Jay Electronica has largely been absent from the public eye. I met him back in 2015 when he was doing a speech as the Oxford Union while I was at university. We spoke about the hip-hop scene at the time, his creative process. I remember a shyness about him, as if he wasn’t confident in himself or his ability as an artist. It’s what struck me about his character the most. He really cared about truly perfecting his craft even if it would take years. All these years of waiting officially came to an end on the 13th March with the release of his new, DEBUT album titled A Written Testimony. It shook the hip-hop world when it dropped and people will be shouting about it for years to come. I’ve been listening to it non-stop since, trying to decipher what is being said throughout the 10 tracks, so please be patient with me as I try to navigate through my thoughts.
I was both overwhelmed and bemused by this album. Do I think it’s a perfect project? No, it’s got flaws and I’ll eventually get to that. But what strikes me about this album is how unpolished and unfinished it sounds. Sonically this album varies from the emotive and mystical on tracks like “The Neverending Story” and “Fruits Of The Spirit,” to the more menacing and unassuming on tracks like “The Blinding” featuring Travis Scott and “Flux Capacitor.” The glue that sticks the album together is of course Jay Elec, who’s words and production on this album make for a spiritual listen. What’s more is that Hov appears throughout the entire album. Rather than having a supporting role, it feels like a true collaborative album between two greats of rap. The way they exchange verses on “Ghost Of Soulja Slim” is incredible, as they flow over hard-hitting drums an accordion and synth-led beat that sounds raw and unfiltered. Jay-Z’s verses on “The Blinding” are among the best on the entire project. The sombre Hov verse on “A.P.I.D.T.A” is another highlight on the album. And at 50 he sounds hungry and sharp on the mic, displaying incredible lyricism and wordplay throughout the entire project. It’s incredible hearing him so alive and motivated on this album, and it’s just another example of his genius. Other than that, Travis Scott’s feature on “The Blinding” fits that track perfectly, acting as a bridge between both beats, while The-Dream appears on the previously released “Shiny Suit Theory” and “Ezekiel’s Wheel,” bringing additional vocals to the soulful project.
Lyrically and thematically, Jay Electronica touches on a plethora of themes. I’ve found Jay Electronica’s ideology and in particular his involvement with The Nation Of Islam as problematic. Its leader, Louis Farrakhan (who appears on the opening track “The Overwhelming Event”), has been accused of antisemitism, sexism and homophobia on numerous occasions. Despite this, Jay Electronica continues to associate himself with the NOI and on the Alchemist-produced “The Neverending Story,” he reflects on his relationship with the Islam and the movement in general – “Though I tarry through the valley of death, my Lord give me pasture / If 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 / Me, the socket, the plug, and universal adapter / The prodigal son who went from his own vomit / To the top of the mountain with five pillars and a sonnet / The autobiography read Quranic.” On “Universal Soldier” he says he says “My poetry’s livin’ like the God that I fall back on / And all praises due to Allah for such a illustrious platform / The teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s my backbone / When I spit, the children on the mothership bow on a platform.” His religious references are fascinating and it makes me want to read more. And that’s the thing about this album, it’s a deep, intellectual listen. I can give example after example throughout the 10 tracks, but for the sake of time I’ll leave it at that. It’s a historical, intellectual story that is told like a testimony.
The main criticism I have for this album is the production. Apart from the awful beat on “Flux Capacitor,” (which features an annoying Rihanna sample, with a beat breakdown that’s the worst thing I’ve heard this year so far), the rest of the album sounds old and outdated. The instrumentals I have a problem with have one thing in common – they’re produced by Jay Electronica. I’ll give “Shiny Suit Theory” a pass because it came out a decade ago, but tracks like “Ghost Of Soulja Slim” and “Universal Soldier” feel like throwaways from a recording session back in 2004. Hov’s incredible verses make the former track so much better than it should be, and the latter track just feels stale to me. Funnily enough one of my favourite tracks on the album, “Ezekiel’s Wheel,” is also produced by Elec so there you go. Also, the drums at the beginning of “The Blinding” sound like they were recorded with in poor mp3 format and blasted out. The second half of that track is pretty great, though. And speaking of great, Alchemist and Hov connecting on “The Neverending Story” was beautiful, the beat was angelic and gorgeous. No ID produced the shit out of “Fruits Of My Spirit,” the best beat on the album in my opinion. And “A.P.I.D.T.A” was an Khruangbin-produced track, recorded on the day of Kobe’s death.
Lyrically, this album is an encyclopedia. I’m just happy to have tracks to marinate on and think about for a while. While I think he’s suffered from Nas syndrome with poor outdated production, there’s an ethereal, surreal quality to A Written Testimony that makes it a profoundly moving listening experience. I’m so happy Jay Electronica is back to silence everyone, and I’m happy he’s finally built the confidence to release a project that’s close to his heart.
Listen to Jay Electronica’s DEBUT album A Written Testimony below via Spotify. Released via Roc Nation.