The myth of Jay Electronica has long outweighed his music―maybe because there was so little of it.
Since bursting onto the hip-hop scene in 2007, he has been touched by Erykah Badu, the subject of dating rumors with Kate Rothschild- an heiress to the Rothchild banking dynasty- and a ghostwriter for rapper Nas. He got beats from J Dilla, was signed to Roc Nation and was one of the last rappers standing after Kendrick Lamar called out the hip-hop community on Big Sean’s 2013 single “Control,” which also features Jay Electronica. With only two singles, one mixtape and a handful of features and songs, he is more famous for his relationships with other prolific figures.
It has been 13 years since Jay Electronica self-released “Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge)” on Myspace. The one-track 15-minute EP turned heads thanks to Jay’s incredible bars rapped over Jon Brion’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” movie score, a change of pace in an age where everything seemed to be drenched in autotune.
But it was his 2009 Just Blaze-produced single “Exhibit C” that immortalized the rapper. Jay Electronica was briefly the most sought after rapper 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. The wait for his debut album has been so long that it became more of an ancient prophecy than a release date.
The album “A Written Testimony” is finally here, but does not live up to the lore. JAY-Z is featured on nearly every song on the project which, 10 years in anticipation, does not have a lot of real estate to give away. In just under 40 minutes, Jay Electronica manages to build a monument to Allah, Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad, and Roc Nation kingpin JAY-Z, who is by his side nearly the entire album. “From a hard place and a rock to the Roc Nation of Islam/I emerged on the wave that Tidal made to drop bombs,” he raps on “Ghost of Solja Slim.”
With the exception of “Shiny Suit Theory,” these are new songs, or at least previously unreleased ones. Whether the raps are from scribbled verses stashed away in Moleskines since the late 2000s or produced during the 40-day period of inspiration, during which this record was written, the album sounds current because Jay’s rapping is immutable.
“A Written Testimony” is largely defined by the space between every note and word. The beats have a grandeur to them that suits the swagger with which Jay Electronica performs. But he often plays second fiddle to JAY-Z, who steals the spotlight on tracks like “The Blinding,” with these rhymes “You Speakin’ on the kingdom, you better watch your tongue, sir/I send you where you never been, you forget where I’m from, sir?/That gossip I send bald heads, Lou Gosset out the gun, sir/I’m brazy, I’m so brazen, I’m “Raisin in the Sun” sir.”
Jay Electronica has clever bars as well, but their outshined performance leaves a bad taste in listeners’ mouths. A highlight from “Ghost of Soulja Slim,” “If it comes from me and Hov, consider it Qur’an/If it comes from any of those, consider it Haram,” is one of the many references to his Muslim faith.
Despite the effort, the album doesn’t offer the much-needed salve for fans wounded by the absence of a full-length album from the mystical figure. JAY-Z takes up far too much airtime on “A Written Testimony.” But it feels poignant that this album is released in the middle of a pandemic like COVID-19 because Jay Electronica will always remind the world of its evils such as on “A.P.I.D.T.A.,” in the line “I bow with those who bow to the creator and pay homage.”
“A Written Testimony” will leave listeners with the hope that Jay Electronica has finally been released from his own self-imposed shackles, enough to create an album worthy of his position atop his mystical pedestal.
Prerequisite: “Exhibit C”
Contact Christopher S. Cann at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @chrstophercann.