What is a debut album 10 years after the artist’s peak in popularity supposed to be? A Written Testimony, the debut album of Roc-A-Fella signee and near-mythical underground figure Jay Electronica, sets out to answer that question.
Jay Electronica is no longer the household name it was when the album was announced over a decade ago, and news that he released a debut album certainly didn’t make major waves outside of the hip-hop community. When I mentioned to my friend that A Written Testimony had dropped, he half-jokingly said, “Well, I hope Kendrick isn’t on it,” and for many newer rap fans, that’s all Jay Electronica is: that verse on “Control” that gets drowned out by Jesus-dude-Kendrick-went-crazys.
However, fans who were around for Jay’s 2007 peak remember that he was, and still is, a contender for one of the greatest alive. With assistance from Roc-A-Fella founder Jay-Z, Jay Electronica is back to remind us why.
A Written Testimony’s name is very literal: the album recounts both Jay Electronica’s and Jay-Z’s histories. The latter’s career is well-documented throughout his bicentennial catalog, but Jay Electronica’s is shrouded in mystery. After announcing an upcoming album in 2010, he almost entirely disappeared save for the occasional feature. For every appearance there were a hundred rumors, from a relationship with Erykah Badu to allegedly having broken up a Rothschild marriage; his producers would speak of how he’d go silent for months, then call from a Greyhound station saying, “I’m ready to rap.”
Now, Jay Electronica’s back from his globetrotting with Jay-Z and the two don’t disappoint. The album — whose cover features its title in Arabic — heavily focuses on their Islamic faith and how it’s guided their lives, with Jay-Z also focusing on his experience being a Black billionaire in America.
From comparing himself to ancient Mesopotamian gods on one line to Tupac spitting at paparazzi in the next, Jay Electronica has clearly not lost his flair for self-mythologization. However, Jay-Z’s massive stature and imposing personality often overshadow Jay Electronica; his lines are snappier on the braggadocious “Ghost of Soulja Slim,” and his verse on “Universal Soldier” is one of the tightest-wound on the album. Of course, Jay-Z’s charisma is hard to compete against: he basks in his billionaire status, asking, “Why would I sell out, I’m already rich, don’t make no sense.”
Jay Electronica makes up for his lack of punch with vivid verses, exploring his family’s financial struggles, insecurities of delivering an album worth the hype, and the evils he sees in the world around him: “My people out in Flint still bathin’ in the slaughter/ICE out here rippin’ families apart at the border.”
The album has many highlights, from a banging sample on “Ghost of Soulja Slim” and grandiose, near-orchestral production on “Silver Suit Theory.” Both Jays remind listeners they’re still well-connected in the streets on “Flux Capacitor,” and Jay Electronica’s closing verse on “A.P.I.D.T.A.” is equal parts heartwrenching ode to his late mother and somber acceptance of the inevitability of death: “Sleep well/The last time that I kissed you, you felt cold but you looked peaceful.”
Unfortunately, mediocre mixing limits some of the album’s best beats from breathing fully, and intentional or otherwise, the muddy distortion on some of the album’s best songs — “Ghost” is the most obvious example — plays to its detriment. It is also difficult to give Jay Electronica full credit given Jay-Z’s heavy involvement. Jay-Z appears on all but one of A Written Testimony’s songs, and on multiple occasions raps both the first verse and the hook.
But maybe that’s what a debut album a decade into your career should be. Jay Electronica has clearly demonstrated on A Written Testimony that, despite having appeared so sparingly throughout his career — he has nothing left to prove.