The people have been hungry for new Jay Electronica music for more than a decade. Rappers have had full ass careers come and go in the time that Elec has kept the public waiting. He literally has rappers who would have dissed him on a record back in the Act 1 or even “Exhibit C” eras who are now saving their disses for their podcasts. The calls for Elec to return to rap, from everyone from Puff Daddy on down, have finally been heard. Despite the extremely lofty expectations for his hip hop homecoming Electronica did not disappoint with his new album A Written Testimony, thanks in great part to a friend he shares more than just a name with. While parables deep on KanyeToThe tell a tale that a new Jay Electronica album is a sign from God equal to the “locusts eating all your crops” of our era, and even though this album is undoubtedly a sign that this is an apocalypse we are in the midst of, Jay Electronica’s return is still welcome and grand as ever.
As we sit in our homes and apartments for an indeterminable amount of time, activities that take our minds and transport them elsewhere are more important than ever, and A Written Testimony can do that quite well. Not only does hearing Jay Z and Jay Electronica both rapping at the near top of their powers make you feel like you’re walking into a time machine, the two keep the stakes high and make the most banal things feel like matters of life and death. The intro track in fact uses a matter of life and death in its vocal sample to set the tone early. The words of Minister Farrakhan roll you over like a tidal wave, as his screed is equal parts enchanting and haunting. He proclaims that “The black people of America are the real children of Israel” and the passion of his voice will instill in your heart that those words are true. This album is serious and it’s intro immediately lets you know nobody involved in this project came to play. And all this is communicated with a simple vocal interlude, the tone has been set before we even get a taste of what we came for. The following track is an eruption where the twin Jay’s burst out of the sky and announce their arrival. They trade bars in peak form with Jay Z taking the lead. Jay Electronica deserves to be commended for doing something no artist has been able to do in years, as for the first time since Watch the Throne Jay-Z sounds hungry. Electronica raises the bar and does so bar after bar, so while Jay-Z is perfectly capable of reaching it he’s actually gotta put some effort in. Jay-Z’s first verse on “Ghost of Soulja Slim” shows exactly what a hungry Hov is still capable of. His first words are “Next time they bring up the gods they gone respect us” with the rest of the verse proving his point. The production on this track is exquisite as well. Dusty soul samples courtesy of the Alchemist run throughout the album, making it sound like wise men telling tales from the back bar of some establishment you gotta know someone to get into. Electronica follows Jigga on this track delivering some peak Nation of Islam bars. If you gave Malcom X a midi this is not far from what he would come up with. The sheer scale of this album is really put into perspective by the following track “The Blinding”. Here Travis Scott’s warble is reduced to a simple vocal flourish taking up no longer than 10 seconds. The fact that one of the biggest rappers in the game today is an accessory to these titans comes off like a statement even if it is unintentional.
“The Blinding” is the opposite side of the coin to cuts like “Ghost”. The maximalist production on “Ghost” is a switch up to keep things from getting stale. It features constant references to other veterans of the rap game telling Electronica he simply NEEDS to rap, if not for him than for his family he could easily provide for. Bless them for continuously urging him to deliver this to the people, as these boasts are some of the hardest and most interesting bars of the album. The twin Jay’s continue to push the ball forward over some psychedelic production that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Beatles B-Side. Electronica is referential when he needs to be but more often than not just reminds you of the simple facts of life between references to scripture that support his first person fables. Jay-Z takes some time to appreciate the beauty of the black form and tear down the tools used to “fix” it. Moments like this come off very genuine and are what make this album sound like an engaging lecture more than a collection of bars. “Shiny Suit Theory” is one of many tracks on this project to feature an audience applauding as a production flourish. While many would scoff at the self-congratulatory nature of this at their level it has a different air to it, almost feels appropriate. The production on this track sounds like a late night talk show jingle where either artist could either be there to banter on the couch or perform. Electronica spits words of wisdom from his shrink and from a guru-esque Puff Daddy, recounting their interaction, “Me and Puff we was chilling in Miami he said nigga fuck the underground you need to win a Grammy for your Momma and your family”, really bringing into focus Electronica’s constant struggle between sticking to his roots and elevating. In 2020 what does it really mean to sell out? Can you ever have control of who listens to your music and limit it only to who you deem “real”? The short answer is no so that begs the question why hide yourself and your potential. This is what Puff and many of Electronica’s peers have been asking him for damn near two decades.
Unfortunately the boys fumbled the bag slightly as “Flux Capacitor” is one of the only parts of the album that truly misses. If there’s one thing I didn’t expect 2020 to bring me it was Jay-Z singing a TikTok song. Jay-Z is at his worst when he foolishly tries and fails to replicate the youth, and is at his best when he accepts his place as a mentor. Jay-Z repeating “Get the gat” was more than a little cringe-worthy but at least it was only the intro to a track that was solid in-between the annoying hooks. “Fruits of the Spirit” follows and it’s a vibe changer. It immediately shoots us back into what Electronica does best, old man raps for black fathers who wear beanies with brims. Electronica for one gets to rap solo on the shortest track on the project. The sample is warm like chicken soup and lets Electronica do his magic. Elec absolutely snaps on this track, educating his listeners while rapping his ass off with bi-lingual social commentary. I also will go on record saying I think he’s the first rapper to drop some solid pro-Palestine bars in 2020 and hopefully he starts a trend.
The twin Jay’s project closes with a burst of raw emotion. “A.P.I.D.T.A.” features both Jay’s at their most somber. Hov’s repetition of the fact he’s got numbers in his phone that will never call again reminded me of Mac Miller’s timeless shout: “Everybody got dead homies”. In this trying time tell your homies whether that be family, friends, or whoever how you truly feel cause you never know when you won’t be able to. Loss leaves severe mental scars and on this track both Jay’s show us the full extent of those horrid marks. I will never get enough of rappers speaking on mental issues in a respectful way in rap. Because if you keep what’s eating away at you private it will destroy you. This project is an exercise in everything from honesty to faith to family. I’ll conclude with a line from Electronica that I believe sums up the project as well as anything can, “It’s so good right cause it’s needed”. Now let’s make sure to appreciate it before the world ends.