Who takes ten years to release their debut album? Jay Electronica. Recently, we’ve seen more and more artists (Summer Walker, H.E.R., Megan Thee Stallion, etc.) play the game and release a series of projects, often labeled as commercial mixtapes or EPs, before releasing their “official” debut album. Jay Electronica took that a step forward with just five non-mixtape singles before A Written Testimony, his first official album. In the years leading up to Testimony, Jay Electronica has kept us fed with excellent guest verses like the one on Chance the Rapper‘s “How Great” and Big Sean‘s “Control.” On A Written Testimony Jay Electronica partially embraces the spotlight with a 40-minute rumination on religion and black politics (let the hotep jokes ring!), but the innumerable Jay-Z verses double as a hindrance and an asset.
A Written Testimony is a dense piece of work. In the vein of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, the best album of the last decade, and Jay-Z’s 4:44, the album is packed with complex lyricism, intricate flows, and production so layered it sounds like five songs at the same time. On most of the album, Jay Elec concerns himself with the horrors of the world and general black political and religious theory. The vastness of the album’s themes dictate the swirling spaciousness of the album’s overall production. With its lack of drums and favoring of chopped up samples, A Written Testimony sets itself apart thematically, lyrically, and musically. Only two songs on the album have a true sense of urgency about them: “Shiny Suit Theory,” a nearly decade-old tune, and “The Blinding” which features a strong hook from Travis Scott and an constantly evolving beat. For an artist who harped on and on about how an album was a “false concept,” there was clearly a lot of intent in how these ten songs were structured and sewn together.
The album opens with a speech from Louis Farrakhan. The minister and political activist preaches about how “the black people of America are the real Children of Israel” over organ and bass; it’s all a very solemn, if not militant, affair. Interestingly, we don’t get to hear from Jay Elec until halfway through the album’s second track, “Ghost of Soulja Slim,” a problem we’ll come back to later. On “Soulja Slim,” dips into a New Orleans bounce-flow (the title is an homage to Soulja Slim, a rapper and songwriter from the same Magnolia Projects as Jay Electronica) and shows off his enviable wordplay: “from a hard place and a rock to the Roc Nation of Islam/I emerged on the wave that Tidal made to drop bombs.” Other standouts include, “Flux Capacitor” the howling tornado of track built on a sample of Rihanna’s ANTI deep cut, “Higher,” “The Blinding,” and “Universal Soldier.” The songs are impressive because although they tackle such layered and intellectual topics, they still feel personal. Lyrically, Jay slips into Spanish, Arabic, Pidgin, and more, light examples of his worldliness. Jay Elec self-produced or helped produce every track on the album; all of that care and diligence is apparent in every chord of A Written Testimony.
On a solo album, it is very important that the main artist has the dominant voice on the record. Even albums with countless collaborators, like Kanye West‘s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, still hold the primary artist at the center of all the action. With debut albums this is all the more important. Quite frankly, it is a bit frustrating that Jay Electronica is the third voice we hear on his own debut album. My Written Testimony features enough Jay-Z guest verses to call it a collab album. On 4:44, Jay tapped into parts of his psyche and heart that were previously absent from his music by virtue of age and experience. With his guest verses on A Written Testimony, he takes that raw emotional energy and turns it into something more erudite and cerebral, but he doesn’t lose that sense of the allure that makes him so special. The sneer of Reasonable Doubt-era Hov comes out to play with lines like “Why would I sell out? I’m already rich, don’t make no sense/ Got more money than Goodell, a whole NFL bench” and “Did it one-handed like Odell handcuffed to a jail / I would’ve stayed on the sidelines if they could’ve tackled the shit themselves.” Jay is passionate and defensive, but there’s still that inimitable cool about his delivery that makes every verse pitch perfect. Arguably, Jay-Z outshines Jay Electronica on his own album. As impressive as these verses are, you can’t help but think that Jay Electronica either robbed himself of his crowning moment or he just couldn’t commit to fully stepping into the spotlight.
A Written Testimony is a very strong album. It definitely did not live up to the ten-year hype, but then again, no album could. Jay Electronica didn’t need to prove his abilities as a rapper, by any means, however, he did prove that he doesn’t crumble under the pressure of an “official debut album.” This is easily one of the best records of the year so far (it’s been a slow year for music, so take this lightly), but at times the album feels incomplete in the sense that Jay Electronica’s main guest artist brought more heart to this album than he did.
Key Tracks: “The Blinding”; “Ghost of Soulja Slim”; “Flux Capacitor”