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Many of us thought this day would never come.
After a decade of false-starts and delays, Jay Electronica’s debut album, A Written Testimony, has finally arrived. On the project’s eighth song, “Fruits of the Spirit,” the 43-year-old rapper references his long journey in an extremely fitting manner: “Swing low sweet chariot/My train is on schedule/But I had to take the underground railroad like Harriet/Weaved the whole industry/Every job I parried it/My Cross I carry it/Wore my crown of thorns to Calvary from Nazareth.”
The album tracklist includes two credited features, Travis Scott and The-Dream, but the real treat here is that JAY-Z shows up on nearly every song. Jay Elec wasn’t playing around when he tweeted, “My debut album featuring Hov man this is highway robbery.”
A Written Testimony is a densely constructed album, full of subtle nuances that are waiting to be unpacked over the following weeks and months, so we’ll dive into it more deeply in our full review (coming soon). But for now, we couldn’t help ourselves from sharing ten things that jumped out after a first listen. Here are 10 initial takeaways from Jay Electronica’s long-awaited debut album, A Written Testimony.
The JAY-Z rumors were true
Leading up to the release of A Written Testimony, rumors circulated that it would be a quasi-joint album between Jay Electronica and his Roc Nation boss, JAY-Z. When the tracklist first emerged on Thursday evening, Hov’s name was nowhere to be found, however, temporarily dampening our hopes for a Watch the Throne-style collab album. But when Jay Elec finally played the project on a livestream Thursday evening, we heard JAY on eight of the 10 songs. So, in the middle of a global pandemic, on Friday the 13th of all days, the universe momentarily corrected itself and blessed us with the release of a long-mythologized album that now doubles as a joint project with Hov! It will be fascinating to hear the story behind how this all went down. Did JAY-Z realize that the only way a Jay Elec album would ever actually be finished is if he jumped in and filled in all the holes with verses of his own? Or did JAY just feel like getting some bars off, and Jay Elec was the only one who made sense to call? Maybe this was part of a larger plan from JAY to shift the narrative back to music after months of NFL-related controversy? For now, all we know is that it exists, and these two work even better in tandem than we could have hoped. —Eric Skelton
Jay Electronica still has it
When an artist as talented as Jay Electronica pushes their debut album back for a decade, people will have questions. Did he wake up one morning and just forget how to rap? Is this a Space Jam-type situation where some alien force came and stole all his talent, leaving him as a shell of himself? Nope. It’s still a bit of a mystery why the hell it took him so long to release an album, but now we know it wasn’t because he lost any of his abilities as a rapper. He’s as sharp as he’s ever been on A Written Testimony. Similar to how he first blew us away with early breakout songs like “Exhibit C,” Jay Elec still plays with words in a way that’s completely unique. Who else would rap, “Ass shots and stripper poles for the eyes of my daughter,” literally one bar after rhyming about Palestine and ICE?! After waiting this long, our expectations were sky-high, but this man managed to live up to the hype by rolling through with left-field bars like, “Spread love like Kermit the Frog/That permeate the fog/I’m at war like the Dukes of Hazard against the bosses of the hogs.” Who else thinks of shit like that, then delivers it with such powerful confidence? Whether he’s rapping about Islam or the Muppets, it’s now very clear: Jay Elec still has it. —Eric Skelton
Jay Elec visited his hometown, and took Hov along
“I represent New Orleans,” Jay Electronica raps on “Ezekiel’s Wheel.” And he means it. The rapper’s hometown of New Orleans is a character on the album. Lil Elt’s “Get the Gat,” a city classic that made it all the way to the White House, gets a Hov interpolation on “Flux Capacitor.” And that same track finds Jay Elec quoting “Get the Gat”’s list of the city’s housing projects—a true bounce music tradition. Most crucially, there’s “Ghost of Soulja Slim,” where both rappers pay tribute to a New Orleans icon sadly cut down in his prime. And JAY-Z nods to N.O. icons the Hot Boys on “Universal Soldier”: “Hot boy like B.G.” Jay Elec may have gone from the Magnolia projects to balling with Rothschilds, but he’ll never forget where he came from. —Shawn Setaro
They haven’t forgotten their Lessons
Jay and JAY drop some serious knowledge on A Written Testimony. Jay Elec is a longtime supporter of the Nation of Islam, and even wore the uniform of the NOI’s elite Fruit of Islam group onstage at the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival in 2014. JAY-Z, for his part, has shown an affinity for a related group, the Nation of Gods and Earths (sometimes known as the Five Percenters), and actually wore a pendant featuring the group’s “7 and a crescent” universal flag while he was promoting Magna Carta Holy Grail—a pendant that he presented to Jay Elec at that same BK performance.
So with that bond, it makes sense that AWT would feature no shortage of righteousness, and it doesn’t disappoint. In fact, the very first voice heard on the album is that of NOI leader Louis Farrakhan, and Hov’s first line mentions the Gods and Earths by name. Things continue from there, with Jay Elec even coining the phrase “the Roc Nation of Islam” to describe their partnership. The Mother Plane, an important part of NOI doctrine, gets referenced on “The Blinding” (“That wheel inside the wheel, a half a mile in circumference”), as does another key NOI teaching, the Lost Tribe of Shabazz. And when Jay Elec claims to be “loyal to Elijah” on “Ezekiel’s Wheel” (the title of which is itself another reference to the Mother Plane), that’s of course Elijah Muhammad, who led the NOI for over four decades. To get all of the references to NOI and NoGE ideas will undoubtedly take years’ worth of listening and study, but somewhere, Master Fard Muhammad and Allah the Father (the latter of whom Jay Elec references by name on “Shiny Suit Theory”) are smiling, knowing that their Lessons and Actual Facts are being repped—and rapped—by two of the best artists of our time. —Shawn Setaro
The album takes in the entire history of rap
Jay Electronica was a middle school kid during rap’s Golden Age. He was in high school when bounce music began and rap as a whole had a commercial explosion in the early ‘90s. So it makes sense that his album would take in nearly the entirety of hip-hop’s history. Jay Elec puts his own spin on a famous couplet from Biggie’s “Juicy” on “Flux Capacitor”—a line which is itself a nod to the 1984 novelty song “Rappin’ Duke,” in a brilliant cross-generational moment. In “Ezekiel’s Wheel,” Jay references Public Enemy’s 1988 classic “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” a song about a jailbreak that has only grown more timely in this age of mass incarceration. And of course, there’s the album’s frequent tips of the hat to classic songs and artists from Jay’s hometown of New Orleans—see above for much more on that. But it’s not only classic artists who get the nod. Vince Staples shows up in the list of references as well, showing that history is still being made today. —Shawn Setaro
JAY-Z shifts his focus, but keeps his style
JAY-Z appears on nearly every song on A Written Testimony, making it the first time we’ve gotten to hear from him at length since 2018’s Everything Is Love. And he makes the most of it. His subject matter runs the gamut, from quoting Nietzsche to defending his NFL deal; from Five Percenter lingo and Assata Shakur shoutouts to boasts about his wealth to worries about civilizational collapse. The varying subject matter is balanced by a stylistic consistency. Hov, as ever, has his you’ll-probably-miss-them-the-first-time puns and wordplay (there’s a great one involving “Backstabber” by the O’Jays that we won’t spoil for you). His delivery is as smooth as it’s ever been. And his use of space, most notably at the end of “Ghost of Soulja Slim,” is as unexpected and powerful as it was back in his mid-’90s freestyles. —Shawn Setaro
Jay Elec produced over half the album himself
Jay Electronica, powerhouse producer? A Written Testimony features production from AraabMuzik, Hit-Boy, Swizz Beatz, The Alchemist, No I.D., Khruangbin, and G. Ry, but half of those credits exist on a single track (“The Blinding”). Instead of relying on a bunch of beats from A-list producers, Jay Elec actually chose to handle the production himself, earning the sole credit on six of the album’s 10 songs. And this works to great effect. He sets the tone with two cinematic opening songs, “The Overwhelming Event” and “Ghost of Soulja Slim,” before self-producing what might be the album's strongest three-song run: "Shiny Suit Theory," "Universal Soldier," and "Flux Capacitor." As mentioned above, no one raps quite like Jay Elec does, and it’s now apparent that he’s also uniquely equipped to lay down the perfect musical backdrop to his own vocals. —Eric Skelton
Just Blaze is absent
While it was cool to see that Jay Electronica took a lead role in the production on A Written Testimony, it was a little disappointing that Just Blaze didn’t nab at least one production credit on the album. Sure, Just Blaze’s production was never promised, but considering the pair’s history throughout the years, it was expected by most day-one fans. Jay Elec and Blaze previously collaborated on 2009’s “Exhibit A (Transformations)” and “Exhibit C.” Blaze also alluded to his involvement with the album in several interviews over the years. In September 2015, he confirmed that he had a “pretty-nearly finished version of it in my phone.” Maybe he’ll show up on the next one. —Jessica McKinney
Hov references his NFL controversy
On “Flux Capacitor,” JAY addresses critics who have accused him of selling out to work with the NFL on a joint venture with Roc Nation. “Why would I sell out, I’m already rich, don’t make no sense,” he raps. “Got more money than Goodell, a whole NFL bench/Did it one-handed like Odell/Handcuffed to a jail/I would’ve stayed in sideline/If they gonna tackle, they cheat themselves.” It could be argued that his bars leave more questions than answers about this deal, but telling listeners that he has more money than NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, is a flex we can’t deny. —Jessica McKinney
It ends on a perfect note
We all know Jay Electronica and JAY-Z are extremely technically proficient rappers. But what makes someone a truly great rapper is the ability to pair those skills with a little humanity. And that’s exactly what they accomplish on the album’s final song, “A.P.I.D.T.A.” During the livestream on Thursday, Jay Elec revealed that they recorded the track on the night that Kobe Bryant died. As mournful guitars from Khruangbin drift along in the background, you can feel the somber mood of the day weighing heavily on each rapper as they process the reality of death. “I got numbers in my phone that’ll never ring again ’cause Allah done sent them home, and they'll never—uh,” JAY raps, focusing on a very tangible fact that exists after a death in 2020. Then, Jay Elec spits, “The day my momma died, I scrolled her texts all day long,” referencing the recent death of his own mother, which likely took place in September 2019. After 35 minutes of hitting us over the head with intricate, high-level raps, each of these guys were bold enough to open up emotionally about a very sensitive topic. And they did it with all kinds of poise. “A.P.I.D.T.A.” is the perfect closing track to a great album. —Eric Skelton