“Trying to find the meaning of life in a Corona…” — Jay Electronica, “Exhibit C”
“And 2020 hindsight is so euphoric…” — Jay Electronica, “Letter to Fallon”
On Thursday night, one of rap’s longest journeys came to an end. It came, rare in this world, as a happy ending: Jay Electronica, 13 years after first teasing his debut album, emerged from the ether and released A Written Testimony.
There was nothing quite like the anticipation preceding this album in the history of recorded music. Jay’s momentum crested at the end of the 2000s after releasing his classic single “Exhibit C,” and the man responded to mind-boggling levels of hype by… disappearing. A full decade passed without anything substantial.
Faithful fans on the nearly 6,000-page KanyeToThe forum thread about Jay Electronica’s album speak of being in high school when they first heard “Exhibit C” and now being 30 years old and married with kids. After so long a wait, and so much hype, any album that wasn’t the greatest of all time would feel like a disappointment.
The peculiar history of the album fits with the bizarre circumstances of its release. It comes at a time that feels like the end of times. But it’s arrived, in the eye of a worldwide pandemic, and that feels unreal. The only disappointment now is that the long wait which defined our fandom—and sometimes us—is over.
Jay has built an eclectic camp over the years—featuring Erykah Badu, Michael Chavarria, Jason Goldwatch, and the British aristocracy—but A Written Testimony is a firm marriage between two nations: the Nation of Islam and Roc Nation. The album heavily guest-stars JAY-Z, à la Ghostface Killah on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, and frequently alludes to the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan.
While some will bemoan the arguable GOAT’s presence—wanting more of the lead artist on every track—I don’t think this should be mistaken as laziness on Jay Electronica’s part. Jay Electronica has always been a showman: a presenter of rare and mysterious samples, content to appear on his own tracks barely. In the early 2010s leaks of the first version of his debut album, he would often let long historical recordings begin the records, giving his words scarcity and weight. To replace that formula in A Written Testimony with original JAY-Z verses feels like a massive flex.
A Written Testimony makes clear that while Jay predicted his absence, it wasn’t necessarily planned. “Extra, extra, it’s mister headlines / Who signed every contract and missed the deadlines,” Jay Elec raps in “The Blinding.” Whereas much of his previous work was forward-facing, prophesying the release of the album, A Written Testimony adheres to the shape of its cover art: a sound-wave, a growth, a reflection. The release of the album finally gives Jay the space to reflect on his critical wounds: “Sometimes I was held down by the gravity of my pen / Sometimes I was held down by the gravity of my sin / Sometimes like Santiago, at crucial points of my novel / My only logical option was to transform into the wind.”
Make no mistake; A Written Testimony is a testament to Islam. Whereas Jay Electronica once straddled the world between The Nation of Gods and Earths—better known as Five Percent Nation, a hugely influential ideology on hip-hop—and the Nation of Islam, he seems to have wholly devoted himself to the latter religion—“If you want to be a master in life, you must submit to a master” doesn’t sound like something a Five Percent God would say. The mantle of self-aggrandizement is instead picked up by JAY-Z and his jewelry (lessons, not gold.)
However, Jay Electronica’s reverence to Farrakhan and Elijah Muhammad—and his proselytizing of their teachings—raises the stakes of the album. It establishes Jay Electronica as Farrakhan’s emissary in hip-hop and gives all praise to Allah, and any review that neglects to mention this is missing an essential facet. There is a lot more to be said about this, and I hope the appropriate scholars can do so soon.
A Written Testimony is left-field. Some songs, like “Fruits of the Spirit,” have arrangements so simple they could have been recorded on GarageBand; others, like the clear single “The Blinding” featuring Travis Scott, show more atomic masterwork. The result feels like a well-fashioned, if sometimes frustrating, work of art.
Some will declare A Written Testimony a disappointment. They are going to say that we deserved more than 10 songs, that we needed to hear more Jay Electronica, that it sounds like JAY-Z is off-beat in the hook for “Flux Capacitor.” We asked for the greatest album of all-time, and there is no way that this album—that any album—could deliver on that expectation.
But the important thing to remember is that Jay Electronica delivered. He dropped more new verses at one time than ever before; lush and labyrinthine, their allusions need further review, to learn more about what to learn—books to read, movies to watch, scripture to study. While Jay intimated on social media that he recorded the album in only 40 days, several of the songs have been teased for years in instrumentals on his Instagram or YouTube, and it’s a relief to receive them.
2020 hindsight is indeed euphoric. Jay posted for years that the album was coming “soon”—and it was, if one looks at it from a world-historical perspective, instead of the 24-hour news cycle frenzy. There certainly were moments of doubt. But he came back for his fans. He didn’t give up on himself, nor did he renege on his word to Roc Nation. That’s worth something. A lot.
A Written Testimony is a fascinating album, whose highlights dwarf its lows, and is different than anything released in the near-past or future. That’s a lot more than you can say for most projects. It would have been nice to hear more Jay Electronica, and, with some songs only containing one verse of his, it still leaves us a little hungry. But, as Jay calls the fourth track, it’s a “neverending story.”
And at this point, as we should definitively realize for this artist, Jay’s always got one more trick up his sleeve.