Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Jay Electronica A Written Testimony

Jay Electronica never wanted to make an album. This much is clear. He let us know over and over again. “An album is a false concept anyway,” he told Billboard in 2017. “An album is something that was created by corporations as a product to make money.” Anytime anyone asked Jay Electronica when his album would be out, they got an answer like that. Maybe he’d say that he was working on the album. Maybe he just wouldn’t say anything at all. But the substance was clear: It wasn’t happening anytime soon. It might never happen.

He also told us through reticence. It’s been almost 13 years since Jay Elec released Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge), a 15-minute mixtape, posted on MySpace, where he rapped over excerpts from Jon Brion’s score from Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. With that mixtape, Jay Electronica made his name. Other than various assorted unofficial blog-era mixtapes, Act I was the closest thing to a full-length project that Jay Electronica had ever made until today. It’s also been over 10 years since “Exhibit C,” the utterly monstrous Just Blaze-produced single that immolated the rap-blog universe and briefly made Jay Elec the most exciting rapper on the face of the planet. The obvious move would’ve been to rush out a full-length as quickly as possible after “Exhibit C” made its impossible-to-measure impact. Jay Electronica wasn’t interested.

For a few years after “Exhibit C,” every new Jay Elec verse felt like an event. That faded, eventually — a process probably helped along in 2013, when Big Sean released “Control” and Jay Elec became one more victim of Kendrick Lamar’s murderous rampage. On “Ezekiel’s Wheel,” the penultimate track from his somehow-finally-here debut album A Written Testimony, Jay Elec spells it out for us: “Some ask me ‘Jay, man, why come for so many years you been exempt?’/ Cuz familiarity don’t breed gratitude, just contempt/ And the price of sanity is too damn high, just like the rent.” He mutters for a second, like he couldn’t figure out how to end that line. Then he returns, poetically, to the question: “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.” He’s been the wind for a long time. Maybe he was happy being the wind.

In some ways, A Written Testimony is a concept album about Jay Electronica not wanting to make an album. Whenever Jay Elec isn’t talking about ancient wisdom or Islamic scripture, he’s discussing his own reluctance to venture into the spotlight. He calls himself “Mr. Headlines, who signed every contract and missed the deadlines.” He talks about his hype, regarding his supposed promise with a mixture of suspicion and depression: “When I look inside the mirror, all I see is flaws/ When I look inside the mirror, all I see is Mars/ In the wee hours of night, tryna squeeze out bars/ Bismillah, just so y’all could pick me apart?” (Mars is Jay Elec’s daughter with Erykah Badu. Bismillah is the Arabic expression that means “in the name of God.”)

It’s been this way for a long time. The first voice on Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) is Just Blaze, telling a story about trying to get Jay Elec to stop overthinking things and “just make music.” On “Exhibit C,” Jay was rapping about all the big-name rap luminaries trying to get him to hurry up and make music. This has been happening. A Written Testimony, it seems fair to say, is a passion-project album. It’s just that it’s not Jay Electronica’s passion-project album. It’s somebody else’s. From all appearances, Jay-Z made this album happen.

Jay-Z raps on almost every song on A Written Testimony. It’s out on Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label. The first rapper that we hear on A Written Testimony — the first voice we hear, other than the sampled speeches of Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan — is Jay-Z. The last voice we hear is Jay-Z, too. On one song, Jay Electronica says, “Hov hit me up like, ‘What, you scared of heights?/ Know your sister tired of working, gotta do her something nice.'”

When Jay Electronica announced the existence of A Written Testimony, he said he’d recorded it “over 40 days and 40 nights.” One day, we’ll learn more about its creation. Right now, I’m picturing something like Richard Russell convincing Gil Scott-Heron to make one last album — to just head into the studio and say something. (Jay Electronica isn’t on death’s door, the way Gil Scott-Heron was, but he is 43 years old; 43-year-old rappers don’t often get to make impactful debut albums.) I’m picturing Jay-Z pushing A Written Testimony out into the world through sheer force of will. Jay-Z hasn’t put his name anywhere on A Written Testimony — he doesn’t even give himself the featured credits — but the LP is a Jay-Z collaborative album just as much as Watch The Throne or Everything Is Love.

Or maybe it’s more like The Irishman — Jay, like Al Pacino, stepping back and taking on a sometimes-showy supporting role, playing a part in his old friend’s story. The Jay-Z of A Written Testimony raps with the same plainspoken grace that he brought to 4:44. He’s mellow and reflective, and he never quite turns on his towering charm or his haughty disgust. Even when he’s in defensive-billionaire mode — a lyrical viewpoint that I have no time for at all — Jay-Z comes up with some truly elegant and memorable lines: “That guilt trip ain’t gon’ work, don’t put your luggage on we/ You ain’t keep the same energy for the DuPonts and Carnegies,” “Why would I sell out? I’m already rich, don’t make no sense/ Got more money than Goodell, a whole NFL bench.” Mostly, Jay projects assurance and serenity. He’s here to help.

A Written Testimony is Jay Electronica’s album, which means Jay Electronica is the focus. He never sounds entirely comfortable with that, but A Written Testimony still works as proof of concept. Jay Electronica really is a special rapper, a presence. He’s worthy of all that adulation. He has gravity. His rap voice is one of the best: A stentorian rumble, a gravelly in-control voice-of-God boom. He comes from New Orleans, and there are a few isolated moments where he lets that show through — as on “Ghost Of Soulja Slim,” where he briefly dips into a full-on New Orleans bounce-flow. (I think of it as the B.G. “My World (I Want It)” flow, but maybe B.G. got it from Soulja Slim.) Mostly, though, Jay Elec avoids regional specificity, using cadences from preachers and slam poets rather than other rappers.

This is by design. Jay Electronica produced most of the songs on A Written Testimony himself. He favors spectral and psychedelic beats. There aren’t a lot of drums on A Written Testimony. Instead, Jay Elec and his collaborators rely on flickering, swirling samples — tracks that never force him to stick to a specific meter. Most of the other producers — the Alchemist, No I.D., the Texan instrumental funk band Khruangbin — stick to that format. Only one track is hard in the conventional sense: “The Blinding,” with its hazy Travis Scott hook and its fast-shifting beat from the insane production team of AraabMuzik, G. Ry, Hit-Boy, and Swizz Beatz. A Written Testimony is a short album, and it uses most of its 39-minute runtime to drift contemplatively. That suits Jay Electronica’s approach just fine.

Jay Electronica wasn’t trying to make hits with this thing. The most urgent song on the album, “Shiny Suit Theory,” is nearly a decade old. Rather than aiming to rip apart the rap zeitgeist, the way he once did on “Exhibit C,” Jay Elec aims to create a mood. He succeeds. The music foregrounds Jay Electronica’s voice, which is always strong and defined and clearly legible, a rarity these days.

Jay Elec’s lyrics venture off into different languages, like Spanish or Arabic, and they demand to be written down and picked apart. Sometimes, those lyrics are mythic: “It’s the return of the lost and found tribe of Shabazz, the Annunakis/ It’s the return of Mr. Shakur, spitting out phlegm at paparazzi.” Sometimes, they’re playfully layered: “Spread love, like Kermit the Frog, that permeate the fog/ I’m at war, like the Dukes of Hazzard, against the bosses of the hogs.” Sometimes, they’re funny: “Jay Cirque du Soleilica/ I started on Tatooine, but now I’m way out in Dagobah.” Sometimes, they seem virtually meaningless but still sound amazing: “The dove Prince sang about in Purple Rain, crying/ To the midget you heard tale of, on the shoulders of the giant.”

This early, it’s hard to know whether A Written Testimony will hold up, wither the sense of electricity around it will continue to crackle. The songs on the album work less as songs, more as sensations. Jay Electronica will not seize the cultural discourse the way that his onetime upstager Lil Uzi Vert did last week. Maybe the album will come to sound flat and self-important and devoid of energy. But right now, with the world crumbling around us, a dense and heady Jay Electronica album is a blessing. When Jay Elec roars about the evils in the world — “My people out in Flint, still bathing in the slaughter/ ICE out here ripping families apart at the border/ Satan struck Palestine with yet another mortar” — it’s pure goosebump material. It’s what some of us needed to hear.

When Jay Electronica announced A Written Testimony last month, it seemed impossible — a thing that could not be. Right now, after a week of unrelenting cultural bottom-dropping-out vertigo, it’s a small miracle, a divine reassurance. Jay Electronica might’ve never wanted to make an album, but he did, and it’s great. It’s a decade late, and it’s right on time.

A Written Testimony is out now on Roc Nation.