New Orleans rapper Jay Electronica is one of the greatest enigmas in the history of hip hop. He first came up in the mid-2000s with hits on MySpace. He then started dating singer Erykah Badu; the eccentricity of her partners after dating her has been the subject of memes in the hip-hop community. In 2009, he dropped “Exhibit C,” a not-so-cult classic of sorts that is — over a decade later — still way ahead of our time. Suddenly, everybody wanted a piece of Jay Electronica: Labels entered a bidding war for him, Jay-Z’s Roc Nation won out and then Electronica spent the next decade as a nutty Twitter grumbler with only leaked songs and loose singles to his name. Billboard asked, “What would it take for you to finally put the project out?” Electronica responded, “An album is something that was created by corporations as a product to make money.” The man’s been in the public consciousness for nearly 13 years, probably rapping in some form for almost twice that time, and — lo and behold — a debut album has arrived.
I never thought I’d see the day. HotNewHipHop actually wrote a timeline leading up to the release of A Written Testimony that spans over a decade. It’s been a long time coming. To the surprise of many, Jay-Z’s steadfast cosign materialized into a close musical collaboration. Though his vocals are uncredited, Jay-Z is on almost every track. Before listening, I had no idea which rapper would be struggling to keep up with the other. As it turns out, neither Jay struggles to keep up. Here, both rappers are neck-and-neck.
Jay Electronica’s bars are as tight on this record as they’ve been since the era of “Exhibit C,” deftly finishing English rhymes with Arabic, Spanish, Jamaican patois, even West African pidgin. Electronica raps, “But all praise due to Allah Subhanahu wa ta’ala / I put on for my nation like I’m King T’Challa / Crushing the oyibo that try to bring wahala.” It’s easy to get lost between the lines when each bar needs its own Google search to be broken down, but “wa ta’ala / King T’Challa / bring wahala” is as gratifying a rhyme scheme as they come.
Electronica’s lyrical-miracle-spiritual ecstasy can get hazy and convoluted. His infamous wordplay on his stage name from “Exhibit C” spawned a hilarious parody Twitter account that exposed how anything could sound like an Electronica line with complex enough rhymes. There are moments of clarity on this record when the song concept is straightforward and empathetic. They usually come from Jay-Z, like when he pours his heart out through the lines “I got numbers in my phone that’ll never ring again / ‘Cause Allah done called ‘em home, so until we sing again.” But these moments are too few and far between to ground the album, and their purpose remain airy and muddled. That being said, if I had to throw a party for linguistics majors, A Written Testimony would make it on the playlist.
Even if the album’s concept is in the air, it has a handful of truly unique tracks, among them “The Blinding” with Travis Scott. It’s the only track where Jay-Z and Jay Electronica go bar-for-bar, a dynamic so killer that it’s a shame the two aren’t trading bars all over the album. In a landscape of hip hop where it’s growing more and more difficult to have production that stands out from the rest — everyone has a killer producer in their pocket — “The Blinding” stands out for its haunting vocal samples and unforgiving, blaring bassline. Fortunately, Electronica had four killer producers in his pocket for this beat.
Jay-Z may be featured on almost every track, but it’s clear why his vocals are uncredited. This is a Jay Electronica album through and through. It’s an album rooted in Islam and the Five Percenters movement. It’s rooted in Electronica’s infatuation with the spiritual and the intangible, with culture, philosophy and history. In this realm, Jay-Z is a guest. He may be one of the hip-hop greats, but his bars remain sharp out of necessity to keep up with a meticulous writer like Electronica.
I’m a sucker for complex rhymes, I’m a sucker for unconventional beats and I’m a sucker for Jay Electronica’s whole schtick, I’ll admit it. Still, A Written Testimony doesn’t sit well with me. “The Neverending Story” is interesting enough only for an interlude, but it’s over four minutes long. On “Flux Capacitor,” Both rappers (especially Jay-Z) sound totally off, like their verses are on top of the wrong track. One of best songs, “Shiny Suit Theory,” is a decade-old relic from the era of peak Electronica hype. Aside from the standouts, most songs just sort of meander. But that’s natural. “Meandering” sums up Jay Electronica’s whole career, and somewhere on that long walk toward this debut album, he strayed too far from the creative focus that founded his fame.