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On the morning of December 22, 2009, Jay Electronica went on Angela Yee’s satellite radio show to announce that his debut album, Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn), would drop on Christmas. This announcement coincided with the commercial release of “Exhibit C,” the expansive, Billy Stewart-flipping salvo that he’d debuted on the same radio show a couple months prior. Jay had settled on cover art for the single: a photo of Nikola Tesla perched calmly under a burst of electricity. This seemed appropriate: the master, unbothered, slipping into prayer while the world fractured around him. This strange, self-assured nomad from New Orleans had slept on trains and scrounged for Greyhound tickets and was finally here, on the precipice.
That same night, December 22, Lil B released 6 Kiss online, as sure a signal as any that the next decade in rap would mark a jagged break from the one before. The 2010s would not be spent searching for the heir to Nas and Jay-Z who could rap over Just Blaze and Dilla and channel the pioneers; they would be spent watching Future bend technology to wrap around his heartbreak, Chief Keef and Young Thug search for the outer bounds of formal structure, B and his descendents scoff at the notion of structure all together. Even the classicist lane was filled by Kendrick Lamar, a technical wizard with a flair for myth. You would be forgiven for believing the vacuum was filled.
As you may know, Act II never came out. At first there were promised releases and sheepish delays, and then there was silence. Jay signed to Roc Nation, dropped a single with Jay-Z and another where Puff ad-libbed between the verses. There were leaks, allegedly from Act II. Jay Electronica, whose raw stated ambition, supernatural skill, and rolodex made with voodoo seemed to prime him for some sort of greatness, vanished into thin air. (In Jay’s case, “thin air” occasionally meant “the British tabloids who documented the way be broke up the marriage of a Rothschild heiress.”)
Things were mostly quiet until, earlier this year, he tweeted: “Recorded over 40 days and 40 nights…”
He said to wait 40 more days; in the meantime the plagues came. (My first listen was spent walking the perimeter of a grocery store that had been completely ransacked.) Billed as his debut album, A Written Testimony pairs Jay Electronica with Jay-Z over eight full songs, seven of them new, plus a ninety-second solo sketch. It is not the monumental debut that many had come to expect—not like ones modeled in this century by Kendrick or 50 Cent, hyper-conscious of the narrative shoes into which they’d stepped. Testimony often aspires to have that kind of gravity, but it’s slight by design and short on the kind of long form personal biography that canonical rap classics often traffic in. It’s expertly executed, but doesn’t capture the breadth, the eccentricity, the sheer strangeness of the Jay Electronica songs that were released or leaked ten to fifteen years ago. What could?
Like nearly all the Jay Electronica music that came before it, Testimony wades, and at times dives, into scripture. Here, though, these undercurrents flow mostly toward the idea of a prophecy fulfilled, which is seldom as interesting as the one that’s promised.
When Testimony does break new ground, it does so by mining the anxious depths Jay hinted at in never-finished demos like “Dear Moleskine.” “The Blinding” ends with a verse that begins, “Extra extra, it’s Mr. Headlines / Who signed every contract and missed the deadlines.” Jay goes on to explicate the dread he often felt at the prospect of finally releasing an album, and the conversation with Jay-Z that finally lured him to do so. He recalls late nights spent tinkering with rhymes in the blue glow of a TV screen, and how when “I lay down in my bed it’s like my head is in a vice.”
That tense, unbroken string of admissions is gripping in part because it’s in such stark contrast to most of his past work. Artists are not typically the best diagnosticians of their own work, but on “Swagger Jackson’s Revenge,” a terse exercise released during the first Obama campaign, Jay Electronica rapped,
“If anybody ask you who I be
Say, ‘A painter with a felt pen, who drew Ali.’”
The comparison to Warhol made sense: in his writing, Jay loves to reduce historical or cultural figures to their iconographic essences, then bleed those for his own purposes. Jay’s rhymes, full of allusion to rappers and rap songs of the past, were also in conversation with the Malcolms and Martins and JFKs and Jackies, or more specifically with the way Americans had abstracted those people into myth.
The phrase ‘drew Ali’ also functions as a pun on the name of Noble Drew Ali, the founder of the Moorish Science Temple of America—a typical tic. Though he is circumspect about the timeline or exact details of his personal life, Jay at some point in his early 20s became a member of the Nation of Islam; Louis Farrakhan has in the past defended him from criticism. Jay’s music has long been studded with references not only to the Quran but to the Black Muslim and Five Percenter cultures that have shaped many American cities—and have permeated rap since its beginnings. This provided a kind of lingua franca for Jay and his high-profile collaborators in the early days. When, on “Exhibit B,” Yasiin Bey vowed to “put your yard up on knowledge like the lessons do,” it served not only to ground the song in a particular perspective, but to pinpoint the aesthetic school that Jay was coming from as a rapper.
In the past, when Jay filled in the details of the corporeal world, he did so in jarring, disjointed bursts: fishing rods for the Bayou, bean pies sold on the side of the road, blinking cursors in empty Gmail windows, $2,000 checks from FEMA. As a writer, he has a remarkable control of tone, and of rhythm; elsewhere on “Swagger” he monotones a laundry list of harebrained theories (“pentagrams, pyramids, conspiracies with goat heads”) before he stops abruptly on the one that is not like the others: “Knock down the levees.” This becomes a series of instructions. “Knock down the projects / Start another project / Build another object.” From there, he’s constructing a new world: of Audi ads, minimum sentencing laws, folks “lulled to sleep by Tom Brokaw.” What a pity, he cracks. The hope on a politician’s tongue never, ever trickles down to the city.
A Written Testimony does not have so outward a focus. Many of the album’s most interesting passages, like “The Blinding,” are about what’s happening in between Jay’s ears; on the gorgeous, Alchemist-produced “The Neverending Story,” the “earthquakes, fires, and plagues” are merely the backdrop for a long Ducati ride to the desert, Serge Gainsbourg in headphones. Even when he invokes a famous picture of “Mr. Shakur spitting out phlegm at paparazzi,” Jay makes it sound more like a shift in mindset than a scuffle that might happen in the flesh.
The first voice you hear on A Written Testimony is Louis Farrakhan’s. The second is Farrakhan’s, too. The third vocal—the first from this century—is not Jay Electronica’s, but Jay-Z’s. You could compare Hov’s presence here to Ghostface’s on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… or Snoop’s on The Chronic, but where those rappers were playing the peer and the protege, respectively, Shawn Carter here is something like a medium, yanking the headliner down from the spiritual plane and right onto the Tidal homepage.
Maybe he finds the task invigorating. With apologies to some of the therapy-intake data dump that was 4:44, this is the strongest collection of Jay-Z verses since 2007’s American Gangster. Sure, a lot of the flows seem cribbed from Mach-Hommy (the elusive Newark rapper who often hides his face, sells digital downloads of his albums for hundreds of dollars, and made some of the last decade’s most gripping rap music), and yes, there are goofy lapses into 1 percent defensiveness (he wonders why we’re mad at his billionairehood and not Andrew Carnegie’s; re: his NFL partnership, he offers a limp rebuttal: “Why would I sell out? I’m already rich”). But the elder Jay works well, as always, with an organizing idea. Here he raps knottily, slipping into the syntax and perspective of the Five Percenters like a nice hotel robe, taking advantage of the rhetorical latitude this roleplaying offers—there’s a great bit where Jay-Z raps about holding heat while the women in his life hold straightening combs.
It is also simply a joy to hear two men on the far side of 40 revel in the chance to interpolate the classics. For the hook on “Flux Capacitor,” Jay-Z channels Big Elt’s 1992 bounce classic “Get the Gat,” which in the last year has been resurrected as part of an online-video fad. (Jay Elec has been paying homage for much longer; from 2009’s “Exhibit A”: “Back in the early ‘90s, ‘Where they at, where they at,’ ‘Get the gat, get the gat’ was a popular phrase.”) This sort of reinterpretation has a loosening effect for both rappers, but also a semi-spiritual one; hip-hop has been self-reflexive from its beginning, and finding joy in an old groove is a tradition worth preserving.
Of course, not all the resurrection is so lighthearted. The first song on A Written Testimony is called “Ghost of Soulja Slim,” but it is not an elegy—it’s free, coy, vaguely Parisian. Soulja Slim, who grew up in the Magnolia Projects (and originally rapped as Magnolia Slim) is one of the few figures who played a historic role in both the labels that dominate the history of New Orleans hip-hop, Cash Money and No Limit. His solo music for No Limit was bright, vicious, propulsive—and at times unnervingly vulnerable, like when he would rap about respecting his plug’s refusal to over-supply him given his struggles with addiction. And he would eventually appear on “Slow Motion,” a duet with Juvenile that became Cash Money’s first No. 1 hit.
Soulja Slim did not live to see the top of the charts. In 2003, on the night before Thanksgiving, he was shot and killed on the front lawn of the house he’d bought his mother.
The Magnolia Projects were also the childhood home of Jay Electronica. Partway through his verse, when he’s already invoked the highest possible heavenly stakes—he quite literally begins “If it comes from me and Hov, consider it Quran / If it comes from any of those, consider it Haram”—Jay Elec breaks into a goofy version of Slim’s “You Got It,” practically grinning through the .wav file. This is the spiritual center of Jay Electronica’s work: the idea that moments of true enlightenment and whatever beats he could borrow off Dilla were equally holy. That his rabid desire to rap like Jay-Z was a quest for the soul, and that New York at the turn of the century was a decaying city on a hill—but also where he could go and realize all his dreams. At the core, finally, is the idea that if he was stopped on that quest by some divine force or a skeptical A&R from Warner, he could go back into the wilderness until he was ready to try again.
From The Devil Wears Prada to a sci-fi novel about bomber jackets.
Originally Appeared on GQ