A Decade Later, Jay Electronica's 'A Written Testimony' Is Right on Time

Jay Electronica
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Jay Electronica performs during 2018 Governors Ball Music Festival - Day 2 on June 2, 2018 in New York City. 

“Jay’s life philosophy is ‘my train is running on schedule.’ That’s how he lives his life.” 

Just Blaze’s comments on Jay Electronica’s long-delayed debut album, then called Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn), gave little insight into the mind of hip-hop’s elusive MC. By 2015, when Just Blaze did that interview with VladTV, Electronica already had a reputation -- and it wasn’t for arriving on time when it came to release dates.

Aside from Jay-Z and Jay Electronica himself, Just Blaze was the other reliable source for Act II updates. If you’re a true Jay Elec fan, you remember Just telling the story of how he met Jay on Act 1: The Eternal Sunshine (the Pledge) in the foreword with then-girlfriend Erykah Badu, recalling how impressed he was by his strategic thinking. “It was just every other day, he was just sending me back something crazy,” Just said. “So we just started to really develop a real tight relationship, almost like a brotherhood.”

Just not only connected with Jay like he was his brother, but also in a spiritual and artistic way. He believed Jay was a risk-taker, and someone who wanted to push culture forward, instead of repeating history. That bond produced “Exhibit A (Transformations)” and “Exhibit C” -- two autobiographical songs from 2009 that were circulated on the internet -- and he became one of the most talked about rappers with no commercial release to his credit.  

In every Just Blaze interview where he spoke about Jay Electronica’s album, it was a variation of the same answer: you might get it, you might not. Even though Just confirmed its existence (“I've got it right here in my pocket”), he continued to take Jay at his word when he said his train was running on schedule. Growing up in the Magnolia Projects in New Orleans, Electronica was known as a nomad, moving city to city in search of artistic fulfillment. Just when you think Jay’s train has finally reached its destination on his personal journey, he decides to continue on in an infinite loop. 

As Electronica told Billboard in 2017, he would only drop an album if Minister Louis Farrakhan told him to and if he was “at a place where I’m pleased with the offering.” He added that “an album is a false concept anyway” and that he wasn’t “really handcuffed to the concept of that.” Fans realized Act II was probably never coming after he shared a proposed tracklist that featured Ronald Reagan, Kanye West, and Puff Daddy. It was too good to be real.

So fans daydreamed about the possibilities behind his potential. Jay-Z’s prized signee, who Hov called a “wizard” at Manhattan’s The Box nearly ten years ago, couldn't find his moment. Yet, he still performed, created incredible live experiences, like the time he brought out the late Mac Miller, J. Cole, Talib Kweli, and Jay-Z at the 2014 Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, and maintained his relevance with loosies from his MySpace days and guest verses (Big Sean's “Control,” Miller's “Suplexes Inside Of Complexes and Duplexes”). 

Jay could have skated by without releasing an album for the rest of his career. But everybody knows a debut album provides the answer to the burning question every MC faces: Did you live up to the expectations? It cements a legacy, and for Jay, the unspoken pressure comes from delivering a project that gets him comfortable enough to drop another. On Feb. 7, 2020, Jay told his followers on Twitter that the album was done.

Recorded over 40 days and 40 nights, starting on Dec. 26, 2019, it was titled A Written Testimony and teased major contributions from Jay-Z. My debut album featuring Hov man, this is highway robbery,” he wrote, creating speculation that the duo made a Watch the Throne-style joint album. Once again, Just Blaze, a name you can trust, retweeted Electronica and asked his followers: “Are you watching closely?”

We were. Like every other time, we waited to see if it was true. On top of familiar feelings of disappointment, the general stress and anxiety around the Coronavirus disease affecting the world casted more doubt. There is no way Jay would drop something so important to him during the early height of a global pandemic. But maybe he was the light we needed right now. 

On March 12, 2020, TIDAL canceled Jay’s fan listening events that were supposed to be held in Los Angeles, New York, and New Orleans due to the growing impact of COVID-19 across the country. It encouraged us to tune into his livestream on YouTube and Instagram from the studio, while the nation was instructed to self-quarantine, watching Jay play the entire album from front to back. When the album hit TIDAL exclusively after midnight, listening with other Jay Elec heads felt like a shared experience – tweeting favorite bars, dissecting them, and praising the genuine chemistry between Jay-Z and Jay E. 

Just under 40 minutes, A Written Testimony drops during the streaming era, where a hip-hop album cycle can barely last a week. The rate of new releases is so high that listeners rarely sit with one album, digesting its meanings for a longer duration. But Jay Electronica is such a complicated artist and individual that A Written Testimony serves as a condensed history of him, layered with references to his New Orleans upbringing, his Muslim faith, and Allah’s blessings. It’s produced mostly by him, with contributions from people in the Roc Nation orbit: AraabMuzik, Hit-Boy, Swizz Beatz, The Alchemist, No I.D., Travis Scott, James Blake, James Fauntleroy, and The-Dream. Jay adds more to his growing nicknames, too, adding to “Jay Elec-Hanukkah, Jay Elec-Yarmulke” with Jay Electricity, Jay Cirque du Soleilica, and Jay Electollah Flomeini.

Jay-Z appears on eight out of ten songs, and his presence is welcome and needed. He completes Jay Electronica’s messages, coming into Elec's world with a level of vulnerability and sharpness that’s surprising for someone who just turned 50 and has been on top of the game nearly half his life. Among the lines that have made headlines already is Mr. Carter addressing his NFL deal, and claims that he sold out. “Why would I sell out? I'm already rich, don't make no sense/ Got more money than Goodell, a whole NFL bench/ Did it one-handed like Odell handcuffed to a jail/ I would've stayed on the sidelines if they could've tackled the s--t themselves,” he raps on “Flux Capacitor.”

“Shiny Suit Theory” appears on A Written Testimony, which is humorous since it was released almost a decade ago. In the context of the album though, Electronica’s verses feel timeless. The Puff Daddy story of them chilling in Miami together could have easily happened in 2020.

For new Jay Elec fans, it’s the lyrical content that matters. A motivational speech by Puff to win a Grammy someday and be the saving grace for the state of hip-hop can still happen: “You built a mighty high ladder, let me see you climb up/N---a, what you scared of?/Terrorize these artificial rap n---as and spread love, pollinate they earbuds/Like you supposed to, spit it for the culture.”

As Electronica describes, Hov is instrumental in helping him emerge from the depths of underground obscurity to harness his talent for a mass audience. Hov is like a mentor to Electronica, and you can tell that their relationship grew stronger over time. “From a hard place and a rock to the Roc Nation of Islam/ I emerged on the wave that Tidal made to drop bombs,” Electronica raps on “Ghost of Soulja Slim,” an homage to the late New Orleans legend. When the MC speaks on being a nonconformist, he owns it. He reminds everyone of his life philosophy again on “Fruits of the Spirit: “Swing low sweet chariot, my train is on schedule/ But I had to take the Underground Railroad like Harriet/ Weave the whole industry, every jab I've parried it.” 

In fact, some of the best parts of A Written Testimony are when Electronica is honest about his writing process. It pulls back the curtain on an artist who once blamed his substance abuse for going off track. “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 raps on “Ezekiel’s Wheel.” 

You could be like Chance the Rapper and spend hours on Genius deciphering lyrics while listening to A Written Testimony with your headphones on. But the true power of this album is its ability to heal during tragedy. For Electronica and Hov, when they learned about the passing of Kobe and Gianna Bryant, they wrote “A.P.I.D.T.A.” or “All Praise Is Due to Allah” that night in the studio. A song can relay similar feelings for someone that can’t express them on their own. Hov managed to sum up the pain of Kobe and Gianna’s loss with just a few lines: “I got numbers in my phone that'll never ring again/ 'Cause Allah done called 'em home, so until we sing again/ I got texts on my phone that'll never ping again/ I screenshot 'em so I got 'em, I don't want this thing to end.”

Electronica, who reportedly lost his mother last year, used Khruangbin’s calming production like a diary to pour his heart out. “I can't stop my mind from racing, I got numbers on my phone/ Pictures on my phone/ The day my mama died, I scrolled her texts all day long/ The physical returns but the connection still stay strong,” he raps. “A.P.I.D.T.A.” is one of the best songs of 2020 off of their exchange in energies alone two wise men working out the emotional burden of death and its consequences together.

There is no way of telling if people would’ve been let down or fed up by Jay Electronica if he didn’t come through with his promise of dropping A Written Testimony. If anything, it’s incredibly on brand of him to release during mandated self-isolation to stay safe from the coronavirus. This was the timing Jay Electronica was waiting for: to see who was patient enough to listen and absorb his scriptures alone.

During these uncertain times, we need distractions like Jay Electronica’s album to get us through the weeks ahead. Because at some point, we all deserve to sleep well.