Having one of the most mysterious personas in Hip-Hop Jay Electronica remains on brand with his debut. Announced out the blue only 40 days prior and released during what some propose are the end times the enigmatic MC shocks, pleases and perplexes with his first official LP. Jay Electronica garnered massive hype among Hip-Hop purists in 2007. The allure continued to grow with is sporadic releases and growing Hip-Hop connections, befriending heavy weights like Just Blaze, Erykah Badu, Nas & P. Diddy over the years. The hype reached a fever pitch in 2009 when super producer Just Blaze leaked 2 tracks they had worked on, and perhaps never intended to release, Exhibit A and Exhibit C. Both tracks took wings and spread throughout Hip-Hop sending a shock-wave through the culture unlike anything seen before. Jay Electronica’s reclusive and mysterious persona only added to the bubbling attention. When such attention is garnered fan’s naturally want more from the artist, Jay Electronica gave less, a lot less. The standard industry rules did not seem to apply to him, the rookie hype and attention was simply left to exist, Jay did not seem inclined to capitalize on it at all. The hype continued to grow for his debut, since Exhibit C a decade passed with only a few sporadic releases and many release dates announced and pushed back and then subsequently cancelled.
With immense hype it is almost impossible to live up to expectation, expectation that is not based on anything tangible but a collection of many individual fan’s imaginations visualizing a successful version of a vague abstraction. Fan’s want something perfect and envision a perfect product but this vision is based on nothing that already exists and simply only resides in their minds. Very few options remained on releasing an album that could live up to impossible standards, on ‘The Blinding’ Jay Electronica references releasing a project ‘just so y’all can pick me apart’. Another obstacle was the overlooked fact that Jay Electronica, though on a major label with major connections, is not a mainstream artist, when creating from his core he is more a writer of incredible vision, an astute analyst and pundit, not a commercial artist set for crossover success. His previous releases were very unconventional and abstract, many neglecting standard song structure, choruses or even time length. This was sure to factor in while releasing a debut album for listeners who only know of Jay because of the hype and not the music itself. They surely would be caught off guard by an LP of world music loops, no drums, obscure film snippets, religious lectures and no choruses. Like a magician pulling off an advanced ruse the much needed sleight of hand comes in the form of Jay-Z. Jay-Z is featured on 8 out of the 10 tracks and his purpose serves many functions, his universal appeal makes an otherwise abstract album acceptable to the masses on one hand and on the other he serves as a distraction for all the potential hate due to the insurmountable hype. The criticisms that have popped up are not with the lyrics, beats, track listing, or anything else, they are with the fact that Jay Electronica’s long awaited debut album is a group project with Jay-Z, one of Hip-Hop’s most celebrated artist ever. In the Tribe Called Quest documentary ‘Beats, Rhymes, And Life’ Chris Lighty described the function of Phife Dawg in relation to Q-tip was to reach the streets if Tip was “on the moon”. On Watch The Throne Kanye plays a similar role over-emphasizing his simplistic and immature side as well as his humor for mass appeal while Hov is more philosophical, introspective and self-aware .
On A Written Testimony Jay-Z takes his turn playing the role of the social anchor. Jay Electronica in turn takes his esoteric style further into space, literally referencing aliens and other of the more fantastical elements of religious texts and NOI lore. Jay Electronica’s fingerprint is over the album a lot more than listeners consciously notice, his role as producer is overlooked, the overall feel and content is just as much Jay Electronica as are his verses. Producing 6 of the 10 tracks the criticism of not being on his own debut album enough is less accurate, from the overall tone, Jay-Z’s subject matter, samples, audio snippets, loops and release Jay Electronica is felt on his debut album more than most major label artists are. Jay Electronica’s presence on his album mirrors his persona in Hip-Hop, he is felt more than seen. Most major label debuts have every popular artist featured on every big song and high profile producers producing songs for the sole purpose of making a commercially successful product. Contrary to that Jay Electronica does not cater to any sound or formula. Jay Electronica self-produced a signature ‘Jay Electronica album’ and simply had one guest artist come on board for the purpose of making his unorthodox art easily digestible. When looking back at the work Jay Electronica did release in the years since Exhibit C it’s rare to find a track with more than one verse, or even a chorus. His debut is as true to self as all his previous work, the only addition is having Jay-Z feature to push the songs to ‘standard’ length and to be an anchor for listeners who are lost listening to music that is far from conventional.
Musically A Written Testimony has the fantastical feel of a classic Disney score, Jay flawlessly mixes dusty loops of world music with abstract sounds and percussive minimalism. ‘The Ghost Of Soulja Slim’ kicks off the album, starting with a genius verse by Hov, fans still have to wait to hear Jay Electronica. By the time Jay Electronica comes in the song is half over and his verse is littered with double entendres referencing his label, the NOI, Tidal and Black Panther. A majority of the outside production is featured on the next track ‘The Blinding’ (produced by Swizz Beats, Hit-Boy, AraabMuzik and G. Ry) which features a very conservative use of Travis Scott in a two part track. The first half ends way too early leaving fans wondering why they did not extend the beat and have Hov and Jay trade rhymes longer. The second half gets introspective where the listener gets a glimpse into Jay Electronica’s thought process and fears. Alchemist and No I.D. also give production to the album but it’s so closely in the style of Jay Electronica that they just chop up loops and leave them untouched as finished instrumentals. ‘Ezekiel’s Wheel’ finds Jay delivering his most fiery rhymes over obscure clicks and clanks for percussion. Hov at this point in the album takes a backseat and only does the hooks if he even is on a track towards this last leg of the LP. The final track ‘A.P.I.D.T.A.’ concludes the album and strikes an emotional chord, with production by Khruangbin the overall feel is emotive, dreamy, and melancholy. Jay Electronica’s verses are delivered like poetry, a page in his diary detailing the loss of life and the impermanence of our physical form. A perfect final track for an album that perfectly deals with immense attention, giving a product that both answers and retains the mystery.