Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week's album is A Written Testimony, the overdue debut LP from Jay Electronica.
The precipice of one’s glory can render the most brilliant mind unfit of basking in their light. But it takes a certain caliber of mind for an unforgiving public to carve space in their hearts for a hero that may never arrive; be it the ongoing spiral into Earthly peril, or a final swift kick as a catalyst, Jay Electronica decided to arrive in the year 2020. A Written Testimony, for all intents and purposes, is his fabled debut album of high-school blog-era folklore. Given a man so adept at gallivanting through the world, weaving in and out of plain sight, Jay Elec spends many a moment being the first to tell us how ludicrous the proposition truly is! We’ve got 39 minutes, mostly produced by Jay Elec himself, with a reenergized JAY Z riding shotgun for almost the entire duration? It’s unparalleled iPod Classic click wheel fodder, the kind of album one would expect to have 2dope attached to the .mp3 extension. We finally got the album: luxurious and traumatic, done in 40 days and nights, and disseminated in the thick of a global pandemic.
A Written Testimony wouldn’t excel if it wasn’t such a damn mess, in execution and spectacle. First of all, is Jay Electronica a duo name mindfuck since HOV’s everywhere to be found? While many hip-hop albums lend intros and interludes to Farrakhan quotes, only Jay Electronica places Big Sean next to a Fruit of Islam member on the IG Live. True to Jacques Webster form, Travis Scott - who raps a lot about nooses, and recently name-dropped the FOI on* Astroworld* - ended up lending a hook to the Jay Electronica album. When we get down to the music, A Written Testimony is illuminating and confusing, thus properly on brand. This is One-Percenter Five-Percenter rap: the very framework that places Jay Elec’s musings about former Rothschild dabblings and the price of sanity being high like rent in juxtaposition to HOV claiming a Roc Nation brunch is the New Easter while trying to tell his straight-haired matriarchs how White Jesus isn’t real. This album’s a memoir of grief and wonder, underwritten by the fact that HOV’s worth more than an NFL bench. Wealth’s in the mind, and very much in the pocket.
There was no measurable way for A Written Testimony to greet its hype, so it greets the moment by filling many demands. When Jay Elec goes up to bat, he thrives in the zone where his grandiose abstractions are best supported by the spoils and consequences of his life. Disappearance feels like survival, and disconnection threatens his sanctity. It’s the balance that made him a broadband darling, though the scales often tip out of his favor once his otherworldly approach comes up thin in execution. Every time that happens, JAY Z makes Jay Elec pay by tearing through the epic sample work with quarterback agility and stunning detail. (See: “Flux Capacitor,” where HOV’s landlord bars strike so effectively, the Jay Elec verse registers near-nonsensically.) But herein lies the balance: for the better of a decade, Jay Elec remains one of the only MCs that can summon this fire from JAY Z, meaning Jay Elec never surrenders to the co-conspirator. It’s a device that could’ve quickly become cheap or corny, yet their energy never registers as an endless duel, and their compatibility proves deeply rewarding.
A Written Testimony sounds often like Jay and HOV are rapping into the abyss of their own memories, then snapping back into this cold reality with game to give and gems to leave behind. The melanated can smell the hot comb, and some can grip the steel. Anyone can read the text thread of their late mama, their dead homies. Most of us don’t want clout chasers lingering near our digital fingerprints. Some of us can afford confit on our best days, but not a watch like a Saudi prince. A Written Testimony isn’t perfect, and that was never a guarantee no matter how much we craved it. The devil’s in the details, but God’s in there somewhere, too. For Jay Electronica, the self-referential artist’s plight remains a motif, almost to disarm the gravity of the moment as if it was just… time. Today, I’m grateful for this, and that’s all. Was this the final magic trick?
Have we been watching closely enough?
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.