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Jay-Z Helps Make Jay Electronica’s Long-Awaited ‘A Written Testimony’ An Essential Listen

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I’ll say this for Jay Electronica: There was almost no way his debut album, A Written Testimony, could ever live up to the near-decade of hype surrounding its release, but he does his absolute damnedest to make sure it comes close. While the hype of the moment would have presented a difficult-to-surmount challenge, Jay Electronica did have one secret weapon at his disposal: His mentor, label boss, and friend Jay-Z. While utilizing Hov’s skills as an executive producer and rapper on Testimony does have the unfortunate side effect of rendering the project more of a joint album than the solo debut we’ve all been waiting for, it also presents plenty of moments that ensure it’s anything but disappointing.

The buildup to this project has been long, tumultuous, and filled with false starts and broken promises. Back at the height of the so-called “blog era,” Jay Electronica emerged as a mysterious sage, a wizened prophet of hip-hop eras gone by and an esoteric potential future. His songs “Exhibit A” and “Exhibit C” were hailed by purists as the resurrection of real rap, peppered with arcane references to Five Percenter philosophy and Nation Of Islam religiosity. He seemed like the perfected avatar of the then-new school blog rapper, the harbinger of a new age reminiscent of the first Golden Era and the potential presented by 20 years of technological advances. His promise seemed infinite, but just when the world needed him most, he vanished.

Except, he didn’t really. He maintained a Punxsutawney Phil-esque presence on social media, popping his head above the surface every so often to offer his insights on rap battles, lyricism, and the “false concept” of albums as he steadfastly refused to release one of his own. Through a sprinkling of standout guest verses on other rappers’ projects — from Big Sean to Chance The Rapper to Dave East and even R&B producer Poo Bear — he attained mythical status among hip-hop fans akin to that of Andre 3000. However, unlike Andre, who at least has a catalog of projects with Outkast and his solo half of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below to call back to, Jay Electronica only had those guest spots, a bunch of loose tracks, and a handful of unofficial EPs and mixtapes hinting at his greatness, yet never truly confirming it. Rap fans slowly but surely gave up on him, so much so that when he announced A Written Testimony, he was met with more skeptical ribbing than even faint excitement from an audience that had wearied of his semi-annual teases.

But then the damn thing actually dropped. Not only that, but it also features verses from Jay-Z, who’d signed Jay Electronica to his Roc Nation imprint all those years ago, on nearly every song. And those verses are stellar, outstanding, more passionate and energized than anything the more established Jay has done in years. If 4:44 was Jay-Z tapping into a more vulnerable, sincere facet of his artistic self, inspired by a single producer in No I.D., A Written Testimony is what happens when he decides to get cerebral and really show off, pushed by a rapper who is for once in his league — if not by accomplishment, then by reputation. While Watch The Throne comparisons aren’t entirely out-of-pocket, Kanye West is nowhere near the rapper Jay Electronica is, and where Kanye often outshone Jay-Z on the former project by sheer verve, both Jays are fully engaged on the new one.

Jay Electronica is typically excellent; everything he says is either devastatingly profound or rhymes extremely well. Yet, despite his technical mastery run, he was never really all that compelling to begin with — just different from the mid-2000s run of ringtone rap that so sorely aggravated his adherents. It’s hard to be truly gripping when your primary selling point is how mysterious you are. Electronica remains vague about the details of his life, although he gets off a witty punchline about his dating Rothschild on “The Ghost Of Soulja Slim.” However, his overall aesthetic and subject matter, which remains unchanged since his debut over a decade ago, guides and animates the project on the whole. Even “Shiny Suit Project,” the song that first established his and Jay-Z’s electrifying chemistry, makes a reappearance and fits right in.

It’s Jay-Z who anchors everything and brings it all home, though. It’s on songs like “Flux Capacitor” that we get the most lightbulb moments of the record. When he addresses his controversial deal with the NFL, listeners are presented some vintage, Shawn Carter sh*t talk. “Why would I sell out? I’m already rich, don’t make no sense,” he sneers. “Got more money than Goodell, a whole NFL bench.” Then comes the one-two punch of biting social commentary and triumphant, made-it-out, f*ck you-ism with, “Did it one-handed like Odell handcuffed to a jail / I would’ve stayed on the sidelines if they could’ve tackled the shit themselves.” He turns an “Old Jay” into the “O’Jays” for a slick line about “Backstabbers” — look that song up, youngbloods, and learn you a little something — then condemns the clamoring “Mr. Me Too” culture of social media clout, all with the poise and panache you’d expect of hip-hop’s first billionaire.

Balance out Jay-Z’s money talk with Jay El’s spiritualism and you get a project the delivers all the yin-yang weight of those early Outkast records. Jay-Z is the obvious Big Boi to Jay Electronica’s Andre, only hip-hop fans actually got a couple of decades to learn to actually appreciate the man who made The Blueprint. His guiding hand is the stabilizing force that finally makes his erstwhile protege sit still long enough to become his peer. While a Jay Electronica debut could certainly use a lot more Jay Electronica on it, putting it out this way keeps the wolves at bay long enough for us to appreciate what Jay Electronica is and isn’t. He is a great rapper with a lot of insight but little to say about his own experiences. He isn’t the savior of hip-hop — and that’s okay. Hip-hop never needed a savior anyway. A Written Testimoney is a strong reintroduction to all the things we loved about its principal artist, made essential because it gave one of hip-hop’s established giants a reason to really rap again.

A Written Testimony is out now on Roc Nation. Get it here.

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