Review: Jay Electronica, ‘A Written Testimony’

Hip hop’s prophesied prince finally rises on an enchanting debut led by his faith in Islam and Allah.

Jay Electronica; the greatest to never do it. It is a statement that permeates an echo, as the Roc Nation rapper has treated his rap career like a marathon rather than a sprint. Once upon a time Jay Electronica was poised to be the greatest rapper of the generation. Ten years went by and he only held a 15-minute mixtape, two official singles and several loosies to his name. In particular the Just Blaze-produced “Exhibit C” remains one of the greatest rap songs of the millennium, which is what ultimately cemented his name in the blank backpage of the hip hop Bible.

But fans believed a debut album was coming; it was called Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn) and its release was teased on multiple occasions, but never materialised. Now it’s 2020 and Jay Electronica has resurrected to start from scratch, recording A Written Testimony over 40 days and 40 nights. Without a shadow of exaggeration, A Written Testimony is the most anticipated rap album of the last ten years, even if it’s not the ever-promised Act II. It bears a two-ton weight of expectation.

Assisted by its co-star Jay Z, A Written Testimony is an alluring body of work that delicately tours the significance of religion with the rappers’ pens in fine form.

In 40 minutes and nine songs, Jay Electronica poetically illustrates a personal importance of Islam without preaching or pandering in the way a Jesus Is King did. The album cover mimics the front cover of Arabic textbooks, from the use of a generic yet beautiful picture of nature down to the typeface. Bars like “The Lord is my rock, I speed dial through salat” are the crux of the album’s message, simple statements packed with wordplay.

These themes carry over to the song names, where the album’s tracklist comes across as a contents page; each song titled like a chapter within the book conveyed on the album cover. It’s a disconnected book but a book nonetheless.

Produced mainly by Electronica himself, there is also production from Swizz Beatz, Hit-Boy, The Alchemist and No I.D. The songs draw samples from obscure French film scores and compositions, like the standout track “Ghost of Soulja Slim”. Its buried drums and accordion sample are the template for the Jays to rap their riddles. “The Blinding” explodes into life with a signature Swizz beat before drifting into a mellow twinkle. Other songs are skeletal in their structure, often missing drums in their instrumentation, but is a testament to creating their beauty (“The Neverending Story”, “A.P.I.D.T.A.”).

Despite its billing as a solo album, Jay Z accompanies Electronica on nearly every track. But A Written Testimony isn’t the prophesied sequel to Watch the Throne – this still feels like a Jay Electronica album. Jay Z individually commands your attention when he raps, and Jay Elec individually commands your attention when he raps. One is forgotten when the other takes the stage. It’s an odd balance that is unwelcome but ultimately works.

As a result, Jay Z ups his pen to prove he is overpaid but not underrated. His lines are layered with multiple metaphors, evidently achieved thanks to the strength of Electronica’s pen. While Jay Z has the metaphors, Electronica has the more impressive rhyme schemes on show (“Ghost of Soulja Slim”, “Fruits of the Spirit”). Jay Electronica and Jay Z’s raps are like words on a scroll. Though the raps may be cryptic, they are written well.

Electronica doesn’t go into depth on his absence, but he does touch on it cleverly. “Extra, extra, it’s Mr. Headlines / Who signed every contract and missed the deadlines,” he raps on “The Blinding”, a callback to every rap executive and their mum asking Jay Elec to drop his infinitely-delayed album. He’s aware of the album’s significance, and the fact he ironically provided another deadline – this time on his own religious terms (“40 days, 40 nights, tryna live up to the hype”). But above all, the explanation for his so-called absence is simple: he doesn’t release music for the public’s satisfaction (“In the wee hours of night, tryna squeeze out bars / Bismillah, just so y’all could pick me apart?”).

A Written Testimony is at its most humble in the closing track, “A.P.I.D.T.A”. An acronym for ‘All Praise is Due to Allah’, the sombre song reflects on missing loved ones who have passed away. Not renown for his hook game, Jay Z handles the chorus beautifully through his gentle delivery (“I got numbers in my phone that’ll never ring again / ‘Cause Allah done called ’em home”). Electronica’s verse is his best on the album, which is more like poetry than rap. Referencing the death of his mother who passed away in 2019, he makes every line count.

[Verse: Jay Electronica]
Eyes fiery, cry tears to my diary
Sometimes a Xanny bar can’t help you fight back the anxiety
I go to my Lord quietly, teardrops on our faces
Teardrops on my face, it’s like teardrops become waterfalls
By the time they reach my laces
My eyelids is like levees but my tear ducts is like glaciers
As I contemplate creation, the salt that heals my wounds
Pour out my eyes just like libations

But perhaps the 40 day deadline didn’t result in a patient classic. At its core, A Written Testimony is very disconnected. Each track is tucked away in its own corner of the book, never uniting to tell a singular tale. The frustration with the loose concept also causes the question for the placement of “Shiny Suit Theory”, a ten-year old song making its way onto a 2020 debut album. That leaves 8 original tracks, none of which reach the heights of an “Exhibit C”.

And speaking of “Exhibit C”, A Written Testimony misses the touch of Just Blaze, who is absent from the production credits. Electronica is clearly at his best over Just Blaze’s powerful production. Without Just Blaze it feels like pages of A Written Testimony have been ripped out. The book is enjoyable but incomplete.

Much criticism has also come for Jay Z’s appearances across the album. While his presence is potent, it most certainly doesn’t warrant a continuous presence on Jay Electronica’s debut album. It calls into Elect’s ability to hold a project on his own, something that we’ll yet again have to wait on to be proven.

Jay Electronica waited thirteen years to be picked apart. In those thirteen years, he was still picked apart. With A Written Testimony, his mystique continues to exist, but not without reminding the world he is still a capable MC when he chooses to be.

Rating: 8.5 / 10

Best tracks: “A.P.I.D.T.A.”, “Ghost of Soulja Slim”, “The Blinding”, “Fruits of the Spirit”