Very few albums in hip-hop were as highly anticipated as the debut album from Elpadaro F. Electronica Allah, aka Jay Eletronica. Ever since he came into the public consciousness in the late aughts with Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) and further dropped classic songs with Just Blaze, popped up on features with everybody else and signed with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, the anticipation for a proper studio debut from Jay Electronica, at one point, reached fever pitch levels. And then came the “hurry up and wait” convos about his career before the hip-hop community moved on. Anyway, after what seemed forever, we got word that an album was coming. On Friday, March 13, the world finally received Jay Electronica’s debut “solo” album, A Written Testimony. I have listened. I have some thoughts. Allow me to share.
1. I was never the biggest Jay Electronica (Elect) fan. I didn’t dislike him; I recognize that he’s a great lyricist and I really enjoyed the Eternal Sunshine joint and “Exhibit A (Transformations)” and “Exhibit C.” At the same time, I absolutely did not hear what others heard. He was never some second coming of rap Jesus to me. Dope music is dope music, and my man has that in fits and starts. I’m sharing this largely for context: I’m not a person who was waiting around for however long hip-hop was waiting for this album before we got over waiting and put it on the shelf with Dr. Dre’s mythical Detox.
2. With that being said, I love A Written Testimony. Maybe “really like it” is more accurate. I first listened to it at 5:15 a.m. Friday morning—the day of its release on streaming services—as I drove from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta. At 5:15 a.m., I was hype as fuck over this album. Here’s a little more context: Dilla’s Donuts is one of my favorite hip-hop albums, as is Madvillainy, the joint Madlib and MF Doom (as Madvillain) project. Both would be in my top 10 hip-hop albums. I mention this because unconventional beat choices never turn me off; in fact, that tends to elevate the project to me. In more fact, when Madvillainy was released in 2004, I remember saying to myself (and on the heels of Jay-Z’s The Black Album, purportedly his retirement album) that I wish Jay-Z would come back and drop a project like Madvillainy; straight hip-hop, entirely eschewing mainstream shit and just going for it over pure underground shit.
Just to round this out since any hip-hop convo that includes favorites, my top five albums (today) would be A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders, De La Soul’s De La Soul is Dead, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and Outkast’s ATLiens.
3. Part of what I love about this album is the fact that I’ve been waiting for Jay (Hov) to rap over some production like this and he MURDERS this album. I heard and read many opinions that say that Hov ruined the album and that makes zero sense to me. This is the most inspired I’ve heard Jay in a long time. And hearing that over some more artsy, hip-hop records is that Madvillainy feel I’ve been waiting for. Similarly, you can tell that Hov respects the shit out of Jay Electronica (Elect), because lawdhafmercy did Hov show up.
4. Those first three bullets allowed me to enjoy this album as just another album, in a vacuum. I had no expectations. I haven’t been waiting for this mythical album. In fact, had I not been making a road trip (courtesy of the coronavirus, which caused me to cancel my flight and drive) I’m not sure I’d have even listened to this album by now. I definitely wouldn’t have made it a priority. To that end, it’s just a good album to me with some dope records with two top-shelf spitters top shelf spittin’. Jay-Z put it over the top for me.
5. Let’s get out of the vacuum since I am somebody who is familiar with Elect. The absence of Just Blaze is very noticeable. I think the album is good; I enjoy it. It is not a classic album or an album that I expect to make a ripple in the culture. But it could have. Even with Hov and Elect as a duo. Can you imagine a whole project produced by Just Blaze??? I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Elect’s most impressive songs are the Just Blaze ones. Now considering he finished this album in 40 days (and 40 nights) maybe Just Blaze wasn’t free. Hell, one of the songs, “Shiny Suit Theory” was released like 10 years ago, and the final song, “A.P.D.I.T.A.” is literally Hov and Elect rapping over Khruangbin’s “A Hymn.” Point is, this album wasn’t entiiiiirely cooking for a long time. Which is why some folks are disappointed. Elect was anointed some rap God a decade ago and his “debut” album is cool, but if you’ve been waiting this probably wasn’t it.
6. It’s been a while since we’ve had such a religion-heavy secular rap album. Hell, the album opens up with the Honorable Louis Farrakhan talking. Elect lays out a lot of his Nation of Islam teachings throughout the album; he even has Hov talking about Allah. Bismillah.
7. The album opens up great with “The Ghost of Soulja Slim.” If you’re a fan of Elect at all then you remember the P. Diddy-assisted “The Ghost of Christopher Wallace.” “The Blinding” to me is the album’s standout record. And that’s the thing about this album; even the standout record isn’t a banger so to speak. And that’s OK, except Elect has hip-hop bangers and I think I thought I’d hear one or two of those. It doesn’t make it a bad album, it just changes the impact of the album. It takes it from being an album that should have cultural impact to one that exists and that Elect fans will probably largely enjoy by themselves. It also makes it noticeable how much Jay stands out on the record.
8. If I may be one of those people for a moment: I kind of wonder why Elect released this album. Or ever released an album for that matter. He clearly isn’t hurting for money. He can’t possibly be concerned with his legacy in hip-hop; if he was, he’d have dropped an album years ago, no matter what he says in his verses about the difficulty in creating at times. He had to know that dropping an album with Hov would cause convos about Hov more so than him, even if he realized that getting Jay on his album isn’t even fair as he says on “Ezekiel’s Wheel.” He had to know that this particular album wouldn’t necessarily live up to the hype. Maybe he didn’t care. Hell, maybe he just felt like releasing an album. I’m always here for new dope music. I love The Game and he has released the same album with different dope production like 10 times at this point. But I do wonder what his goals were with this album, if they even really exist outside of “I’m a rapper with seemingly infinite access and resources and rappers with seemingly infinite access and resources all eventually release albums.”
9. Ultimately, we got two spitters over artistic production on an album that we never expected to get during a global pandemic that is making us all stay home and learn about our partners. That can’t truly be a bad thing even if it’s not the great thing we would have expected five to seven years ago. It’s a solid album. Some will love it, others won’t. Basically it’s an actual hip-hop album in 2020.
Um, look out for Detox?