Even as normal social life was grinding to a standstill, with much of the world resigning itself to an uncertain future, waves of dread permeating every conversation, and previously unthinkable sights presenting themselves hourly, there was still a frisson of unreality when, late at night on Friday the 13th, one opened up Tidal and saw Jay Electronica’s “A Written Testimony” just sitting there, ready to stream. For so long the white whale of hip-hop, it was hard to reconcile oneself to the idea that a full-length Jay Electronica album actually existed. Was this just one more glitch in the simulation, like those video clips of penguins roaming through the halls of an aquarium like schoolchildren, or Pope Francis addressing an empty plaza at the Vatican? Electronica hardly seemed to believe it himself, rapping, “What a time we livin’ in, just like the scripture says / Earthquakes, fires and plagues, the resurrection of the dead.”
For more than a decade, the New Orleans rapper has served as hip-hop’s equivalent to J.D. Salinger, Jeff Mangum or Arthur Rimbaud – an enigmatic, prodigiously talented figure who felt destined to recede into monastic solitude after dropping a landmark work. The only problem? That work never seemed to arrive. He first attracted attention via MySpace, when his mixtape set to Jon Brion’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” score started turning heads and birthing hundreds of breathless posts on mp3 blogs and hip-hop LiveJournal pages. (If some of those terms are unfamiliar to you, that should give you an idea how long ago all this was.) He accrued scores of famous fans, from Nas (to whom his heady, erudite style was often compared) to Diddy and Q-Tip, and his supernova moment seemed to be approaching when a pair of seismic singles – “Exhibit C” and “Exhibit A (Transformations)” – detonated in late 2009. At a lean time for innovative hip-hop, this thirtysomething, formerly homeless Nation of Islam adherent seemed poised to ascend to messianic status.
And then, as suddenly as he arrived, Electronica virtually disappeared, his long-promised debut album never materializing. Oh sure, his name would reemerge once in a while, whether he was signing to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, appearing on one-off tracks alongside Big Sean, Chance the Rapper and Justin Bieber, or becoming an unlikely presence in British tabloids when he pursued a relationship with a married Rothschild heiress. But hip-hop found plenty of new saviors in the meantime, most obviously Kendrick Lamar, who fused gnomic spirituality with acrobatic wordplay and a deep reverence for classic rap tropes in a way that allowed him to take the place at the table that seemed set for Electronica’s entrance. In that sense, “A Written Testimony” arrived with paradoxical expectations: it was simultaneously the most feverishly anticipated hip-hop debut of the millennium, and also something that virtually no one was still waiting up for.
It’s to the album’s credit, then, that it never feels as though it’s been overly tweaked and worked over. Allegedly composed over 40 days and 40 nights – though the presence of the years-old track “Shiny Suit Theory” calls that claim into question – “Testimony” comes across like one long exhalation after a decade’s worth of breathless false-starts and overthinking. It’s hard to imagine Electronica could have delivered a masterpiece equal to expectations, so he focused on just making a really good rap album instead.
True to form, it takes some time on the record for Electronica’s voice to even be heard – preceded by a song-length sermon snippet from Louis Farrakhan and a verse from Jay-Z, who appears on eight of the album’s ten tracks – but when it does, it’s unmistakable. Deftly deploying Arabic phrases alongside scattered Yoruba words and references to “Black Panther,” he makes his entrance with typical flair: “From a hard place and rock to the Roc Nation of Islam / I emerged on the wave that Tidal made to drop bombs.” Electronica was never much of a shouter, but he’s grown even more low-key with age, easing back into a conversational flow that often brings to mind MF DOOM as he unwinds labyrinthine swirls of internal rhymes without ever straining to punctuate them.
Electronica’s religious faith gives the album its most consistent theme, but he rarely discusses his beliefs with any sense of stridency or proselytization, leavening every deep spiritual reference with a grace note of goofiness or an out-of-nowhere metaphor. (It’s hard to think of another MC who could so casually slide from “Ready to Die” to the Qu’ran: “Remember Rappin’ Duke? Duh-ha, duh-ha / You never thought we’d make it to lā ‘ilāha ‘illā Allah.”) For all the polyglot esoterica that crowds his lyrics, there’s always been something unusually welcoming about Electronica, from the warmth of his baritone voice to the undercurrent of humility that runs through nearly all his music, which is most obvious here when he acknowledges his long stretches of writer’s block. (“Extra, extra, it’s Mr. Headlines / Who signed every contract and missed the deadlines.”)
As for the other Jay, the 50-year-old Shawn Corey Carter continues to defy long-held myths about hip-hop longevity, attacking his tracks with vivid volleys of fire and brimstone. As he often did on his last album, “4:44,” Jay-Z raps with a rough urgency here, letting his words spill past the margins and break his meter in ways he never would have allowed in his younger days, but the juxtaposition between Jay’s live-wire abandon and Electronica’s measured, modest mastery has an electrifying effect. After so many years spent projecting Chairman of the Board imperiousness, it’s fascinating to hear Hov so willingly take on a supporting role, a Samwise Gamgee prodding Electronica’s Frodo past the finish line. He takes pains to match his subject matter to his partner’s as well, toning down his usual self-aggrandizement and economics lectures and meeting Electronica on his hazier astral plane. (In fact, the sourest bars on the album come when Jay-Z reverts back to form, blasting the blowback he received for partnering with the NFL by claiming it’s impossible for him to sell out when his bank account is bigger than Roger Godell’s. It’s a classic example of “addressing” one’s critics without engaging with the substance of their criticism whatsoever.)
Though you can spot plenty of boldface names like AraabMuzik, Hit-Boy, Swizz Beatz and Travis Scott in a glance through the credits – all on the same song, in fact – Electronica is the dominant musical force on the album, and he’s every bit as eclectic a producer as he is a rapper. The stunning “Universal Soldier,” situated midway through “Testimony,” showcases his production at its most cinematic, with minimalist drums swallowed by ambient swells as a Vashti Bunyan sample and a James Blake vocal echo effervescently in the background. Immediately following that is another Electronica production, “Flux Capacitor,” which makes winningly eccentric use of Rihanna’s “Higher,” while “Ezekiel’s Wheel” takes a clanking, Tom Waits-style approach to percussion, biding its time as it builds fragments of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno’s “Evensong” into a trancelike fugue.
“Testimony” is short on obvious crossover tracks, or bunker-busting anthems like “Exhibit C.” It’s also short, period, tapping out at under 40 minutes. After the decade-plus wait, it’s hard not to wish for a little more, and we don’t learn too much about Electronica aside from things we already knew – his Muslim faith is important to him, his tastes are extremely idiosyncratic, and he has issues with punctuality. But perhaps that’s for the best. Jay Electronica has always been at least half-myth, withholding far more than he divulges, appearing only when least expected, operating in accordance with his own internal logic. “A Written Testimony” offers ample proof that none of us ever overestimated his talent, but the man behind the curtain remains as mysterious as ever. It’s nice to see that some things haven’t changed.