Album Review — Jay Electronica’s ‘A Written Testimony’

The long-awaited debut album of Jay Electronica finally arrived. Years of delays and mystery around one of rap’s most promising young artists at the end of the 2000s and early 2010s is over and now A Written Testimony is here. If you’re not familiar with Electronica, read this summary of the wild and unpredictable path of his life. Electronica signed to the legendary Jay-Z’s label Roc Nation nearly a decade ago. Now on his debut album Hov himself makes an appearance on nearly every single track. Imagine having one of the all-time bests in hip-hop as your side man on your debut album. That’s crazy! But it fits with Electronica.

The album opens with “The Overwhelming Effect,” which serves more as a vignette than song as it’s a monologue from Minister Louis Farrakhan set to a beautiful sounding instrumental. That’s one important thing to note up front with this album: for better and for worse, Electronica’s faith, The Nation of Islam, has a noticeable influence throughout. I don’t really want to give my opinion on the faith itself or any other religions for that matter, as I respect all people’s beliefs. So any commentary I have regarding the religious influences on this album are strictly from a musical standpoint (just like my criticisms of gospel music and Kanye’s latest album in the past on this blog). So as far as an opener, it’s fine and I guess gives a dramatic buildup. But I would always rather hear bars to open a rap album.

“Ghost of Soulja Slim” opens not with Electronica rapping, but Jay-Z. And I have to say Jay-Z sounds as hungry and fiery as ever on not just this song, but the whole album. His bars are catchy, have something to say and get right to the point. When Electronica makes his appearance about halfway through the song, he matches Jay-Z’s bars himself. But the song drags on too long with it’s instrumental at the end and the use of the clip of the kids cheering is really annoying. I feel like this song would have been better as the introduction track, as it doesn’t really have a point and has more of an introduction/demonstration feel to it.

“The Blinding” sees the Jays joined by Travis Scott. And it’s obviously a mainstream/streaming play with Scott’s inclusion. But it’s one of my favorites on the album, as Electronica opens up about the making of this album, the pressure of the buildup of the release and how he never wants to let his daughter down. Despite it’s shortness and Scott being kind of shoehorned in, the song does well at telling a great story and giving the listener an appropriate insight into rap’s biggest enigma. “The Neverending Story” has a fun and spacey sound that envelopes the listener from the beginning and I’m not surprised that it was The Alchemist behind this smooth beat. It’s perfect for Electronica to lay down some of his most clever wordplay on the album. I particularly enjoy these lines: “Spread love like Kermit the Frog that permeate the fog/I’m at war like the Dukes of Hazzard against the Bosses of the Hogs.”

Next is “Shiny Suit Theory,” a song that came out years earlier. I’m glad it’s included though because I love the bouncy horns and glimmering chimes that drive the beat of this song. Electronica himself produced this song and it sounds great. Once again this is a song that gives an insight into Electronica’s thinking and a conversation he had with P. Diddy before dropping his album. The bars from both him and Jay-Z are tight and don’t waste any time in getting to the points they’re making. I enjoy the dramatic production on “Universal Solider,” but the bars feel too same-y to me throughout and the over-reliance of religious references doesn’t work for me. And once again I think the song carries on a bit long like “Ghost of Soulja Slim.”

Jay-Z spits absolute fire over great production from Electronica on “Flux Capacitor.” He goes on the defensive over his deal with the NFL and again I love how in the latter half of his career he’s maybe dropping some of the best bars of his career. It’s unfortunate for Electronica though he’s getting out-rapped on his own song and album, but that’s what happens I guess when you have an icon as a sideman on your album. “Fruits of the Spirit” feels more like an interlude than song but it’s still one of my favorite moments on the album. The soulful production of No I.D., one of my favorite producers in hip-hop, and Electronica rapping his ass off (with a sweet Thanos reference to start the song) makes me wish this was a full-fledged song.

I enjoy the different, clinky sound of “Ezekiel’s Wheel” and the inclusion of The-Dream as a feature is a great choice on a chiller, smooth song like this one. The bars from the Jays aren’t bad for the most part either. It’s just too long at six and a half minutes. The bars that are bad though is where Electronica raps: “It could be in Lagos, or Seattle, or Chicag-y/Hotel lobby Grammy after-party, it’s whatev-y.” It’s cringe-y and dumb-y. I do not understand why he felt the need to just randomly add y’s to these words other than trying to make his bars flow together better. Despite this baffling choice, Electronica redeems himself in a big way on the closing song of the album, “A.P.I.D.T.A.” Over gorgeous production from Khruangbin (who you know I’ve absolutely praised), Electronica absolutely pours his heart out over heartfelt bars about the loss of his mother. It’s heartbreakingly touching and beautiful personal song from Electronica that shows why his debut album has been so hyped. It’s without doubt the best song of his career.

The long-awaited debut album of Jay Electronica does not live up to it’s lofty expectations and hype, but A Written Testimony is nevertheless a pretty good album. The production is definitely the strongest point of this album, as a cavalcade of all-star producers and Electronica himself create some exciting and interesting sounds throughout the whole album. The bars on this album are mostly good despite some bumps along the way and the overuse of religious imagery. More than anything I’m glad that Jay Electronica is finally releasing music and I think on his next album we’ll see something even better from him. But for now this is a solid debut.

Grade: 7/10