Jay Electronica’s debut both amazes and underwhelms

The enigmatic MC manages to reach the extremely high bar he set for himself over a decade ago, but it would mean a lot more if he reached that bar himself.

Jay Electronica has been the hip hop world’s biggest enigma for over a decade. At one point, he seemed destined to go down as one of the genre’s greats, but after years of limited-to-no output, he became its greatest “what if.” While he’s technically been active since 2007, the 43-year-old Louisiana-born MC has released less music in 13 years than some rappers do in 13 months. But somehow, between the one official mixtape, a handful of guest verses and three singles, he’s managed to maintain the interest of fans for this long.

Maybe it’s the Jay-Z co-sign, maybe it’s the air of mystery he built around himself, or maybe in the small sample size fans got, we knew he was just that good. Whatever the case may be, his status as an MC had essentially become mythical, and expectations for his debut reached seemingly insurmountable levels.

That’s to be expected when you’re following up the extravagance of songs like “Exhibit C,” or spending a decade teasing a sequel to a cherished project like 2007’s Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge). Jay Elec had set the bar so high for himself, through both what he’d done and hadn’t done, that his debut was never going to live up to the hype… but surprisingly, it mostly does.

The thing is, A Written Testimony doesn’t meet these expectations by being exactly what fans have been waiting for—it does it by doing the opposite. This isn’t Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn). There are no tracks with the grandeur of “Exhibit C.” This shouldn’t even really count as Jay Electronica’s debut solo album.

Every track on A Written Testimony, minus the intro and “Fruits of the Spirit,” has an unlisted Jay-Z feature. In addition to being on nearly every track, he’s the first person to rap on the record and he is at the top of his game throughout. This is essentially a collaborative project between the two, being marketed as Jay Elec’s long-awaited solo debut.

This is not to say that Jay Elec doesn’t perform at the elite level that was expected of him, he just raps so little that it’s slightly underwhelming. Still, his pen is impeccable, and his verses are dense and wonderfully written reflections on his life, his faith, and often, his fears.

Throughout the project’s 10-track, nearly 40-minute runtime, Jay Elec and Jay-Z come together to deliver exquisitely put-together verses over a soundscape that is completely unique to this project. Boasting instrumentals from The Alchemist, Swizz Beatz, No I.D. and Jay Elec himself, the album’s production strikes a nice balance between eclecticism and cohesion. No two beats sound the same, but they all fit together extremely well.

The majority of this project is absolutely fantastic, with tracks like “The Ghost of Soulja Slim,” “The Neverending Story,” “Universal Soldier” and “The Blinding” being highlights. While “Shiny Suit Theory” is a fantastic song in its own right, including a single from 2014 on an album so highly anticipated feels unnecessary. The only real low point on the album is “Ezekiel’s Wheel,” which features an extremely airy and empty-sounding beat and an awful hook from The-Dream.

This is an overall great album with a soundscape that completely sets it apart from other modern hip hop releases, and a pair of MCs exchanging immaculate verses throughout. Though the synergy between Jay-Z and Jay Elec is what makes this such a fantastic album, it’s also what makes this a slightly underwhelming debut for Jay Elec. As phenomenal as the vast majority of this project is, we’ve yet to see the extent of his abilities as an artist.

While Jay Electronica may have reached the astronomically high bar that he set for himself years ago, he stood on the shoulders of a giant to do so. Having Jay-Z on nearly every song makes for great music, but it takes away from what could’ve been a monumental moment in hip hop.

Though A Written Testimony is a fantastic record, the mythical debut album from Jay Electronica shouldn’t have so few Jay Electronica verses.


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