Jay Electronica’s “A Written Testimony” is a modern rap classic – Dami Ajayi

The hugely anticipated debut album of vaunted rapper, Jay Electronica, arrives at a time of great despair. Covid-19 is raging globally with its virulence and contagion. Also, the leap year 2020, still in its first quarter, has already done enough damage.

It is against this backdrop that Jay Electronica, 43, drops his 10-track, 39-minute-long A Written Testimony. Two decades ago, no one would have imagined rappers in their forties murdering mics but then, The Game was wrong and Jay Electronica is an outlier.

Jay came into rap in his youth but privileged knowledge and experience over publishing music. But every time he has put out a song, he has climbed one rung up the canon. And even though this is thirteen years since his major breakthrough, he has managed to find an audience among the declining but still ardent fans of  conscious rap.

Perhaps there is the hand of Jay-Z, his label boss, in his relevance and Mr Carter’s influence looms over the entire album. To call it, a Jay debut is to discredit Jay-Z who appears in more than half of the songs, laying verses, hoisting hooks, or just making his presence felt in a prescient way through the album.

For one, there is that male vulnerability that drips from Jay-Z’s mea culpa 4:44 into this project, even though Electronica brings a different kind of verve. A Written Testament is easily a debut by a master. Electronica has cut corners for years  by not showing his process but has now confidently arrived at what may be the height of his powers.

This album is made for contemplative listening. The songs sampled here are delicately selected by audiophiles with a penchant for pensive rhythms. Speeches of Louis Farrakhan and the Honourable Elijah Muhammad are grafted to stir the mood. And the lyricism of rap verses are so urgent, its almost like a live album or cipher.

Of course, it is not just any cipher. Jay-Z plays the umpire who still manages to grab the mic. Jay Electronica hardly engages Jay-Z directly. There is no sparring here; rather what we witness is synergy between two rappers with two slightly different world views but one unifying experience: unapologetic blackness.

If Jay-Z is the greatest rapper of his time, Jay Electronica charts a parallel and idiosyncratic journey void of peers. Jay Electronica’s verses are shorn of exuberance but weighed down with references. His meditative flows are glorious and some of his quartets features technique that would wow any poet worth his pen.

image courtesy Roc Nation

His core is exteriorised here for the sole beauty of making timeless music. Every song speaks to a specific  human experience, even grief has its moment in the final song, A.P.I.D.T.A, recorded on the evening of Kobe Bryant’s passing.

Drawing from the recent passing of his mother, Jay speaks to how we contemplate mortality through a figment of technology, text messages. By sitting at that moment of passing and invoking it, he loops grief into that mortal circuit that makes the personal universal.

At the end of every listen, A Written Testimony, feels like a testament that you have hurriedly traversed. There is that overwhelming urge to return to listen again, to take notes, to decipher puns, to explore references and to bask in that mood that Jay Electronica creates with such urgency.

This is a modern rap classic.

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