Jay Electronica’s Wayward Rap Journey

Jay Electronica’s Wayward Rap Journey

Jay Electronica’s Wayward Rap Journey

His mesmerizing, flawed, and long-awaited debut album, A Written Testimony, is one of the strangest rap records in recent memory.


For over a decade, Jay Electronica has cut a mysterious figure in rap. A deft rapper with a quiet gravitas and an endless well of Star Wars references and Quran quotes, he felt like a being from another world. His biography is surreal: Hailing from the Magnolia projects of New Orleans, then winding his way from Nation of Islam lieutenant to allegedly ghostwriting for Nas to signing to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation record label to dating and being managed by one of the heirs to the Rothschild banking fortune, the elusive rapper has taken a circuitous and elliptic path.

His recently released debut album, A Written Testimony, comes in the wake of Electronica’s perplexing roaming. As he popped up on songs with collaborators as famous as Justin Bieber, as celebrated as Talib Kweli, and as random as Lucy Liu, his unreleased album Act II took on a mythical aura that turned him into a legend and a punch line. To fans, Electronica was a perfectionist tinkering away at his opus in the shadows. To detractors, the opus—and implicitly, his skills—didn’t exist. “Who is that? I don’t even know a song from him,” 50 Cent joked when asked if he planned to respond to an insult from Electronica. A Written Testimony both dispels this mystique and enriches it. Flawed yet mesmerizing, it’s one of the strangest rap albums in recent memory, a fever dream of triumph, introspection, and penitence.

Louis Farrakhan is the first voice to appear on the record and one of its most dominant. He is an unabashed demagogue and anti-Semite as well as a singular, iconoclastic black leader. In rap, his forceful rhetoric has long been a vessel for broader ideas of black power, and A Written Testimony continues that tradition. Following in the footsteps of Ice Cube, 2 Chainz, and Nipsey Hussle (who was eulogized by Farrakhan), Jay Electronica treats the Nation of Islam minister as a living emblem of black freedom and defiance, material proof that black people are capable of great works without white aid.

It can be jarring to hear Farrakhan’s exaltations if you’re familiar with only the Nation of Islam’s beliefs and reputation, but Electronica was once a member of the Nation of Islam, and, as Malcolm X once did, Electronica credits the organization for his salvation. “Universal Soldier,” a nod to the pulpy 1992 action movie starring Jean-Claude van Damme, presents Electronica as a prophet rescued from the abyss to do his god’s work: “Some of the cons, I suffered for prose. / My poetry’s livin’ like the God that I fall back on. / And all praises due to Allah for such illustrious platform. / The teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s my backbone.”

This syncretic mode mixing parable and testimony, prayer and allegory, is a hallmark of Electronica’s style. He’s constantly melding forms and images from pop culture and antiquity, a habit that’s amplified by the constant presence of his label boss Jay-Z, who appears on over half of the album’s songs. Jay-Z has had two album-length team-ups this decade, one with his wife, Beyoncé, and one with his protégé Kanye West. Whereas Jay-Z acted as a competitor and foil on those records, here he takes the role of a fellow believer. As Jay Electronica combines religion and rap—“From a hard place and a rock to the Roc Nation of Islam”—Jay-Z, too, takes a prophetic tone. “Think of things I said that you hated then / Empirical facts that can’t be debated now,” Jay-Z demands on “Ghost of Soulja Slim.” In the presence of Jay Electronica, the hustler turned rapper turned businessman turns soothsayer.

What’s fascinating about the record is how often the two rappers’ visions fork and converge. Jay-Z has spent the past decade preaching a black capitalist gospel in which ownership and strategic alliances unyoke black people from our history of oppression. He favors a results-driven approach that works with establishment institutions (like the NFL, the legal system, the record industry) to carve out spaces for black participants. On “Flux Capacitor,” he turns his unlikely deals and compromises into boasts: “The slave that shook hands and humbled the duke of oil / The spook that spoke sterling silver and pearls twirled / Tumbled out my nappy coils.”

Jay Electronica, by contrast, has spent the past decade on a meandering vision quest that’s taken him between continents and social strata. Instead of bondage-to-boardroom ascent, his narratives are structured around nomadic discovery and independent scholarship. “Fruits of the Spirit,” a twinkly track built around a cheery soul loop, shapes his wandering into a polyglot prayer for the world: “My Shahāda is my cantada. / My heart chakra light up when I make sajdah at Fajr. / ¿Padre nuestro, que estás en el cielo?… My people out in Flint still bathing in the slaughter. / ICE out here ripping families apart at the border. / Satan struck Palestine with yet another mortar.” His synthesis of languages and contexts doesn’t produce a coherent worldview, but like Jay-Z, Electronica is committed to turning his offbeat trajectory into a blueprint for unity. Together, the pair twists black nationalist ideas of self-reliance and resilience into digestible mantras.

This is also one of the frustrations of their alliance. Their worldviews can feel vague, unactionable, and noncommittal. Jay-Z’s capitalism is all blueprint, no mechanics; he emphasizes building wealth but downplays the costs. His venture with the NFL, defended here with the line “Why would I sell out? I’m already rich,” came at the expense of turning his back on a homegrown, internal protest movement. Similarly, Jay Electronica’s globe-trotting produces an empathy that’s resonant but apolitical. While his spirituality is affecting, it’s not clear how or where to apply it. As they map out the disparate forms black liberation can take, it’s hard to ignore their shared emphasis on royalty and visibility. Is king-making the extent of their ambition? Does the revolution succeed just because it’s televised?

These distinctions and overlaps play out in form as well as content. Jay Electronica raps slowly, his voice deep and resonant, his enunciation crisp and authoritative, as if he were reading scripture. Jay-Z raps with finesse and bounce, trilling his voice like birdsong. He’s as clear as Electronica, but his words feel designed to coax and entice; he’s a natural salesman. This dynamic gives their black nationalism a weird push and pull. “PS: We born perfect, fuck all the BS. / Everybody wanna be us for real. / We just gotta see us,” Jay-Z says, preaching black beauty. Jay Electronica is bashful. When he sees himself, he observes his imperfections, his daughter, and implicitly other worlds: “When I look inside the mirror, all I see is flaws. / When I look inside the mirror, all I see is Mars.” While Jay-Z pulls back the curtain, Jay Electronica shrouds himself in shadows.

This sense of obfuscation plays out in the production as much as the lyrics. Electronica, credited as a producer on over half the songs, favors ambling, hypnotic beats that expand and contract like lungs. Sounds seem to constantly be receding and advancing on these songs, emphasizing nothing and everything. “Ezekiel’s Wheel” is a whorl of icy percussion and fluttering, curlicue synths that Jay Electronica ignores and obliges, his rhymes drifting off course then veering back. It feels as though he’s dreaming then jerking awake.

The best moments of A Written Testimony are when the mysteries reveal truths about Jay Electronica. Throughout his seeming exile, he has largely insisted that his output is a trickle because he didn’t want to rush greatness. “My train is on schedule,” he frequently said. Here he admits to writer’s block and a lack of focus. “Sometimes I was held down by the gravity of my pen. / Sometimes I was held down by the gravity of my sin,” he says on “Ezekiel’s Wheel.” This mixture of pride and deflation gives his formal debut an ambivalent feel. As excited as he is to have finally overcome the hurdle of releasing an album, it comes at the expense of his eclectic path proving that musicianship has no set course.

The record’s lasting impression is that freedom is a peculiar, shape-shifting idea. Jay Electronica practices rap as a mystic art that’s of this world and beyond it, and A Written Testimony gives that paradox form. Frustrating as it occasionally is, ultimately the record is a rich exploration of two wayward men attempting to find their place in a world they’re detached from. Roc Nation, the Nation of Islam, and their egos are their chosen pillars, because they know the ground they build on is unsteady.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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