Every week, Micah Peters surveys the world of music—from new releases to bubbling trends to anniversaries both big and obscure—and gives a few recommendations.
Jay Electronica’s debut album has been in the offing for so long that fans first began anticipating it after his first mixtape—his only other complete, honest-to-goodness body of work—which was uploaded to MySpace.
2007’s Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) plays as a single 15-minute track, and on it, Jay lays intricate rhymes about blackness, love, life, spirituality, and self-discovery over different selections from Jon Brion’s Spotless Mind soundtrack. I remember thinking that Jay rapped like a watchmaker, tinkering here and there with small details that few people would notice. Like, say, the subtle shift in flow that ties a line through “bracelet” “spaceships,” “face it,” and “Revelations” on “FYI.” The syntactic variety and exactitude of his writing—as well as the seamless and frequent inclusion of big words like “dimethyltryptamine”—made him the talk of a blog-rap hype cycle that fully deified him by the time “Exhibit C” came out in 2009. Despite being hookless, word-intensive, and five and half minutes long, “Exhibit C” set the internet abuzz in the age of ringtone and sing rappers, who were dominating the airwaves. It was as if Jay was rapping with the momentum of history behind him; his would-be debut album, Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn) would lead the huddled, shutter-shaded, skinny-jeaned masses into a new and sensible age of lyrical rap music.
Instead, Patents of Nobility never came out, and the rappers who defined the 2010s were freaky stylists who tinkered with their voice, not syntax. Our national fascination was with the Atlantans and Chicagoans who pieced together their sound from processed vocals and 808s, and less so with aging pen-and-pad rappers who were popping up on random songs with Lucy Liu. The buzz he generated from “Exhibit C” died out, and one year without Jay Electronica’s paradigm-shifting album turned into two years, then two years slipped rather quietly into a decade. History became legend. Legend became myth. Myth became a dedicated parody Twitter account and scores of hilarious Hotep memes.
Even if you don’t consider these people, who were scoffing, to be the scoffers of biblical significance, it’s a little on the nose that the presumptive rap messiah returned during a veritable plague. The end times, what a riot.
A Written Testimony, out last Friday, is Jay Electronica’s official debut, but not exactly the towering, insta-classic masterwork that some might have been expecting. Being strongly identified with an excellent song you made two and a half presidential terms ago is one thing; delivering something worthy of your reputation as the savior of rap music on your first outing is impossible. Most of Testimony deals in the standard Jay Elect fare: prophetic teachings, scripture, the divine, death, resurrection. But he also reveals some understandable trepidation, and just a teensy bit of angst, about finally putting an album out into the world. From “The Blinding”:
When I look inside the mirror all I see is flaws
When I look inside the mirror all I see is Mars
In the wee hours of the night, tryna squeeze out bars
Bismillah, just so y’all can pick me apart?
Testimony doesn’t really look, sound, or feel like a debut album. For starters, it isn’t as autobiographical as debuts with canon aspirations tend to be. Jay’s concerns are global, metaphysical. The album begins with a speech from Louis Farrakhan, the longtime leader of the Nation of Islam, and after a brief jaunt through “Once Upon a December,” that music box song from Anastasia, Jay-Z’s is the first voice you hear. There are 10 songs on this album, and on eight of them Jay Elect cedes ground to his label boss.
Predictably, this led to frivolous arguments about who washed whom. On Saturday’s episode of The Joe Budden Podcast, Budden took a jab at Jay Electronica for how much Jay-Z there was on Testimony. “I’m telling you, as a rapper, he got smacked around,” Budden said.
Jay-Z certainly sounds more inspired than he has in some time, in part because he’s aggrieved: On both “Ghost of Soulja Slim” and “Flux Capacitor” Jay insists that your net worth and societal influence must be this high before you can judge him for getting into bed with the NFL. But functionally, Jay-Z works less as a foil than he does as a tether. Testimony often traffics in off-kilter production, giving Jay Electronica room to ramble from Lagos to “Chicagy,” to move from one plane of existence to the next. Sometimes, his casual, freewheeling approach to songwriting can bring Jay close to parody—“the honourable minister Louis Farrakhan / to Serge Gainsbourg or Madonna or a podcast on piranhas,” he raps on “The Neverending Story”— but then Jay-Z will yank the song back on track. “They both had straightenin’ combs, little did they know / I hold the heat next / Neither two can be used to fix our defects.”
Ultimately, Testimony won’t spin the world counterclockwise or cause the sea to be still or rescue rap from Satan’s power or whatever a Jay Electronica album is supposed to do in theory. It probably won’t win you over if you weren’t already a fan, and it won’t crack the top 10 on the Billboard charts this week. But there’s plenty of good music that’s neither popular nor influential. Testimony is two of the most skillful rappers alive giving some of their best technical performances on an album we thought we’d never get at a time when we could use literally any sort of win. So I’ll take it.
(Side note: I cannot conclude this column without saying a prayer for Joe Budden, who is now a ghost.)
Now for some recommendations:
“No Auto” by Lil Uzi Vert
Lil Uzi Vert released LUV vs. the World Part 2, which is his second no. 1 album in two weeks, a sequel to his 2016 mixtape, and the deluxe version of Eternal Atake. I’m looking forward to a whiteboard explainer here, à la Swae Lee with SR3MM.
In any case do not walk, do not run, but fly to “No Auto,” whereupon Uzi and Lil Durk go back and forth over the “BM JR” beat, barking about being rich and untouchable. Uzi is obviously having the most fun, and leans furthest into Wayne’s flow, I think: “I be runnin’ this rap shit in the same cleats / I’ll knock a nigga down like I’m the same size as Dave East.”
6-Year-Old Girl Sings “I Wish You Love”
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, like you (hopefully) I haven’t been outside much lately and also like you I’m being driven mad by the waiting. It’s a typing “google” into the Google search bar sort of madness—everything seems urgent and nothing does, and you’re aware of so much yet you know absolutely nothing. Basically, you—meaning I, us, we—could use any excuse to feel good right now.
So here’s this insanely comforting video of a 6-year-old girl singing “I Wish You Love” that was retweeted onto my timeline last night. We’re gonna make it. Don’t forget to wash your hands for 20 seconds.