The American Dream is a fantasy not simply of socioeconomic advancement, but of transformation. It is a promise that your finish line isn’t dictated by your point of origin, that you can become anything you can successfully convince the world that you are. The framework has given rise to leaders, artists, artisans, hustlers, hucksters, grifters, and strange combinations of all of these. America is a place where a homeless graffiti kid can become an art-world darling, where a drug dealer can become a pop sensation, where a game-show host without a day’s experience in government can bluff his way into the nation’s highest seat of power. Cities draw intrepid travelers out like lighthouses beckoning ships to shore, each in search of a new beginning. It is the story of the Great Migration, when millions of Black Americans slipped out of the vice grip of the Jim Crow South to take their chances on New York, Chicago, Cleveland, and Philadelphia.
It is the story of Fard Muhammad and his successor Elijah Muhammad, men who arrived in Detroit in the northbound rush teaching a new religion codified in Black disenfranchisement and resentment. It is the story of their star pupil Malcolm X, a hustler turned political firebrand whose passion ignited the Harlem streets on which he preached, where his message resonated with a following whose struggles proved racism’s pervasiveness even in the liberal north (and where peace advocate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. nearly died in 1958 when a woman mistaking him for a communist plunged a letter opener into his chest, narrowly missing his heart), and on television among intellectuals gobsmacked by a downtrodden people’s capacity for hot-blooded, retaliatory spite. Black rage has long perplexed America, a nation whose promise of prosperity often asks for greater considerations than it is willing to give in return, whose faith in the efficacy of its own systems causes it to short-circuit when people get sick of waiting on the arc of history to bend toward justice and start lighting things on fire. It’s a puzzle that stumped political leaders as much in the ’60s as it does today. When the wheels of justice turn too slowly, people get jumpy and find their own way.
At the end of the 20th century, Jay-Z and Jay Electronica wove new mythologies for themselves in spite of humble beginnings, the former as a hustler from Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects and the latter, a few years his New York counterpart’s junior, as a resident of the Magnolia Projects in New Orleans’s 3rd Ward. Each turned a gift of gab into gold, albeit on different timelines. 1996, the year rap’s Roc-A-Fella released his classic debut Reasonable Doubt, an exquisite tapestry spun from yarns about his dealer days, is the same year the Louisiana mystic left home in search of a rap career and found the Nation of Islam on the way. While the Brooklyn Jay built his “God MC” reputation on savvy business moves and trend-surfing that made him feel omnipresent, the NOLA one lingered as a mystery god in the shadows priming his first major strike: the 2007 mixtape Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge), a 15-minute indie-rap opus built on samples of Jon Brion’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind soundtrack, whose first 6 minutes are just profuse praise from Erykah Badu, who’d been seeing Elec at the time, and producer Just Blaze. It’s not as rare in the era of Griselda and Roc Marciano albums, Alchemist beat tapes, and the quieter stretches of Frank Ocean’s Blonde, but Act I’s general distaste for loud drums and use of the rapper as metronome bucked conventional wisdom, as did the notion of a rapper on the come-up taking his sweet time about it.
At the tail end of the 2000s, Electronica and Just Blaze released “Exhibit C,” five and a half minutes of white-knuckle autobiographical bluster with Just shouting in between verses in lieu of a chorus, like Diddy playing hype man to Biggie on “Who Shot Ya.” Nation of Islam philosophies, Elec felt, provided structure: “Nigga, I was homeless / Fighting, shooting dice, smoking weed on the corners / Trying to find the meaning of life in a Corona / Til the 5 Percenters rolled up on a nigga and informed him.” “Exhibit C” cut deep, but it was a double-edged sword. Years crept by, but the highly anticipated album never surfaced. You could count on Elec to bless a few records a year — see: the depression journal “Dear Moleskine”; “Just Begun,” a killer Carpenters flip with the Black Star guys and J. Cole; Mac Miller’s “Suplexes Inside of Complexes and Duplexes”; and Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book climax “How Great” — but never more than that. Fans held out hope because the flow and wordplay were ace, all gruff tones, perfect timing, dizzying internal rhymes, and the accumulated wisdom of the ancients. Elec, meanwhile, stepped out on trips to Nepal and Dubai and popped up in tabloids when he dated the British banking heiress Kate Rothschild. Act II was rap’s Nibiru, promised to collide with Earth in 2012 but as yet a no-call, no-show.
Over a decade after the first promise of a Jay Electronica studio album, it finally materialized in March 2020, not with the big splash we envisioned back then, but with a suitably biblical early February announcement that the man had holed up for 40 days and nights since December and recorded a new album. A Written Testimony was a best-case scenario for a major-label debut arriving ten years after the artist’s first single. The marquee rapper’s skill hadn’t rusted since “Exhibit C” called its shot. He was aided by Jay-Z, who appeared in the same capacity Ghostface Killah did on Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, as an elite lyricist who provides support and occasionally steals the show. Much was made of the quality of Jay-Z’s raps, and for good reason. This year, he’s still in the wise, bemused, conceited mode he’s been in since the latter half of the last decade, but this year, he’s been on the defensive, and it showed in the music. A Written Testimony was the first batch of Jay-Z verses since the ideological flap over his partnership with the NFL last fall. He was reasserting himself as a well-meaning Black philanthropist and beating back a lot of smoke — “You ain’t keep the same energy for the Du Ponts and Carnegies / We was in your cotton fields, now we sittin’ on B’s on me,” he raps on “Universal Soldier.” (As much as Electronica got from having Jay-Z on offense, Testimony was a can’t-miss opportunity for Mr. Carter to reassert that he’s still the man who caught hell for rocking a 5 Percenter medallion to Barclays Center, who dropped a bit of Supreme mathematics on Magna Carta Holy Grail’s “Heaven.” He needs a measure of distance from the reputation as a chilly corporate deal-maker that he picked up from the NFL deal. The best gift for the man who has everything is the admiration of the few people who remain on the fence about him.)
Although A Written Testimony shored up public perceptions for Jay-Z, it made trouble for Jay Electronica, who was challenged over his support of NOI Minister Louis Farrakhan and a piece of his rhetoric sourced by an inscrutable verse in the biblical Book of Revelation that warns of Satanist pretenders disguised as Jewish worshippers, which has inspired anti-Semitic violence in the past. These matters aren’t any more or less tough to navigate now than they were in 1959, when news anchors Mike Wallace and Louis Lomax introduced the movement to the country in a documentary special titled “The Hate That Hate Produced,” where hosts quizzed Harlem residents about the NOI and discovered a vein of disillusionment with the government and Black liberal Establishment’s leadership on racism. It’s easy to stand up and denounce bigotry of any kind but tricky reaching people who see this evenhandedness as a kind of performance for the white gaze. The terrible conversations that happened in the wake of Nick Cannon being canceled for invoking Farrakhan this summer and the swift fallout from J. Cole’s criticism of Noname in “Snow on Tha Bluff” exemplify the ways you can get burned trying to guide Black radicalism whether your intentions are good or not. Electronica’s defensiveness in the face of criticism about lyrics in A Written Testimony’s “Ghost of Soulja Slim” that were received as an endorsement of anti-Semitism and his tirade against a rabbi Cannon interviewed in his summer apology tour cast a long shadow over the achievements elsewhere on the album. For a long time, it seemed we’d heard all we would hear from him this year.
Then, of course, Act II leaked this week. The mostly finished album offers a window into Jay Electronica’s plans to charge into rap’s commercial mainstream nearly a decade ago while hinting at reservations about fame that the artist spells out on Testimony’s “Ezekiel’s Wheel” years later: “Some ask me, ‘Jay, man, why come for so many years you been exempt?’ / ‘Cause familiarity don’t breed gratitude, just contempt / And the price of sanity is too damn high, just like the rent.” Act II is very much the sequel to Act I in its preference for beautiful instrumental passages over the stadium rap sounds his Roc Nation benefactor was selling at the time. Like Lil Wayne’s mid-aughts mixtapes, Drake’s So Far Gone, and the music Kanye West was making concurrently, Act II is as much an exercise in taste as talent. The third track, “Patents of Nobility,” plays a ’60s toy commercial over U.K. prog band King Crimson’s 1969 gem “In the Court of the Crimson King.” “Bonnie and Clyde” flips Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot’s Bonnie and Clyde theme; “Dinner at Tiffany’s,” originally part of the single “Shiny Suit Theory,” is a showcase for Serge’s daughter, Charlotte. “Better in Tune With the Infinite” isolates a composition by Japanese electronic music pioneer Ryuichi Sakamoto on the soundtrack for 2006’s Babel. “Run and Hide” delivers a gorgeous loop of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory cut “Quicksand”; “Life on Mars” would appear to nod to the single from the same album. Act II’s best moments — see: the jazzy opener “Real Magic,” the euphoric “Life on Mars,” and the devastating “Better in Tune” — are pained eruptions of honesty over drums that are understated, if they’re there at all.
Act II foregrounds Jay Electronica’s words in a way that sticks out among major-label hip-hop releases then as now, front-loading the project with intricate, personal storytelling exercises most artists might relegate to a late-album interlude. “Memories and Merlot” remembers a simple wine date in breathtaking terms, turning a fond memory into a deeper meditation on the ache that comes with reflecting on the past: “Life is a storyboard captured in a Polaroid / The memory’s the jewel cause the camera is cold and void / Like a corpse or C-3PO the Golden Droid / Vivid flashbacks will leave you real sad or overjoyed.” “Better in Tune” echoes Testimony’s words on writer’s block and public perceptions — “It’s frustrating when you just can’t express yourself / And it’s hard to trust enough to undress yourself / To stand exposed and naked in a world full of hatred / Where the sick thoughts of mankind control all the sacred” — (and mirrors the other album’s “synagogue of Satan” rhetoric). The back half of the album strikes an unusual balance between the kind of loop-happy boom bap you’d hear on a Ka album — clearly a sweet spot for Elec, as stellar performances on “The Neverending Story” and “Fruits of the Spirit” show years later — and overtly commercial-sounding cuts like “Road to Perdition” and “Letter to Fallon.”
Tellingly, Act II’s most radio-ready songs are also the ones that feel the least finished, inviting the question of what really sidelined the album, which, to run the track list posted in 2012 against what hit streaming services this month, is only missing guest spots from Kanye and Erykah Badu, a clean mix, and fleshed out verses for “Nights of the Roundtable.” Was Act II too weird, a major-label debut album lacking obvious singles, more prone to introspective overthinking and exquisite classic-rock curation than playing ball with game as excitedly as J. Cole did with Cole World: The Sideline Story, his Roc Nation debut from the same era? Does Jay Electronica really want to be a star, as a rapper who’s delivered more than a few piercing lines about the tyrannies of expectations and public scrutiny? Two unexpected album drops later, we don’t know the man much more than we did when we were asking what a Jay Electronica was over a decade ago. Perhaps, that is by design. Maybe he wants what great American writers from Bob Dylan to John Updike have: the ability not only to author great American myths but to live as one, too, to be far away and impossible to pin down, best understood through a body of work rather than a finite sequence of interlocking bones, tendons, muscles, and organs. Maybe we’ll figure it out in another ten years.