Jay Electronica’s ‘A Written Testimony’ is full of questionable production choices

Jay Electronica

A Written Testimony

Roc Nation · March 13, 2020

Jay Electronica is a rare beast. The NOLA-born rapper began in 1995, however he did not release a real project other than some loose songs until 2007’s Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) mixtape. Since then, Electronica has produced small amounts of songs to an extremely devoted fanbase, but no full LP. Most of his fans thought they’d never see an LP until Electronica announced he was working with Jay-Z on a project, but even then, they still did not believe it would happen. In February of this year, Electronica stated that his album was finished over the course of 40 days and 40 nights and was planned to be released 40 days after the last song was done, which would have been March 18th. However, Electronica surprised fans once again by releasing A Written Testimony early on the 13th.

After 13 years since Act 1 and a cancelled album in Act 2, are fans finally receiving what they wanted? It’s complicated, and there’s important context required to understand the album and it’s reception.

The album has a strong focus on the religious cultural groups Nation of Islam and the Five-Percent Nation, which Electronica has been involved since 1996. Almost the entire album features either lyrics or samples referencing the two bodies, their most prominent figures, and their teachings. The opening track is a direct sample of an older speech by current NoI leader Louis Farrakhan, who is controversial in his own right. With the inclusion of this divisive figure  comes lyrics that can be considered problematic, specifically the reference of “synagogues of Satan” in “The Ghost of Soulja Slim”. This can either be interpreted as very anti-semitic or not, depending on how literally the listener takes the word “synagogues”. Therefore, the audience’s personal opinion will weigh heavily onto their opinion of this work.

The second notable aspect impacting album reception, much less serious than the latter, is Jay-Z’s surprising prominence on the record. He occupies nearly half the album’s runtime, with uncredited features on almost every song. He even raps the first actual bar of the record. Listeners expecting a full 40 minutes of Electronica will be left disappointed as A Written Testimony is more aligned with EVERYTHING IS LOVE or Watch The Throne than a pure solo project.

However, despite these larger issues, the project is mostly enjoyable. Whereas the lyricism is unapologetically pro-black, focusing primarily on topics of black excellence and power, Electronica mixes in some of the more controversial beliefs of the Nation of Islam and the Five Percent Nation. However, it is more heavily weighed in the favor of Jay-Z’s style of celebrating community pride than the sometimes over-the-top, “Hotep meme” lyrics of Electronica. 

Overall, the lyrics are clever and without any real flat moments. Both Electronica and Jay-Z flow incredibly well over beats lush with soul samples, courtesy of The Alchemist, Swizz Beats, No I.D., and a few others including Electronica himself. The-Dream lays some quality background vocals on a few of the tracks. On the other hand, there is an incredibly odd Travis Scott feature on “The Blinding”, which sounds nearly identical to the high-pitched autotune chorus of Kanye West’s “Heartless”.

“The Neverending Story” and “Shiny Suit Theory” are both standouts, however the latter was released as a single almost ten years ago. “Universal Soldier” features an absolutely haunting beat with lyrics referencing the pasts and beliefs of both Electronica and Jay Z. “Flux Capacitor” and “Ezekiel’s Wheel” are both incredible alternative hip-hop beats that work surprisingly well with both artists’ more traditional styles. The album ends with “A.P.I.D.T.A”, a more somber track reflecting on those they have lost. Jay-Z’s chorus is a sobering take on grief in the modern world, lamenting on screenshotting phone numbers of people he lost as to never lose them. This track is even more devastating knowing it was made as a response to the loss of Kobe and Gianna Bryant. 

The weight around the ankle of the album is odd mixing and effects. At some points of the album, the vocals are drowned out by bombastic beats, whereas other points feature a piercing sonic high end. The weakest aspect is a tacky recurring sample of kids cheering that is very literally a default on Apple Garageband’s sampler instrument. It is incorporated into almost every song, with its shrill tone often cutting through a lot of the richer beats.

All in all, A Written Testimony is one of the better hip-hop records of this year, but gets itself into trouble with some questionable choices regarding production and cultural context.

Listen to A Written Testimony:

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