Jay-E meets Jay-Z: The debut album we didn’t need

Over a decade ago, Jay Electronica released his first single – 3,916 days later, eager fans rushed to streaming services to finally hear his debut album.

Jay Elec’s mysterious, introverted personality is what makes “A Written Testimony” so fascinating, but his monotonous, unenthused bars are what make the project so anticlimactic.

Aside from a few leaked tracks and arbitrary releases, we haven’t heard anything from the rap unicorn since 2010, so it was difficult to envision what the album might sound like.

However, I don’t think anyone would have guessed they’d hear an uninspired Jay Electronica rapping alongside his close friend Jay-Z on nearly every single song.

Yes, legendary MC Jay-Z appears on eight of the album’s 10 tracks – a surprisingly bold move by Jay Elec.

A collab project from Jay and Jay doesn’t even feel real to type, let alone listen to. But for a debut effort, eight Hov features are unnecessary and take away from the album’s potential impact.

Following a two-minute-long soliloquy from Islamic minister Louis Farrakhan on the opening track, the first thing we hear on Jay Electronica’s album is a Jay-Z verse.

Over Electronica’s stellar production, Jay-Z immediately sets the bar high with sharp wordplay and a mesmerizing flow on “Ghost of Soulja Slim.”

After almost two minutes, Jay Electronica makes his appearance, delivering his first verse of many laced with Islamic references. But one singular verse is all Jay Elec gives us before letting the upbeat instrumental ride out with no hook – for nearly two minutes.

To recap, that’s a four-and-a-half-minute long introduction featuring a mere 45 seconds of vocals from our protagonist. Jay Electronica’s contribution is subpar and contains too much filler, which should be nonexistent on a verse so brief. The score is already 1-0, Jay-Z.

“The Blinding” is much more intriguing, as we find Jay Elec and Jay-Z trading bars over production from a star-studded cast while Travis Scott handles the simplistic hook. Jay-Z entertains with lines such as, “Listen, I named my son Sir, so you gotta call my son ‘sir’ / That boy already knighted, he ain’t even out his romper.”

The other Jay addresses his hiatus and how he created “A Written Testimony” in 40 days, despite being missing in action for a decade, “40 days, 40 nights, tryna live up to the hype / It’s the road less traveled, it’s the one who missed the flights / Hov hit me up, like ‘What you scared of, heights?’ / ‘Know your sister tired of working, gotta do her something nice.’”

Swizz Beatz and AraabMUZIK produce the first half of the song before passing the baton to Hit-Boy and G. Ry for a flawless, up-tempo beat switch. Although the beat changes, the distorted, hard-hitting bass remains – making the production sound as unified as it is vintage.

If one thing is apparent by this point, it’s that religion is going to be the album’s dominant theme. This holds true throughout the project, but especially on the last half of the album.

“Universal Soldier” is the pinnacle of the project and Jay Elec’s best lyrical display so far. Unlike his other verses, which sometimes feel full of forced and loaded religious references, there’s more substance to this one.

The minimalistic production from Elec himself is jarring in the best way possible, and he elegantly rides the beat, spitting a high energy verse you feel rather than hear.

Carefully weaving words together, Jay Elec touches on his religious beliefs, as well as personal struggles, in brutal honesty: “I spent many nights bent off Woodford / Clutching the bowl, stuffing my nose / Some of the cons I suffered from prose.”

Hov makes it tough to shine, as he once again steals the show with God-level bars and an immaculate flow to match. I’m found constantly needing to remind myself Jay-Z is already 50 years old – making his performance all the more impressive.

Some of the deepest, most introspective bars come at the end of the project, as both Jays save their more personal thoughts for “A.P.I.D.T.A.” – All Praise Is Due To Allah.

Written on the night of Kobe Bryant’s death, the song features a somber, relatable hook by Jay-Z: “I got numbers in my phone, that’ll never ring again / Cause Allah done called them home, so until we sing again / I got texts on my phone, that’ll never ping again / Screenshot them so I got them, I don’t want this thing to-.”

Jay Electronica’s verse is full of emotion and transparency, as he touches on the death of his mother for the first time on wax: “The day my mama died, I scrolled her texts all day long / The physical returns, but the connection still stay strong / Now I understand why you used to cry sometimes we ride down Claybourne / You just missed your— you just missed your mama / Now I just miss my mama.”

The only track without Jay-Z’s presence is “Fruits of the Spirit.” The minute-and-a-half long song features a verse from Jay Elec and ends far too abruptly. Production from No I.D. complements Jay Elec well, as he finds his pocket instantly and skates over the soulful instrumental with ease – proving he can indeed craft a song without the help of Jay-Z.

My standards for this project were admittedly very high, but understandably so.

I was disappointed in the short verses that only give us a taste of Jay Elec and seem to lack interest. It would be one thing if his rhymes were complex and meaningful – which some are. But more often than not, they seem to be cluttered with filler and hold little weight.

A good way to describe what listening to “A Written Testimony” is like would be playing only 30 seconds of your favorite song – you know there’s more to be said and you’re upset you can’t hear it.

For the most part, tracks are originally structured, but the formula used for many gets repetitive: no hook, a verse from each Jay, and a long outro with no vocals. Other than “Ezekiel’s Wheel” and “The Blinding,” every song has only one Jay Electronica verse – making it feel as if Jay-Z is responsible for more of the lyrical content than Jay Elec is.

Even a respected wordsmith like Elec struggles to keep up with Hov, as he should. Jay-Z is one of the greatest rappers of all time, which makes me wonder why anyone would want to compete with him on their very first album.

Although frequent collaborator and mentor Just Blaze is absent from the production credits, Jay Elec does a good job fending for himself, as he produces some of the album’s best tracks.

On some songs, the beats and lyrics blend so well it sounds like they’ve become one. On others, the mix is so poor you can barely hear what’s being said. This could be intentional and has been done by other artists before, but it doesn’t work for Jay Elec – and was a poor move to test out on a debut album.

If recruiting Jay-Z didn’t create enough pressure already, have I mentioned this is Jay Electronica’s debut album?

Sonically, the project shines. But with so much else holding it back, “A Written Testimony” is an appetizer at best – as it feels like a teaser of something much bigger.

Grade: B-

Give us more testimony and less filler.

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